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Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

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Isaiah 65:17-25 - link to NRSV text
John 1:6-8,19-28 - link to NRSV text OR
John 3:23-30 - link to NRSV text

I once drove up to a venue where I was supposed to speak. I was running a little late, so I pulled into a parking space, dashed up to the front door, and was met by a man who said in nearly a single breath something like, “Are you Dr. Breuer's assistant? I have to stay out here to meet him, but do you know your way around the kitchen? Nobody's made the coffee yet,” and then he returned to expectantly scanning the parking lot. I was in a rather mischievous mood, so I just said, “well, I don't know this kitchen, but I've spent a lot of time in parish kitchens ... I'm sure I can find my way around this one,” and I went in to make the coffee. Once it was brewing away, I went up to the podium to start the talk.

The man who met me at the front door had made some assumptions about the person he was expecting. He assumed I was a “Dr.” (I'm a Ph.D. candidate; I expect to file next academic year). I think he also was expecting Dylan Breuer to be a distinguished-looking gentleman in a coat and tie, not a relatively young woman with a goofy grin at least as conspicuous as her Greek New Testament. Whatever he was expecting, it's true both that I was the person he was expecting and that I didn't look much like what he'd envisioned. In this case, everyone laughed at the mistake.

Advent is a time when we are particularly intentional about waiting expectantly and preparing — not just for Christmas, but for the culmination of Jesus' work on earth. And it is appropriate that at Advent we read more than one story about John the Baptizer, who saw his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. We have expectations for John. That's reasonable, isn't it? He's a hero of the faith and a prophet who prepared the way for the Christ, so we need him to meet certain standards. He should be respectable; he should inspire the kind of civic and familial virtues we can all rally around. But most importantly, he should be right, and especially about anything having to do with the one he's expecting.

So, how well does John the Baptizer fit our bill?

Not very.

To start with, John the Baptizer is not the guy who declares that all the trains the institution predicts are, always have been, and always will be on time. He's not the guy who's going to tell our kids to eat their vegetables and do their homework, to work hard and play by the rules to get ahead. He's the homeless guy who eats locusts (bugs, kids. they're bugs.) and wild honey, and he tells the people of Israel that the one of the fundamental rules they grew up knowing — a rule people thought of as being cast in scripture-flavored concrete — is moot. That would be the rule that says that you're in God's eschatological (eschatological = having to do with “the end”) in-crowd if you're in the people of Israel, and membership in that people is defined by blood: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish; and if you want to convert and if you're not born Jewish, your membership will be established by the shedding of blood (a blood sacrifice of an animal in the Temple regardless of your sex, and additional blood shed through circumcision if you're male). John the Baptizer says that rule is moot, regardless of who says otherwise. That's what's at stake when John says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:7).

John the Baptizer believed that something else — something besides blood, besides that scriptural set of criteria — determined who was in God's in-crowd. He believed that anyone who was willing to “take the plunge” (John thought that was a literal one, namely, baptism at his hands) would be welcomed by God, and that nobody who had not experienced conversion would. In a way, John the Baptizer was the world's first evangelical: he believed that anyone, regardless of bloodline, had to CHOOSE to be in God's people.

He also had some beliefs about someone who was going to follow him: a person whose might was beyond description in any but apocalyptic terms. John baptized with water, and this Coming One was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire — presumably those in God's in-crowd, those who had chosen to be baptized, with the Holy Spirit, and the rest, those in God's out-group, with the fire that would destroy them.

And as our readings for this week, the third Sunday of Advent, in Year A (we're in Year B) show us, John the Baptizer was sorely disappointed. Kudos to those who crafted our lectionary for including this once every three years for including it at all, as it really blows minds when we read it closely: John the Baptizer expected someone who was going to DO something in particular, and Jesus didn't do it. John expected someone who was going to get rid of all of those who weren't really and personally committed to the program, all those whom he felt were holding back the coming of God's kingdom, and then Jesus came, healing and proclaiming liberation, and there was no fire that John could see. He died in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he'd sent messengers to Jesus to ask: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?”

Was John the Baptizer disappointed? Perhaps the more important question for us to ask today is whether we are disappointed. Are we disappointed in a herald for the Christ who disagreed publicly with the one that the Gospel According to John portrays as being the fulfillment of all his hopes? Are we disappointed in a canon of Scripture that refuses to dissolve all ambiguities, to make our ancestors in the faith the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be, a canon that won't answer every question, or even all the questions we think are important?

And what about our Christ? We are called to risk everything that John the Baptizer risked, and that includes the risk that this person we are waiting for to do God's will may reveal that God's will is not identical to ours, that God's aspirations for the world may not be the same as ours. It's not safe. It's better than safe. It's not comfortable, and it's better than comfortable. Because if we're willing, in this Advent season, to offer our very dreams to God, and to trust that God's dreams will do better than fulfill our own, we might discover for ourselves that our God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Don't get me wrong: we need to dream. We need to dream the most audacious dreams we can. And then let us offer our dreams to the God whose creativity and love surpasses the best of our own. Let's be ready for more than what we expect.

Thanks be to God!

December 7, 2005 in Advent, Eschatology, Faith, Isaiah, John, Prophets, Year B | Permalink

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i heard a wonderful sermon preached in class the other day on a very similar point about john the baptist and our expectations/disappointments. the preacher wondered aloud if all of our prophecies about a second coming are not a way of expressing our severe disappointment in the first one. i thought it was an interesting comment . . .
i really enjoy your blog.

Posted by: sarah | Dec 8, 2005 9:12:34 PM

Thank you for this post.

Posted by: alesmeralda | Dec 8, 2005 9:59:31 PM

Sarah, have you read Daryl Schmidt's scholar's bible translation of Mark? I love the way he translates the opening line: "The good news of Jesus Christ begins with something Isaiah said ..."

Posted by: Philip | Dec 13, 2005 10:23:53 AM

Dylan, this one hell of a sermon. I must admit I have not looked at the text from that point. It has taken you out of your comfort zone. I will use this idea on sunday.
God's richest blessings to you.

Posted by: tyrone arjune | Dec 8, 2011 9:38:41 AM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

« Second Sunday of Advent, Year B | Main | Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B »

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Printer-friendly version

Isaiah 65:17-25 - link to NRSV text
John 1:6-8,19-28 - link to NRSV text OR
John 3:23-30 - link to NRSV text

I once drove up to a venue where I was supposed to speak. I was running a little late, so I pulled into a parking space, dashed up to the front door, and was met by a man who said in nearly a single breath something like, “Are you Dr. Breuer's assistant? I have to stay out here to meet him, but do you know your way around the kitchen? Nobody's made the coffee yet,” and then he returned to expectantly scanning the parking lot. I was in a rather mischievous mood, so I just said, “well, I don't know this kitchen, but I've spent a lot of time in parish kitchens ... I'm sure I can find my way around this one,” and I went in to make the coffee. Once it was brewing away, I went up to the podium to start the talk.

The man who met me at the front door had made some assumptions about the person he was expecting. He assumed I was a “Dr.” (I'm a Ph.D. candidate; I expect to file next academic year). I think he also was expecting Dylan Breuer to be a distinguished-looking gentleman in a coat and tie, not a relatively young woman with a goofy grin at least as conspicuous as her Greek New Testament. Whatever he was expecting, it's true both that I was the person he was expecting and that I didn't look much like what he'd envisioned. In this case, everyone laughed at the mistake.

Advent is a time when we are particularly intentional about waiting expectantly and preparing — not just for Christmas, but for the culmination of Jesus' work on earth. And it is appropriate that at Advent we read more than one story about John the Baptizer, who saw his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. We have expectations for John. That's reasonable, isn't it? He's a hero of the faith and a prophet who prepared the way for the Christ, so we need him to meet certain standards. He should be respectable; he should inspire the kind of civic and familial virtues we can all rally around. But most importantly, he should be right, and especially about anything having to do with the one he's expecting.

So, how well does John the Baptizer fit our bill?

Not very.

To start with, John the Baptizer is not the guy who declares that all the trains the institution predicts are, always have been, and always will be on time. He's not the guy who's going to tell our kids to eat their vegetables and do their homework, to work hard and play by the rules to get ahead. He's the homeless guy who eats locusts (bugs, kids. they're bugs.) and wild honey, and he tells the people of Israel that the one of the fundamental rules they grew up knowing — a rule people thought of as being cast in scripture-flavored concrete — is moot. That would be the rule that says that you're in God's eschatological (eschatological = having to do with “the end”) in-crowd if you're in the people of Israel, and membership in that people is defined by blood: if your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish; and if you want to convert and if you're not born Jewish, your membership will be established by the shedding of blood (a blood sacrifice of an animal in the Temple regardless of your sex, and additional blood shed through circumcision if you're male). John the Baptizer says that rule is moot, regardless of who says otherwise. That's what's at stake when John says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:7).

John the Baptizer believed that something else — something besides blood, besides that scriptural set of criteria — determined who was in God's in-crowd. He believed that anyone who was willing to “take the plunge” (John thought that was a literal one, namely, baptism at his hands) would be welcomed by God, and that nobody who had not experienced conversion would. In a way, John the Baptizer was the world's first evangelical: he believed that anyone, regardless of bloodline, had to CHOOSE to be in God's people.

He also had some beliefs about someone who was going to follow him: a person whose might was beyond description in any but apocalyptic terms. John baptized with water, and this Coming One was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire — presumably those in God's in-crowd, those who had chosen to be baptized, with the Holy Spirit, and the rest, those in God's out-group, with the fire that would destroy them.

And as our readings for this week, the third Sunday of Advent, in Year A (we're in Year B) show us, John the Baptizer was sorely disappointed. Kudos to those who crafted our lectionary for including this once every three years for including it at all, as it really blows minds when we read it closely: John the Baptizer expected someone who was going to DO something in particular, and Jesus didn't do it. John expected someone who was going to get rid of all of those who weren't really and personally committed to the program, all those whom he felt were holding back the coming of God's kingdom, and then Jesus came, healing and proclaiming liberation, and there was no fire that John could see. He died in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he'd sent messengers to Jesus to ask: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?”

Was John the Baptizer disappointed? Perhaps the more important question for us to ask today is whether we are disappointed. Are we disappointed in a herald for the Christ who disagreed publicly with the one that the Gospel According to John portrays as being the fulfillment of all his hopes? Are we disappointed in a canon of Scripture that refuses to dissolve all ambiguities, to make our ancestors in the faith the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be, a canon that won't answer every question, or even all the questions we think are important?

And what about our Christ? We are called to risk everything that John the Baptizer risked, and that includes the risk that this person we are waiting for to do God's will may reveal that God's will is not identical to ours, that God's aspirations for the world may not be the same as ours. It's not safe. It's better than safe. It's not comfortable, and it's better than comfortable. Because if we're willing, in this Advent season, to offer our very dreams to God, and to trust that God's dreams will do better than fulfill our own, we might discover for ourselves that our God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Don't get me wrong: we need to dream. We need to dream the most audacious dreams we can. And then let us offer our dreams to the God whose creativity and love surpasses the best of our own. Let's be ready for more than what we expect.

Thanks be to God!

December 7, 2005 in Advent, Eschatology, Faith, Isaiah, John, Prophets, Year B | Permalink

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