St Thomas, Salem—Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:1-11, Baruch 5:1-9
I have a daughter who was a psychology major in college, and two nieces who are currently majoring in psychology. So, while my own experience in the field amounts to one undergraduate intro course in 1969, I’ve picked up a few tidbits about what the life of a psychology student, and one of these tidbits is that, at some point along the way, you are given the opportunity to spend quality time with furry rodents with long tales—lab rats. No doubt, some college students think that rats are cute, and others think them repulsive, but they had both better keep their feelings to themselves, because part of that exercise is to learn the discipline of scientific research, and part of that discipline is that the researcher does not get personally involved with his or her subjects. The idea is to create certain conditions, and then stand back and watch how the rats respond. You set up the maze or other test of intelligence and observe how they try to solve it, or what combination of genetics or environment motivate them to try harder or be more successful. But you don’t intervene on their behalf, or point them the other way when they make a wrong turn.
Have you ever felt like you are a lab rat and God is a researcher? Have you ever felt like you’re constantly being tested, but you don’t really know what the purpose of the test is, or what is the desired level of performance, and it sure would be nice to get a helping hand once in a while from someone who can see the whole maze?
When we put ourselves and God in the positions of lab rat and researcher, we are engaging in a kind of theology called deism. It was very popular about 200 years ago. The most frequent illustration of deism casts God as a watchmaker, who assembles the intricate mechanism known as creation, establishes the laws by which it will operate, then stands aside and lets it run. If a spring breaks, that’s too bad. If the works get gummed up, that’s too bad. The deist God is an absentee landlord, and does not intervene, or get involved, or, for that matter, even care … once the mechanism is up and running.
The problem with deism, aside from the fact that it has all the emotional appeal of a canker sore, is that it is entirely speculative, entirely rational, and takes no account whatever of how the God in question has chosen to reveal himself to us. It reflects, not so much an inadequate understanding, but no understanding at all, of the witness of scripture or the tradition of the church’s teaching. In such a universe, you and I are the most hapless of creatures. We are lab rats in a maze, left entirely to our own devices to find our way out. No kind-hearted researcher is going to lift us out of our predicament and show us how to reach the hunk of cheese at the end of the line. As human beings, we are left to be our own saviors, to confect our own deliverance from the fear and alienation that so often feel as though they’re going to swallow us whole.
If you have been attentive to the scripture readings over the last several Sundays, you have noticed a consistent theme, a repeated emphasis on last things, on the end of history as we know it, when the trumpet of the Lord sounds and time is no more, when wrongs are put right, lives judged, perfect justice dispensed, and the total sovereignty and majesty of God completely unchallenged. Listen to the words of Baruch, a prophet to the Greek-speaking Jewish communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean world before the time of Christ, as he writes about a time when God’s people will be re-gathered in the holy city of Jerusalem:
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height and look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east, at the word of the holy one, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
Does this God sound like a dispassionate watchmaker? Does this God sound like a laboratory researcher? Hardly.
Now listen to St Paul, who writes constantly about the Christian hope as flowing from an expectation of God’s continuing involvement in the actual lived experiences of men and women and children, as he raises the subject once again, this time in his letter to the Philippians:
…it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul was convinced that this “day of Christ” would indeed come, and he wanted his spiritual children in Philippi to be ready for it, to be “pure and blameless” when the Lord of history re-enters history, not as an obscure infant redeemer this time, but as a just and righteous judge.
And then there’s the bracing, attention-getting testimony of John the Baptist. And when we hear John the Baptist mentioned in the liturgy, we think, “Aha! It’s beginning to feel a lot like Advent!” and the adrenaline starts to rush, because if Advent is here, then Christmas can’t be far behind … and, of course, it isn’t. The whole ministry of John the Baptist is to be a sign, to point away from himself, and direct our attention to Jesus. And as the church has received John’s ministry for liturgical purposes, he draws our attention to the feast we are preparing to celebrate in a little over two weeks, the feast of the most astonishing intervention in human history that could ever be conceived, the feast of the Word made flesh, the feast of Emmanuel, the feast of God not only one with us, but one of us. Nothing could be further from the detached God of deism than a God who is so passionate about his creation that he becomes intimately involved with—in effect, joins it.
John the Baptist and the other prophets of the Advent proclaim the good news that the one who is running the experiment is not an objective researcher, but a loving Father. We are not lab rats, but children, and the mess we’re in was never intended to be a maze in the first place. The burden of being our own savior, of confecting our own salvation, of devising our own escape from the vise grip of sin and alienation and death, of finding the path to forgiveness and reconciliation and life—that load is taken off our shoulders; it doesn’t belong to us. The one showing us the route to the end of the maze is one who loved us enough to enter the maze solely because he loved us, and who solved it on our behalf. That’s something no laboratory researcher would ever do!
Come, Lord Jesus.