Advent 3A Sermon (2004)

3rd Sunday in Advent
Texts: Matthew 11:2-12;
Isa. 35:1-10; James 5:7-10

The Culture of Heaven Chooses to Suffer Violence

What word is this? [Hold up card with word resign.]

  • Tell story of sportscast this week with resign used as opposites. (The more common “resign,” as to give up a position or withdraw from a contract; and re-sign, as in signing again, or renewing a contract.)

In our Gospel Lesson this morning, something like that is going on in the Greek behind the English translation. When the last verse says that “the kingdom of heaven is suffering violence,” the Greek word behind “suffering violence,” can actually mean its opposite, to inflict violence, or to force itself upon others. So this verse has actually translated in its opposite sense: the kingdom of heaven is forcing its way in.

With a word like resign, how do you make choice about which one? You have to take it in context. Is it about someone coming back again or about leaving? The context will tell you. It has been the same with the Greek word behind “suffering violence.” Look at the context. Look at Jesus’ life and mission, in other words, to tell us how the kingdom of heaven is coming into this world. Is it coming by force? Or does it submit to force? Clearly, in the cross, it is the latter. Clearly, in a life like Jesus’, spent with those on the margins of society, with the least of the kingdom, the kingdom is about suffering violence, rather than inflicting it.

But we’re not quite done yet in translating this important last verse on this morning’s Gospel, a verse I would propose as one of the most important verses in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a verse we will come back to, when Jesus continues to talk about the kingdom of heaven. It’s that “kingdom” part, in fact, that I want to lift up next. It’s been a long time since we elected a king, right? We don’t talk about kingdoms anymore, do we? We talk about nations. But perhaps even more fundamentally these days, we talk about culture. We are proud, for example, that this nation of ours has been a place for the coming together of people of many cultures. That fact has been and continues to be a challenge and a struggle.

The coming together of peoples of differing cultures has always been a challenge. Why? Here’s my proposal to you this morning: it is because there has always been an element of force when it comes to human cultures. Culture is what helps bind people together in positive ways. It defines norms and standards for who is considered part of the culture and who isn’t. Culture helps each of us form our identities within our own cultures, and gives us the solidarity and protection of the community. But human culture since the beginning of time has provided all these good things on the basis of using force. Once norms and standards are set, who’s in and who’s out is enforced. And it doesn’t always need to be physical force. The emotional and spiritual forces behind culture are considerable. If an individual doesn’t fit in with the norms and standards in any way, they don’t always have to be expelled or dominated with physical force. There are all the kinds of things we do to make it certain that a person is considered an outsider. Shunning is a good word to describe it. We shun those who are deemed as outsiders to the norms and standards of our culture.

Now, it’s not always very easy to see this aspect about human cultures from within a culture. It’s like the proverbial “fish in water.” The fish doesn’t notice that it’s in water until you take it out. The same is true of culture. When we’re fully immersed in a culture, we don’t really notice it — until we should, for one reason or another, find ourselves pushed to the outside. In this nation of ours, it has perhaps always been a bit more noticeable because there are so many cultures coming together.

Last night, with the smaller group at our Saturday worship, we watched the first several minutes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Toula, the person whose wedding this story is about, describes growing up as the child of Greek immigrants. As their family’s traditional Greek culture enters into the dominant American culture, Toula experiences herself as an outsider. She has trouble fitting in with the other kids at school. Most importantly, she can see the ways in which her own traditional culture keeps herself as a woman bound to the standards within it. [Extemporize.]

What I’m proposing to us this morning is that through Jesus Christ the human world experiences the advent of the culture of heaven, God’s culture, into this world. And the central point of difference between human cultures and God’s culture is around this issue of violence. God as love refuses to use violence as a way of forcing norms and standards on us. And so as it enters into this world of forceful human cultures, God’s culture in Jesus Christ enters as a culture that suffers the violence rather than inflicting it. God’s culture is one that persistently and lovingly invites us into seeing that, under God, there is no ultimate in and out. We are all God’s children. But God’s culture will not force itself.

There’s one more aspect to translating this important but difficult verse, Matthew 11:12. It involves an aspect of Greek grammar that we don’t have in English, something called the middle voice. [Explain.] often designates an act of will

So my final translation of this verse is that in Jesus Christ, “the kingdom of heaven chooses to suffer violence.”

That’s why Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are such important models of faith for me. I think they lived this middle way. They followed Jesus in the way of choosing to suffer violence, the way of nonviolent resistance to the powers of sin and death — powers which have also infiltrated our human cultures themselves. [Explain.]

[Extemporize ending transition to the Meal.]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, December 11-12, 2004

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