During my first years of ministry, I buried a dad of four sons who had succumbed to cancer. He was a longtime kids’ hockey coach, and a couple dozen boys from his teams showed up to the funeral wearing their jerseys, sitting in the front three pews. I heard eulogies about his love of sports and the way he helped those boys become fine young men. He was what some would call a “man’s man”—I’m not sure if the phrase was used on that day, but it was made clear to me given his popularity and the ease he had with the other men and boys in his life. He had been loved well, and had loved others too. Burying a 40-something who had engaged deeply in life and those around him is never easy.
A sermon based on verses from Romans 15 and Matthew 3 for Advent.
A few days after the service, his oldest son—a college sophomore—came to see me. He told me a little about his life, about his love for his parents, and how his relationship with his dad had been strained for a couple of years since he came out. He explained that his life wasn’t all about sports and the supposedly typical male experiences like his brothers even though he tried when he was younger. His dad just didn’t understand him, and he didn’t really desire to understand him either. This young man just wanted to be accepted by his father. And then his dad got sick, and the talk he hoped they’d have someday never really materialized. The reconnection he longed for never came. After he told me all this, he stopped talking and looked away. We sat in silence as the sun came in my window on that winter afternoon. I reached out and grabbed his hand to let him know he wasn’t alone, and we both had tears.
Psychologists inform us that being accepted is high our list of needs. After food, shelter, and safety—the needs we have for basic survival—acceptance by those around us quickly follows. We long to be known for who we are, and fully loved by others. And, similarly, it’s one of the things we fear most as well. We want to be known, yes, but we also do not want to be rejected once we become vulnerable to others. We’d rather hide from most. We feel we can only trust and be known by a few, and even then it seems risky at best.
St. Paul tackles the topic of divisions and acceptance in his letter to the Church at Rome. He’s been building an argument that both Jewish and non-Jewish people—whom he calls the circumcised and the Gentiles—can become full participants in the life of Christ. He tells them that Jesus did come to bring peace and healing and forgiveness to both groups. And if you do the math out—if you break the world into those two groups, Jews and Gentiles—you get everyone. So as Paul begins to wind down his letter in our reading this morning, he tells the gathered community of Jesus’ disciples the following to help them understand his point.
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
That last line could also be written, “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God.” Accept one another as Christ accepted you. You. Christ accepted—and continues to accept—you, just as you are.
One of the things we constantly believe in our relationship with the Divine is that we have to be perfect, and when we’re not, then we owe something to God. If I just pray more, then God will accept me. If I engage in more acts of devotion or charity, then I can show that I’m a real Christian and earn God’s love. And it’s no wonder we feel this way when we encounter preachers like John the Baptist whose opening line for his sermon today was “You brood of vipers!” I mean, sure I could have called you all a bunch of snakes in my opening salvo, but I’m not sure it would have encouraged your to hear what I had to say next.
However, we imagine what’s inside others based on their outsides, and we even take it further by comparing our insides with those projected exteriors. Which makes it easy for us to write off John as bit of a raving mad man. Yet the people were flocking to him and his call to repentance in such great numbers that the leaders—those tricksy snakes—came out as well to stand by the sidelines and look on smugly at the assembled crowd. With the simple act of seeking forgiveness and having water poured on their heads, peoples lives were changed. As Prof. Matt Skinner points out, “Maybe John’s message of urgency, threat, fulfillment, and hope was so widely popular because he actually believed it himself. Maybe John wasn’t some scary, stern, wild-eyed, bug-eating, über-assured screamer down by the river as much as he was a preacher whose messages were true to his own adventure toward ongoing repentance—manifesting his own urgency, fear, confidence, and hope, as those experiences shaped his life.” Perhaps John experienced the profound acceptance and love of God regardless of how his psyche had told him that he didn’t measure up—as a reclusive prophet subsisting on crickets in the desert—and he wanted others to experience the freedom that comes from fully knowing that too. And sometimes the best way to wake up the powerful is to get their attention by calling them snakes.
The beauty of John’s message on the banks of the River Jordan and the one from Paul in his letter to the Romans is this: God accepts you just as you are. Yes, there are things for which you need to be reconciled with God and others. Fully following Jesus begins with being honest with ourselves—and it’s the stark reality of that assessment that makes us think that God won’t accept us. But that’s not the case. I was reminded this week by Prof. Patrick Howell how twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich declared that “faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” Prof. Howell continues, “I am accepted by God as I am, not as I should be. … [T]his requires an act of faith…. It is one thing to know I am accepted and quite another to embrace it. It takes a long time to believe that I am accepted by God as I am.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1 Advent 2 on Romans)
Which is why we aren’t yet at that manger scene. That’s why we have this season of Advent of watching and waiting and waking up before we get there, so that when we arrive we can see it for what it truly is. That “it is in the stable of humanity that God has come in search of us,” as theologian John Heagle put it. God comes to the places in our lives that smell of barnyard animals and breaks in telling us we are accepted just as we are. That we are loved fully in our utter humanness. That God completely accepts us.
Which brings us hope. Hope drips from the passage we read from Romans. We are to have hope because of the encouragement of scripture reminding us that Christ came to this earth for us all, and that we are called to live in harmony. And Paul pronounces this blessing after explaining the deep and abiding acceptance we can find through the coming of Jesus: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So do not lose hope. Jesus sees you in all your humanness and says, “You are a delight to behold. I love you. I want you to come and be fully known and accepted for who you are right now.” Yes, when we are honest with ourselves about what we have done there will be things for which we need to make amends, but that is merely the first step after accepting the acceptance. It is just the prelude to the full life we can encounter with Jesus. There’s a much deeper and richer experience as disciples that opens up for us when we begin to truly receive God’s expansive love.
And then we can begin to share that message of hope with others too. As Paul writes, “Accept one another as Christ accepted you.” We all want to be known in our full humanness and loved. Let us share the gift of that hope with others, proclaiming that they too are loved by the Creator of the Universe just as they are in their full humanity. Jesus comes to us in the totality of our lives and looks around and says “I love you. There is nothing I can encounter in your life that will ever make me change my mind. You are my beloved.” It takes a long time to accept the acceptance, but that is part of our Advent journey. So let’s take another step toward that acceptance—toward the love shining bright in that manger—on this day. God’s arms are open for us. Are open wide for you. You are loved. Come and be known by God.