What is Advent about? Preparation for Christmas, yes. We recall the first coming of Christ and look to God bringing all creation to completion in Christ. However, it is tempting to give up on the final fulfilment of creation because of the, often, apocalyptic nature of the hope. It seems people have always tended towards apocalypticism of one kind or another. Not just Christians. The Bolsheviks were apocalypticists of the atheistic kind. Daesh is an example of a contemporary Islamic apocalyptic group. So, assaulted by this apocalypticism, it is tempting to ignore the question of the end. But the final completion of creation is a crucial piece of belief. Without it, everything else unravels, and we end up in a meaningless landscape. Whatever we may think of the detail of the ‘end of the world’ and Christ’s part in it, and despite some excellent questions we might want to ask about it, the End means that the story of creation has a meaning. A story without an end approaches meaninglessness the longer it goes on. Our own lives are like this: if we lived forever we would lose our identity, our uniqueness and have our lives leeched of their meaning. A meaningless reality has no God; a meaningful reality has a God who creates and loves it and intends to bring it to fulfilment.
God Alone is Good
Jesus says that no one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18) Well that’s a relief. It’s a burden to think that the task of our lives is to be good. (Which is to say, not being bad.)
Jesus makes the above declaration about God in response to a question from a rich man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus begins with the affirmation that God alone is good. “But anyway” says Jesus, “how you going with the commandments?” “Great” says the guy, “I seem to have them down pretty well.” This guy thinks he is good. And he thinks Jesus is good, and that Jesus thinks that Jesus is good. And so he tries to identify with Jesus, to build up a mutual back-slapping club with him for all those who are good.
No such luck for the guy. “Give up everything and follow me.” To give up his wealth would be to give up the evidence that he is good. (That is, God blesses the righteous, and the guy’s wealth is therefore evidence that he is righteous. We call this the prosperity gospel these days and it is alive and well not so much in the church but in society around us.) Jesus invites the guy to give up the burden of his (self-) righteousness and to follow him, Jesus. “No way fella”, he says, and off he goes grieving for (we are told) “he had many possessions”.
People can often feel guilty about their wealth when they hear this reading. And that would be to miss the point. Guilt about not being good? (“I feel guilty about my wealth”, which is to in some way say that I am bad because of it.) Oh dear. But isn’t Jesus saying that God alone is good? Imagine if, having felt guilty about one’s wealth after reading this passage, one gave it all up. I suppose we could feel very good rather than guilty (bad). But would this be discipleship?
Only God is good.
The call to discipleship that Jesus makes to the man is not a better way to be good, that is, free from possessions. The passage is consistent: Jesus says it’s not about being good (God alone is good), the man says that he is good, Jesus calls him to give it all up and follow him, surely not just to be good, but to escape being good. Discipleship of Jesus is not about being good.
It’s a call away from being good.
Here’s another way of looking at it. If I said I was showing compassion to someone because I was good, or if showed compassion because I felt guilty, that wouldn’t be compassion. That would make my ‘compassion’ be about me, not the person I am being compassionate toward. Being good to please God is about us, not God. Jesus asks us to love not be good.
To Hate So We Can Love
Hate those we love? (See Luke 14:26) Even life itself? Renounce that which we possess? In the Gospels, Jesus often instructs his disciples to reject this or that, often important and, of themselves, good parts of our lives. Paul Nuechterlein has a helpful way into understanding these passage. (See here.) He uses that strange and ambiguous saying. “I love X to death.” Does this mean that we will love X until we die? Or perhaps that we will suck the life out of X? If the latter, and in a similar hyperbolic fashion, it would make sense that the antidote is to hate X to life. The insight is that what we love we love in our interest, and this distorts the relationship. In contrast, God does not relate to us out of self-interest, but for us. God does not need us, which is why God’s relationship to us is love.
Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily ask us to make a crass choice between the world and Jesus. Paradoxically it might seem, discipleship asks us to hate so we can love. (Scripture likes paradoxes like this. I’m thinking here of the paradoxical perfect freedom found in being a slave of Christ.)
The Lost Sheep
And for the thinking behind a sermon on the parable of the lost sheep, see here.
For more of Warren’s work see his blog.