December 16, 2018 – God Rejoices Over You

3rd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Readings / Lecturas

Preached at St. Catherine’s in Concrete (8:30am Sat.), Immaculate Heart of Mary in Sedro-Woolley (5:00pm), Sacred Heart in La Conner (9:30am), and St. Charles in Burlington (11:15am)

Recording: https://jhm718.podbean.com/e/god-rejoices-over-you/

English

In a recent Pew survey of religiously unaffiliated people that asked why they do not claim a religion, 60% of respondents said they question a lot of religious teaching, 49% said they do not like the positions churches take on social and political issues, 41% said they do not like religious organizations, 37% said they do not believe in God, 36% said they believe religion is irrelevant to them, and 34% said they do not like religious leaders (which, for former Catholics, is usually a reference to the sex abuse scandal). When asked which of these was their most important reason for not claiming a religion, 25% said they question religious teachings, 22% said they do not believe in God, 16% cited social and political issues, 9% said that religion is irrelevant, and the other responses were negligible. [1]

Broadly speaking, we might place these responses into three different categories: one, “I disagree with religion in general” (that is, I disagree with the idea of God or the idea of revelation), two, “I disagree with the specifics” (like particular moral teachings), and, three, “I disagree with the expression” (that is, how specific churches or church people act).

However, in my experience, most of these reasons develop after someone has already rejected religion. Yes, many reasons can seem to serve as a cause: belief in God or the Bible is often presented as being in conflict with modern science; and opposition to same-sex marriage is in stark contrast to what we hear in school and on the screen; and anyone would be scandalized by the fact that our parishes can often be just as divided and petty as the world at large. But when these conflicts come up, everyone has the same choice: do I give the benefit of the doubt to my religion or to my society?

The vast majority of people today do not give the benefit of the doubt to religion, and I believe this is because they already dislike religion. When a conflict arises that allows a person to choose between two things, most people already subconsciously favor one side. So if people are subconsciously biased against religion, how can we blame them? Religion is often a matter of “you have to do this” and “don’t do that.” Religion is a nag and a bore and I totally, completely understand why someone would prefer to accept the arguments against religion, rather than to give religion a chance.

To put this more philosophically, we should remember that the word religion comes from the Latin word “to bind”. When we commit ourselves to a religion, we voluntarily choose to bind ourselves to a certain set of beliefs, teachings, and behaviors. But this seems to run contrary to freedom, one of the most important values in society today. Freedom is so valued that is oftentimes extends to encouraging teens to reject and rebel against their parents or to create their own identity without reference to culture, history, or biology. And we all feel this tension from a young age: society tells me that I should be free in all ways, but religion binds me. Religion takes away my freedom. And so, few people choose religion over freedom when they come into conflict.


Now, I cannot change the nature of religion, nor would I want to. When a church or denomination says believe whatever you want and do whatever you want, religion devolves into idle sentimentality and quickly loses its reason for existence. We are here in church because we believe deeply in something, and we know that this belief makes a demand on our lives.

I do, however, think that understanding what we believe and why it binds us is essential to combatting the factors that cause so many people to leave our church. If we can understand why what we do is important, we might realize that there are some things worth sacrificing freedom for.


We often feel like we start by being bound. If we are born in the United States, for example, we observe the laws of the state long before we understand where those laws came from or why they are important. The same has traditionally been true of religion: we are bound by the religion of our parents, and only much later do we understand where that religion comes from or why it is important. And for societies that respect history and institutions, this model works well.

But today, as society becomes more and more anti-institutional, people often require reasons before they commit. Today, faith that lasts often begins with an experience, and that experience leads to beliefs and behaviors.

For Christianity, the primordial experience that underlies everything else we believe and do is God’s infinite, inescapable love for us. The first foundation of Christianity is that God loves us absolutely, without exception. Look at our first reading, which says, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”

That is a striking image. It begins with what we now understand is a reference to the incarnation (“The Lord, your God, is in your midst”). God loved us so much that he did not want to remain outside of creation and apart from us. He wanted to join us, to take upon himself our human nature, to share in our human experience. Who do you know that has given up everything just to join you in your experience? And then, and I think this image is even more striking, then it says that God will rejoice over us, with that kind of joy that causes one to sing spontaneously.

I want you to hear that again: God rejoices over you. You give him so much joy that he sings. This is not a conditional phrase. None of this is changed because of your sin or your doubts. God always rejoices over you, because the first and greatest desire of his heart is to be with you, to be in your midst as your savior. He rejoices over you so much that he gave you his son.

This is the first truth of Christianity. This is where we all begin. When we start with sin and death and rules and laws, our religion does not make sense. Nothing but the all-encompassing love of God could convince us to give up our freedom and bind ourselves to him.

And that is the next logical step: to bind ourselves to him.

Yes, the love of God is unconditional. But that love is also purifying and overwhelming. If we truly experience and understand the love of God for us, it will compel us to respond. One does not receive a gift as profound as the incarnation, and respond with “Cool, thanks” and then continue on one’s merry way. The love of God changes us.

This is why John the Baptist is getting so many questions in the Gospel. These ordinary people and social outcasts have received from John the baptism of repentance. They have, for the first time in their lives, felt loved and accepted by God. And now they wish to bind themselves to this God who has loved them so profoundly. They wish to know what to do, and so they ask the prophet to tell them. “How can we live in accord with this love?” “How can I possibly respond to this love?”

This is the true nature of religion: Those who have been touched by God in some way collectively seek out how to live in accord with God’s love and God’s will. Not because God is on some power trip and wants to control us, but because God gave his entire self to us in Bethlehem and on Calvary, and now we wish to give our entire lives back to him.

Catholicism is the result of two-thousand years of people asking this question. If God became human and died on the Cross, what are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to believe? How are we supposed to live?

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ incarnation once again, we are reminded of how much God rejoices over us, how deeply he loves us, how profoundly he gave himself to us. The question for us, then, is how has this event changed our lives? How will we respond?


[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/, see also: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/

Featured Image

Found here: http://www.jenniferowhite.com/god-is-joyful/

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