First Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I read an article about Russian online trolls and how they work to interfere in and steer US public opinion and make things more dysfunctional—and thus easier to manipulate. The interesting thing was, how little the trolls look like what most people (including me) expect them to look. On the surface, they look ordinary. They’re designed to make people think they are interesting and have important things to say. They don’t generally spread lies, or at least, not big ones. They take the cares and concerns and legitimate issues facing each target demographic, and then they spin like crazy.
Their goal is to make their followers disgusted with the world and with other demographics. They don’t want to make people angry; angry people take action. They want people to roll their eyes at people who aren’t like them. They want people to assume that anyone outside their own group is stupid and selfish. They want liberals to think all conservatives are bigots, and they want conservatives to think all liberals are hypocritical elitists. They want centrists to think people left or right of them are fringe nutcases, and they want people on the left and right to think that centrists are panderers with no principles. They want Black people to think all White people are actively and consciously racist, and they want White people to think that any Black people who point out racial injustice are exaggerating or just like to be victims. They want young people to think all old people are irrelevant and incapable of understanding the modern world, and they want old people to think all young people are selfish egotists who don’t understand how the world actually works. They want urban and suburban people to think rural people are ignorant hicks, and they want rural people to think urban and suburban people are snobbish elitists. They want to ensure that the last thing anybody ever thinks, when faced with someone different than they are, is “maybe we can find common ground or any kind of understanding.”
No. Trolls want us to be isolated into every little clique, and they also want us to be apathetic. They want us to look at the world around us and say, “well, yeah, things suck, but there’s no point in trying to fix anything because nothing’s ever going to get better, and so we might as well just sit here sniping at one another and patting ourselves on the back for being right.” They want us to accept dysfunction and cruelty and indifference and greed and violence as normal. Something to complain about on social media, but not something anything can do anything about.
And as I was reading this article, it reminded me of two things: first, some analogies I recently learned for how dysfunctional societies work, and second, this week’s Scripture theme of keeping awake. The analogies are the frog in the pot, and the crab bucket.
If you put one crab in a bucket, it will climb out. If you put several crabs in a bucket, then each time one of them tries to climb out, the others will pull it down and then none of them will escape. Each of them are individually capable of escaping, and certainly if they worked together they could all escape, but instead they actively work to bring each other down. You find crab buckets in online communities and offline face-to-face communities. You find them in major organizations and in small groups. Russian trolls encourage such crab-bucket groups, but they also form just fine without any Russian help at all. And they are toxic. Crab buckets prevent healing, they prevent growth, they prevent love, they prevent every good thing. And they are the absolute opposite of God’s kingdom.
Our reading from Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom. And the thing this passage emphasizes is how people will come together. All different types of people, every nation and tribe, will come together in peace and harmony. We will all learn the ways of the Lord; we will all learn to do things that nurture and help things grow. We will turn all the weapons we use to hurt people into things to help nurture growth. And obviously that’s talking about physical weapons, but the thing is, it’s also talking about spiritual weapons, all the words and attitudes and social tactics and attitudes we use to hurt and demean one another will be changed into ways to heal and respect one another. Instead of being a bucket full of crabs trying to tear each other down, we will be actively using our God-given gifts to help build one another up.
And while we can’t make God’s kingdom come any faster than it will, and we can’t know when it will come, if we’re alert we can look around and see the places where we can make this world a little more like God’s kingdom to come, even if only small ways. We can look for ways to help and heal, instead of hurt; we can look for ways to connect, instead of drive people apart. Very few people end up in metaphorical crab buckets because they actively want to be in that kind of environment, just like few people end up following and sharing the posts of Russian trolls on purpose. But it’s so easy to slip into. It’s easier to judge people than to understand them, especially when they’re people we don’t know. It’s easier to argue about whose fault things are than it is to fix them. And once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, it’s really hard to stop.
That’s why we have to pay attention. We have to pay attention to God, who is working for the salvation of the world, and who will come with a judgment far more just—and far more merciful—than any judgment we could make. And we have to pay attention to the things we are doing and saying. Do our words and actions show Christ’s redeeming love to the world? Do we give witness to the kingdom which is to come? And no, we aren’t perfect and we mess up and we fail, and sometimes we find ourselves creating crab buckets, and we cling to Jesus’ promise of forgiveness when that happens. But the thing is, the fact that Jesus forgives us doesn’t mean we can just shrug and give up. Even when we can’t make things better—even when we can’t heal the broken and terrible places in ourselves and in the world—we at least need to acknowledge the reality of that brokenness. Once you’re in a crab bucket, you may not be able to climb out. But at least you can be aware that it’s not a good place to be, and that God desires a better life for you and everyone else in that crab bucket, and that the day will come when Christ will come to destroy the crab bucket and put something better in its place.
Here we come to the second metaphor, of the frog in boiling water. See, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out again. But if you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice that things are getting hot and will stay there until it’s boiled to death. It thinks things are normal until it’s boiled to death. Just the same way, it’s so easy for us to look out at the world and think that the way things are is normal. That all the terrible things that people do to one another are just the way things are, and hey, it could be worse. And that’s just not true. God did not create the world to be this way. God did not create human beings to treat one another like this. God’s desire is that all God’s children might have life, and have it abundantly. God’s desire is that all God’s children should have lives overflowing with love and every good thing. And God was born in human flesh in order to make that happen. God came to earth in the form of Jesus to show us that way, to call us to God, to wake us up so that we can see both the problems in the world and in ourselves, and so that we can see what God is doing to make things better.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived, taught, died, and rose from the grave, and he is coming back some day. And when he comes back, all the seeds that he planted will burst into flower. All the wounds we create in ourselves and in one another will be healed. The dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and all people will flock to God, and the world will be made new. And our job, as we wait for that to happen, is to keep awake. To keep alert. To see the crab buckets and the trolls for what they are: dangers to be dealt with. Our job is to notice when things are bad, when the water is heating up around us. And if we can do something, if we can put God’s love into action, we should; but even when there is nothing we can do to change things, we can at least bear witness to the fact that a better world is possible, and Christ Jesus is bringing it.