First Sunday in Lent, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 - link to BCP text
Romans 10:8b-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Over Advent and Christmas in 2004/2005, I was working in a parish where I was on the regular rota of preachers. On this particular year, I preached on December 19 -- the last Sunday of Advent -- and then again on January 2, in the season of Christmas. Had you asked me a month ahead of time what the thematic shift between those two sermons were going to be like, I probably would have talked about Advent as a time of tension between experiencing the world's brokenness and injustice and the hope we stake our lives on as Christians, that Jesus is coming to make all things new, and will complete what he has begun. When the Christmas sermon came around, I imagined would have been talking about Incarnation and celebration. When the time came, I was, in a manner of speaking, but in the meantime something had happened.
There was a tsunami in Southeast Asia, a devastating one, on December 26. 230,000 or more people swept away. Family members were torn from another before their eyes as they desperately tried to hold on to one another. It was a dark twist on some familiar texts:
For as the days of Noah were ... before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage ... and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away ... Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left (Matthew 24:37-41).
Dark texts about dark days. Advent texts.
What had I said in Advent? I'd tried to communicate a healthy awareness of the darkness in our world, the darkness that texts like Matthew 24 spoke from and to.
I talked about how the world's darkness sometimes seems relentless and inexorable if not impenetrable. And I talked about Advent hope. The sermon was called "Dancing at the World's End"; its central image was of the Berlin Wall -- a symbol when I was growing up of the Cold War that we all thought would end in nuclear war and winter, the end of the world. I talked about the day people started tearing that wall down -- when I lived in Scotland, close enough to join my fellow students who were streaming to Berlin in droves to dance on the wall's ruins. I didn't go -- I had classes, after all, a job waiting on tables, no time off and little money. And I talked about how little all of those seemingly important obstacles were in light of the change that was happening, the history I could have witnessed firsthand, the joy I could have shared with all those who were there. I asked myself and those in the church on that day what we might do if we were going to live in Advent hope -- seeing in the darkness the signs that the world -- the whole world of big and banal evils, of suffering and despair and death -- was crumbling before our eyes. If the Berlin Wall coming down was a change worth my skipping class and letting the waitressing take care of itself (and I believe with all my heart it was), what is it worth, what would we leave behind and what would we take up, to be present to dance on the ruins of sin and death itself?
Advent hope. That Advent, I spoke of it primarily as an antidote to what we wealthy Westerners sometimes call "the grind," which can feel oppressive enough. Hope can feel bold in the midst of that.
And then, the second day of Christmas, the waters came. The images and the stories of the tsunami itself were devastating; the reminder of just how many quieter but more devastating floods hit the most vulnerable:
About every six months, a tsunami's worth of women dying in entirely preventable ways while giving birth, and another tsunami's worth of people dying of HIV/AIDS.
Every week, just short of a tsunami's worth of children under five dying of preventable or treatable diseases like malaria.
The list goes on. We've heard about these things before, and most of us have wept about them before. And of course, I'm talking about things I've talked about before. The best thing I could think of to do in the pulpit in that dark Christmas season was to reclaim a familiar carol as a protest song:
No more let sin and sorrow grow
or thorns infest the ground
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.
"Far as the Curse Is Found." That's what I called the sermon.
I'm sorry to spend so much time rehearsing the past, but it's present in my mind once more this week. Our world is still troubled by much of what troubled us as I sang from the pulpit a little over two years ago. And I have many, many friends whose hearts are breaking this week. There are all the things I read about in the papers, of course, and more. Mothers worried about their sons and daughters at war, or wounded by war. Friends worried about friends who are addicts hurting themselves and others. People of all sorts and conditions who held out hopes for the meeting of our Anglican Primates (archbishops and other heads of churches) that were dashed in ways that felt deeply personal.
A world of grief. A world of anger. A world of hurt.
Where's our happy ending? Didn't God promise a land, an inheritance, freedom from slavery and from fear that would be celebrated with feasting? What of the psalmist's song?
There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For God shall give his angels charge over you
to keep you in all your ways.
What of the scriptures St. Paul quoted to the churches in Rome, that "No one who believes in him shall be put to shame" and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?" How can someone in real grief and real hurt open the bible and find anything helpful when real suffering comes on like a flood?
She can, I can, you can because the bible isn't that book that a lot of us heard about in Sunday School -- the one that says that we should be quiet, good, and cheerful in a world of smiling white guys who look a little like hippies patting the heads of fresh-faced children and snow-white cartoon sheep. It isn't a book that says that we should all be nice because everything is really OK. Read a book like Luke-Acts closely and you'll see a group of people grappling hard with hard questions, real oppression, serious pain.
Something stood out to me right away when I revisited the portion of Luke we'll be reading this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Full of the Holy Spirit -- led by the Spirit -- tempted by the devil. These aren't phrases linked naturally for a lot of us, I think. For a lot of us, when we're in a desolate place, we're likely to ask what we did wrong. How could we be led by the Holy Spirit and be in a place like this?
The people who wrote and read Luke-Acts asked questions like this too, I think. Some had left not only their homes, but their spouse, sisters and brothers, parents, and children for the sake of God's kingdom, and they were often met with persecution for it. Journey with these people and you've got company in your pain. They know what's wrong with the world -- enough to say even that the glory and authority of the world's kingdoms have been given to the devil. They know that sometimes -- too often -- the kingdoms of this world reward what Jesus called evil (and by the way, I'm not talking about homosexuality).
All of that is very, very real to the Christians we walk alongside as we read Luke-Acts. When we follow Jesus, we walk with and behind sisters and brothers who have known pain and oppression.
And let's not gloss over that, because without seeing that, we can't take in the full impact of the Good News they share with us:
That Jesus the Christ, full of the Holy Spirit, came to confront all the powers of sin and death, everything that separates us from one another, from God, and from the joyful, peaceful, loving life for which God made us -- and Jesus won.
Jesus won on the Cross, and we're going to talk a lot about that in the days to come, but let's not skip ahead. We don't need to. On this first Sunday in Lent, Luke shares with us the Good News that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, confronted the devil directly AND WON.
As Sue Garrett points out, the story of Jesus in the wilderness that we read this week is an early installment of the outcome her book's title points toward as a major theme in Luke's gospel: The Demise of the Devil. This isn't just the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, in which Jesus doesn't give in and a stalemate is declared. It belongs in an extensive tradition of stories in which Satan's or the devil's retreat in the face of the godly hero's strength isn't a coffee break, but a defeat, as in The Testament of Job (27:2-6):
And as he [Satan] stood, he wept, saying, "Look, Job, I am weary and I withdraw from you, even though you are flesh and I a spirit. You suffer a plague, but I am in deep distress. I became like one athlete wrestling another, and one pinned the other. The upper one silenced the lower one ... because he showed endurance and did not grow weary, at the end the upper one cried out in defeat. So you also, Job ... conquered my wrestling tactics which I brought on you. Then Satan, ashamed, left me for three years.
(Garrett, p. 42)
The language of Luke's gospel this Sunday echoes that of such stories -- this isn't a stalemate, but a victory.
And yet it's not the final victory. We (well, maybe I should speak for myself alone, but this does seem at least to be an American "prosperity gospel" tendency at least) accustomed to thinking of victory of evil as preventing pain, or at least ending it. In this Sunday's gospel, victory over evil involves a willingness to endure pain in confronting the powers that oppress and divide us. It's the devil, not God, who promises safety and success. But it's God, working in Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, who wins. This is, in the end, God's world -- as it was in the beginning. God's light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has never extinguished it.
We see and taste God's goodness and the wholeness for which God made Creation in countless small and breathtaking ways -- in sunrises and laughter, in an embrace or a shared tear, and even in chocolate (which I'm convinced is the single most underutilized argument for the existence of a gracious Creator). But chiefly we see it in the life and ministry among us of Jesus the Christ, who knew pain and desolation and betrayal as well as laughter and peace and love. Luke in particular promises glimpses of Jesus' final victory over the very real destructive forces at work in the world -- not just fleetingly and rare, but as regular nourishment for the journey.
If we are to start this journey with Jesus, or to enter more deeply and intentionally into it, or to better notice, know, and learn from our companions on that journey, I can think of no better time than this Lent. If your heart is breaking, so is mine; walk with me, and our stories and prayers will sustain us. If you're laughing, so do I; let's share it, and lighten the way. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into desolation and victory, and is company for us both in the full complexity of the winding path we're on together toward healing and reconciliation.
Thanks be to God!
February 23, 2007 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Current Events, Deuteronomy, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pastoral Concerns, Psalms, Romans, Scripture, Temptation, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
A Christmas entry is coming tomorrow.
Luke 1:39-45(46-55) - link to NRSV text
I have to admit that I'm a little sad that Advent is almost over. It just might be my favorite liturgical season. It isn't just the Christmas pre-show that points toward and helps us prepare for the Big Event on December 25. Indeed, what Advent readings -- especially the gospel readings -- urge us to long for expectantly isn't so much the birth of the Christ child as it is the full realization of God's redemption of the world in Christ.
That's why I love it -- and why I need it. I need regularly to get in touch with that big-picture view. There is so much going on in the world that, taken in isolation from the big picture we see in Advent, might make me think that the world's story is like this Del Amitri song I used to cover in clubs:
Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
And we'll all go along like before
And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow
The title of the song? "Nothing Ever Happens." When my dissertation supervisor came to hear me play one night, as I recall, he referred to it as the "let's just drink a bottle of Lysol song." It can be depressing as hell -- a word I use advisedly here -- to think that way, to see all of what's gone horribly wrong in the world around us and to enter into that state of impoverished imagination that says that this is how the world was, and is, and will be. It's a step toward hope to say I'll work for change, but when I think it's all about your and my working, it can still be overwhelming. I know many good people who have picked up the newspaper and finally said to themselves something like this:
"It's time to grow up. It's time to give up all of that youthful idealism stuff that says we can change the world. The world is just plain messed up, and I owe it to myself and my family to face facts and concentrate on making my world -- my family's home, and schools, and neighborhood -- a haven from the world and the even worse place it's headed."
But Advent reminds us that this way of looking at the world is missing a crucial piece -- actually, several crucial pieces -- of the picture:
God made this world. God loves this world. And God is redeeming this world. The universe arcs toward the peace, joy, love, and wholeness in and for which it was made.
All of that scary stuff we've been reading about fire and disaster and fear over the last few weeks isn't there to suggest that this is how the world ends; it is there to let us know even when we are surrounded by fire and disaster and fear that God is there with us -- suffering with us, yes, and also working among us to bring an end to suffering:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."
What does it look like when we have taken in this vision of where the world -- God's world -- is headed? What happens in our history when we write and live it in the context of God's history? It looks like this:
A young girl -- no more than fourteen, it's almost certain -- is making her way alone on a journey. Everyone knows that there is much to fear on these lonely roads even when traveling in a well-prepared group. These are desperate times. The rulers of Judea and Israel are desperate to consolidate their positions of power -- always tenuous, and completely dependent on the good will of Caesar, who rules the world, and that takes tributes, and building projects, and armies, and good order maintained by armies -- all of which must be paid for by someone. Taxes are high. People are desperate. Brigands seem to be everywhere.
Not that the world was ever a safe place to be for a young girl on her own.
Far from it, and especially for a pregnant girl, who ought to be at home guarding what, if anything, is left of her shame.
But not this girl. Not today. She makes her way through the hill country alone and yet unafraid. Her haste is not the haste of one running for cover; it's the rush of someone who can't wait to share the good news she knows.
She finds her cousin, who has good news of her own, and that moment of joy and hope and faith is so powerful, so far from anyone's containing it, that the children in their wombs leap for joy with the women. And they are filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of what God is doing, wonderful beyond comprehension or description.
If there weren't so much competition for the title among so many suffering, it would have been difficult to find two people so unlikely to be hopeful to the point of being ecstatic -- the single pregnant girl traveling alone and the elderly wife of a poor country priest considered cursed by his neighbors.
And yet there it is. Hope is born -- in Advent, not in Christmas. And more than hope: power is born, power for a girl to pass joyfully and peacefully through wilderness and bands of thieves like her son would one day pass through crowds seeking to stone him (Luke 4:4-30).
As a singer, I particularly love it that Mary's passage, like Jesus' a few chapters later, is centered on a song.
Christmas is coming. It's hours away at the point when those who go to church at all for the fourth Sunday of Advent as it falls on December 24 will be hearing a sermon on these texts. Christmas is coming, and I know it's a Big Deal in its own right. But in my estimation, anyone who misses observing the fourth Sunday of Advent misses out in a big way -- misses out on the moment in Luke's gospel in which we truly see hope born as two poor women dance and sing.
It isn't Christmas, but this is Advent, and in this very moment, we see born among us the hope for which the whole world hasn't dared hope.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he had filled the hungry with good things,
and sent away the rich empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
What a moment it was when that poor girl who traveled alone burst into song! In that moment, she saw as present and lasting reality not just the miracle of her being received in her village rather than stoned (and surely this is the first miracle of Jesus' birth we celebrate), not just the miracle of a healthy child born healthy and honored even when no one -- no family, and not even an inn -- would take the family in (which is miracle enough to dance), and even beyond the miracles her son would work before his death (which were wonders that set many free).
In this moment -- THIS moment, with none gathered to celebrate and no liturgy beyond a young girl and an old woman leaping for joy with their children to be -- we hear, in the song of the prophet and leader, the single and pregnant teenager, Mary of Nazareth, the end for which the world was made.
It may seem sometimes that "Nothing Ever Happens," but we can be sure that Something is happening -- something beyond speech and remotely hinted at in prophetic song.
It is here! Hope is here. and what a life-changing, world-changing miracle that is: we hope that the mighty who dominate by force will fall to the meek whom they dismissed, the poor know plenty while the rich finally understand what it is to want and need, and the world -- broken, mixed-up, violent, world that sets up gulfs between us and between us and God so vast that it's hard to imagine even angels could cross them -- is made whole at last.
I will celebrate the wonders of Christmas when it comes. But God, please help me to take in the wonder of Mary's vision and Elizabeth's so I can sing and dance with them in what they see and know. Let me do that now, in this moment, and in every moment.
My soul rejoices in anticipation I can feel in my body.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is in many respects about conversion -- who needs it, what it looks like, and why do it -- and what it meant to John the Baptizer. It's what John was best known for. His nickname of "the Baptizer" came from a remarkable idea he had: namely, that everyone needs to be baptized.
It wasn't at all remarkable that he baptized people; most Jewish movements did. Baptism was one of the things that a person had to undergo to convert to Judaism. What was wild in John's ministry was that he said that Jews were just as much in need of his baptism as anyone else would be. That's what he was teaching when he said, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," and it's got a number of potentially radical implications.
The first is that bloodlines have absolutely no relevance in God's mission. God is not going to be confined by our boundaries between one family and another or one nation and another, however important we might think they are. This is not the order of the world as we've run it when we've managed to talk ourselves into thinking we're in charge, and it challenges us to re-imagine what the world looks like as God's work among us is realized.
Take a look, for example, at this report from Oxfam on how corporations from the world's wealthiest nations are leveraging their power in their home countries to negotiate international trade agreements that are even more to their advantage, putting farmers, fishers, and others in poorer countries out of business. Consider for a moment how the wealth of the three richest FAMILIES in the world exceeds the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 COUNTRIES in the world. We have ordered the world such that accidents of birth -- in which country or which family a child is born -- often determine whether that child will live to see adulthood. Do we think that our country, our family is so much more highly esteemed in God's eyes than others' are? Or are we willing to "bear fruits worthy of repentance"? God doesn't want our liberal guilt or our good intentions; God wants us to love the world's children as we love our own children.
That will require us to make a choice, and that's the second point I take from John's teaching on conversion. I believe that Christian Baptism does indeed seal and mark a person as Christ's own forever. That doesn't lessen the truth that we are called to a kind of conversion, to a metanoia or repentance, that is a personal choice. We can choose whether to identify Jesus as Lord of our lives, and how we choose to live testifies to what choice we have made on that point. You can choose to Baptize your children, but you can't make the choice for them to follow Christ.
Up to this last point, what I've said about the implications of John's teaching lines of well with what Jesus taught. But Jesus and John didn't agree on everything, or we wouldn't see what we do in Luke 7:18-35, in which messengers from John the Baptizer go to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus is doing enough of what John expected from the coming "mighty one" for John not to have completely abandoned hope in him, but his behavior is raising enough questions that John feels the need to send messengers to ask them.
This Sunday's gospel tells us what John is expecting that Jesus isn't doing. John says that the coming mighty one will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire," a phrase that we often gloss over, but is worth paying closer attention to. In the Baptizer's usage, "the Holy Spirit and fire" are not two ways of saying the same thing or an extended reference to what will happen at Pentecost.
We can tell that from the rest of what the Baptizer says about the coming one: his "winnowing shovel is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Your translation probably says (as the NRSV does) that it's a "winnowing fork," but this is not supportable; as Robert L. Webb points out, the Greek word is ptuon, which always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.
This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer's expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: "gather the wheat into his granary," while "the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.
John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus' response of "Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer's pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus' ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God's presence and work.
How the Baptizer responded to that invitation isn't recorded. At least some of his followers remained disappointed in Jesus and attached to the Baptizer's idea that God's mighty one wasn't going to issue any more invitations to conversion, but would simply pour out God's blessings on the righteous and rain destruction on the wicked. Movements following the Baptizer and proclaiming such immanent judgment continued for centuries after his death, suggesting that John received Jesus' reply with sadness not unlike that of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The more we have, the harder it is to give it up, and John the Baptizer had a vast store of hope poured into his expectations of the coming one. He'd sacrificed so much already -- the comforts of home and family, his freedom, and soon his life -- it may be that sacrificing his expectations was one last sacrifice he couldn't make.
Jesus seemed to anticipate that as he said that while "among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God" -- including a prostitutes or tax collector who had received John's Baptism -- is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). And even in saying that, Jesus' ministry issues an invitation in profound continuity with the one John issued to all those who would hear -- an invitation to repentance and conversion.
We need to hear that invitation. It isn't about getting in to God's good graces or avoiding God's judgment -- in Jesus' ministry, God is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. It's about living into the fullness of that grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime but in every moment we live. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. And when we keep our eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to receive God's good news, we see it finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous.
Let's not begin to talk to ourselves about our impressive spiritual pedigree when the very one for whom our ancestors longed and hoped is coming again among us. Let's not presume to draw limits around what God can accomplish and with whom. Let's not measure God's good news of peace according to our own preconceptions when the most certain word we have of it is that it "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Our conversion didn't end with Baptism; that's just where it began, and it ends only where God's love for us does. In other words, it doesn't end. Expect God's coming; expect the unexpected!
And thanks be to God!
December 14, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Baptism, Christian Formation, Conversion, Discipleship, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Philippians, Prophets, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
How powerful do you think God is, really? Most Christians on some level think the correct answer is "God is omnipotent," and will tell you so if you ask. But a lot of our behavior suggests that we believe something far from that.
I'm thinking of when my brother died, and my family was warned sternly by a number of well-meaning people that if his body were cremated (as he'd wanted), God wouldn't be able to raise him when the eschaton arrived. In my view, if we're talking about raising people from the dead, we're already talking about the realm of impossible by human standards and activity, but all things being possible with God, and I find it hard to imagine that God is wringing hands and saying, "Shoot -- I really wanted to raise that person, but what can I do? The body's been cremated. I'm only God, after all ..."
Or how often do we behave as though the God who made the world can be chased out of a place or situation entirely by the simplest human action -- one unkind thought or impure act, one misstep from a human being, and God suddenly loses power to speak and to redeem?
I've seen people in anguish because they were praying for someone's healing and they believe that only if they can get it right -- if only they could really believe God would heal, if only they hadn't secretly harbored resentment toward the person for whom they were praying, if only they could find the right words, make the right sacrifice, and live in the right way -- then, and only then, can God act. Some go so far as to say that as long as there's anyone who isn't "getting it right," God can't redeem, and therefore that God will at some point have to get rid of those who are "getting it wrong." Views of how much God can redeem and how we should then respond to God's redeeming work on earth varies even within the bible, and views in first-century Palestine ranged even more widely.
The community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, certainly saw God as gracious. At the same time, there were plenty of reasons in their cultural memory to be pessimistic. The community most likely came into being in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, in which Jewish fighters were able to triumph over foreign oppressors and cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem that the Seleucid King Antiochus IV had defiled by sacrificing a sow on the altar. The presence of a tiny amount of oil left in the Temple that nonetheless gave light for eight days (long enough to prepare new consecrated oil) is celebrated in the holiday of Hanukkah. Hurrah! Too bad the victors (the Hasmoneans) then went on to crucify by the hundreds fellow Jews they saw as their enemies. Furthermore, the Dead Sea community was none too pleased that the Hasmoneans placed themselves as both king and high priest of Israel -- despite that kings were supposed to be of the line of David and high priests of the line of Zadok, while the Hasmoneans were of neither line. That was just the start of their catalog of disappointments -- a catalog that would make something like Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield's recent catalog of grievances against the church from which his episcopal orders come look like a song of joy. So this community crafted an identity for itself as a voice preparing a way for God in the wilderness (a la Isaiah 40, which can just as reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the way of the Lord being prepared is in the wilderness as that the wilderness is where the voice is crying; there's no punctuation in the biblical text), keeping pure and living apart from the corruption around them while they waited for God to destroy it.
I'd call that a pretty pessimistic view: the vast majority of people in the world, even people who worship the God of Israel, are "sons of darkness" who should be avoided if at all possible, and who will be destroyed when God brings an end to this chapter of history.
John the Baptizer, whom we meet in Luke 3, is not as pessimistic as that. There's no grammatical clue in the Greek about the Baptizer's interpretation of Isaiah 40, and whether it's about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord somewhere (possibly somewhere else) or about a voice crying that the way of the Lord is being prepared in the wilderness, but his behavior (if the reports of the canonical gospels are any indication, and I see no reason to doubt them on this point) says enough about it. John goes to the wilderness and cries out, but he bases himself within a day hike of Jerusalem, and he seems to invite all comers to be baptized. Especially if Luke's testimony about him in the rest of chapter 3 is a good summary of things he taught (a point which is disputed, to be fair), he did not on the whole suggest that people ought to leave Jerusalem and set up camp in the wilderness to stay. John baptized them with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, treating Jew and Gentile alike as being in need of conversion, and sending them back to their homes and their work. But he talked of a mighty one to come, using language often used of God rather than any human agent, who would destroy the wicked with fire and baptize those who had received John's baptism with a new baptism of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16 -- more on this next week).
So when God's messenger comes to prepare God's way in the world, where do you think that happens? Who do you think can be part of it? When we say that God is "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap," as our reading for this week from Malachi says, do we see that as as meaning that God will destroy the people who don't "get it right"? When we say God is coming to redeem, what do we mean? Does anything God made have to be destroyed to complete God's redemption?
Jesus takes an approach that differs markedly from that of John the Baptizer, and even more so from what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Matthew and Luke put Jesus in the desert for a period toward the beginning of his ministry, where he meets and is baptized by John, but Jesus doesn't stay there. His primary way of ministering doesn't remove himself from the population he's trying to reach and invite them to come to him; rather, it seems more often to go to the villages and towns where the people are, and more often than not, it includes a call to follow him.
What has to change before you meet Jesus? Nothing. He even seems to be completely indiscriminate regarding with whom he'll break bread. God's redeeming work through Jesus can start exactly where you are, and there's no need to try to get it all together and make sure that you're "getting it right" before meeting him. That's a very good thing indeed from my perspective, since I suspect I wouldn't have gotten very far in such an enterprise had I tried to accomplish it without God. And why on earth would I want to? After meeting Jesus, I chose to journey with Jesus, and I can say that for me life is far more joyful, peaceful, and abundant that way. And that was also a huge change. Nothing has to change for us to meet Jesus, for us to start experiencing God's redeeming work. As we experience and engage that work, everything changes: us, our relationships, our priorities, and our world.
Why is that important? In my view, saying that any human action is a necessary precondition of God's redemption puts God in a very small box. Of course we make decisions all the time that hurt or help ourselves and others. Of course our actions are important, and we're all called to a mature walk with Christ in which we're seeking to participate as fully as possible in God's mission. But is God really so powerless as to be finally frustrated in God's purposes because of my mistakes? I doubt it. let me put it this way, in a sentence that y'all have heard from me before:
I don't believe in perfection; I believe in redemption.
God is not sitting around somewhere waiting breathless for us to get everything right so redemption can be made possible. God cannot be shut out of a place by human action. That picture suggests that it's human beings who are really in charge and human sin has the final word that can bind even God. I don't believe that for an instant. I'm with the psalmist:
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven you are there;
if I make the grave me bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and swell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,"
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
(Psalm 139:6-11, BCP)
I believe that God's power to redeem is such that no human misstep or even deliberate human wickedness can have the final word. And like John the Baptizer, Jesus of Nazareth showed what he thought about God's redemption of the world and what needs to happen for us to engage it by how he lived. He showed us just how much he was willing to stake on that, and how much human hatred and destructiveness he could forgive in the way he died. And the God who created and loves the world showed just how powerful God's redemption is, and how far from the final word human destructiveness is: God raised Jesus to life. Even now Jesus is at work among us. And when we confess that Jesus, whom the power of Rome crucified and the power of God raised to unending life, has been appointed by God as the one through whom "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth," we are confessing also the end for which we were made and which Jesus invites us in each moment, however out of reach we may feel we are:
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday of Advent, Year C
It's a strange accident of history that the apocalyptic texts in our scriptures were written to encourage tiny minorities at their society's margins to greet the tribulations they witnessed not with panic, but with confidence that God was working out God's purposes for peace, joy, and justice -- and that these same texts seem now (e.g., in the Left Behind series) to be read even more often among prosperous and powerful majorities as if they were written for people like them, and they are used mostly to point to current events with the loud message that people should panic, that God intends to bring chaos, agony, and unprecedented bloodshed to the world. And what these pseudo-apocalyptic visions want us to do in response isn't to change the world, but to retreat to an interior experience that will help us to leave it behind before God leaves us behind. That isn't the God I know.
I think one of the fundamental exegetical mistakes leading to this bizarre and not at all helpful trends in reading apocalyptic texts is along the lines of one advocated by the "Alpha" curriculum: namely, the profoundly unhelpful suggestion that all scriptural passages should be read as if they were a love letter written to us personally. Texts like our readings for this Sunday are an excellent case study as to why this is an approach that can go beyond fruitful to the point of being dangerous.
If I read a text like Jeremiah 33:14-16 as if it were a love letter from God to me, I might be tempted to say that the promise God made and is fulfilling is for me, and people like me. I might be tempted to define "people like me" in whatever way popped most naturally into my head, which would be very likely to be the ways in which my culture most often segregates people. I might be tempted to think of "justice" and "righteousness" as being whatever MY culture says is just and right relationship. And if all of this is God's love letter to me, I might be inclined to think of this promise as being a promise to vindicate my way of life, whatever that is, or whatever the dominant culture says it should be. I might be tempted to think that God sent and is sending Jesus so to vindicate the Americans, the industrious, the educated, the respectable. Uncritical reading of these texts -- a phenomenon that seems to be pretty common in my culture, as people at the very center of power appropriate them to claim that their approach, no matter how destructive it is, will be vindicated by God, and too many of my peers don't talk about them at all, lest we all be made uncomfortable in the process -- has turned the message of the prophets upside-down.
Let's turn it up again.
If you haven't done this, or haven't done it in a while, it would make a marvelous Advent discipline to take a look at the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. to see what he did with these texts, with eschatology -- the study of what kind of climax God intends and is bringing about for human history. If you want to work in the long term as an agent of what God is doing in the world, you need a solid eschatology. You need -- we need -- to hold on as much as possible to the "big picture" view of God's work among us.
Otherwise, it's just too darn easy to do what a great many people are trying to get us to do: namely, to monitor the news breathlessly for every twist and turn, every hint of disaster. This gives us the privilege of being the first to panic every time some new development bodes the disaster that so many tell us is impending. I don't think many of us fool ourselves into thinking we can stop the disaster, but this constant vigilance promises us the illusion (not really a very convincing one even at its strongest, I think) of control -- at least that we can be the first to know we were right, and things really did go exactly where we said that handbasket was headed, albeit perhaps even more quickly than we said they'd get there.
But really, where is the joy in that? Where are the characteristics of the Spirit's fruit among us -- not only joy, but peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control? Competing to drop the flags declaring that somebody finished the race to the lowest we can go sounds a lot more like the conceited, envious, competitiveness St. Paul characterizes in Galatians 5:13-26 as the very opposite of what the Spirit brings.
Read MLK's sermons, and you'll see a very different use of eschatology -- one a lot closer to Jeremiah's, the Psalms', and Luke's. Eschatology -- the "big picture" of what God is up to in the world -- is what lets the poor and those suffering at the margins know that their struggle is far from over when the powers that be say it is.
These texts are say that however many people point to disasters as evidence that Creation itself is destined for disaster, God made the world for a different purpose, and God is faithful in bringing God's purposes about. Apocalyptic texts take a serious, Technicolor look at everything going on in the world -- all the suffering and fear, all the fireworks the powers that be have to offer -- and envision what Creation's true end is, what God made this world for, the redemption for which the world groans and that God lovingly poured and is pouring out God's Self to bring about.
When I think about these apocalyptic scenes, I remember Mike. Mike was in a small group bible study I was a part of some years back. The group was a very healing place for me to be, particularly at that point in my life -- I was full of questions and turmoil, and the group lovingly received all of that. I struggled some with Mike, though. He always had a smile and a hug and an encouraging word, and it struck me sometimes as a naïve, sugar-coated kind of way to be in the world. It was great for him that he could think that everything was about love, I thought, but I imagined that he couldn't possibly be that way if he'd seen real suffering, if he really understood what kinds of things were going on in the world that would make any sane person (I thought) bitter. And then one day Mark told a story he hadn't told before. He talked of his service in World War II, and in particular of the day when he and his company came upon and went into an airplane hangar, and came upon some of the first evidence Americans would see of the Holocaust.
I never looked at Mike the same way again. When I looked in his eyes, that night and every time I saw him after then, I saw something I hadn't bothered to look for. He'd seen the very worst that the world and humanity at their worst could produce, and he made a choice. He could have accepted what he saw there as the final word in the world's story. It certainly fit the picture the world paints of an apocalypse -- what the world looks like when the cover is taken off -- complete with smoke and stink and flames. But Mike was a person of deep faith -- of the kind of faith I want to grow into. He looked at all of that destruction, that gash at the heart of humanity itself, and said to himself, "... and God so loved this world that God gave the only-begotten Son." It underscored just how much God was redeeming, how immeasurable the height and breadth and depth of that redeeming love was and is.
Mike was no preacher, but his ability to see that "big picture" -- that it is the immeasurable height and breadth and depth of God's love for which the world was made and which is the world's telos or end -- is what I see when I read or hear the sermons of Martin Luther King, or Desmond Tutu, or of others who know what Creation's end is, and who are preaching apocalyptically, removing the cover of these times to show where they fit in God's time. Apocalyptic is that prophetic keeping "eyes on the prize," so we can not just hold on, but keep pressing toward the goal with deep, unshakable joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. It's what enables us to look upon ugliness in this world and see how much room there is for God's grace to rush in, God's power to work. It enables us to say with open eyes and open hearts, "All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness / to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies" (Psalm 25:9). It's what gives us hope and power to pray as Paul did in 1 Thessalonians, seeing joy, connection, love, and wholeness in the midst of persecution and threats of more.
Luke wrote of Jesus telling of sun, moon, stars, and the earth in distress, and he knew of what he wrote. He was writing after Roman armies had marched into and devastatingly seized Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, defiled the Holy of Holies, crushed the hopes of many who had thought that this uprising with the sword was God's own doing, and God's vindication of those who took up the sword to defend Jerusalem was at hand. Luke wrote to Christians at a time when their refusal to take up arms to defend Jerusalem was bringing rejection and persecution from kin and neighbors as well as the ongoing ire of Roman authorities who saw Christians as troublemakers who stirred up slaves and fractured families. That's the setting in which Luke writes of Jesus telling his followers to look to the fig tree.
My friends Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out the fig tree is among the last to bloom in Palestine. Jesus says that it is amidst all of these disasters -- all of these frightening events the world says make panic and scrambling to protect oneself and one's family is the only appropriate response -- that should prompt us to think of the fig tree. It blooms, and we know that the end that is near is the end of winter, of violence, of suffering, of shame. Luke wrote to people who were very much and in the present tense wondering how they might "have the strength to escape all these things that will take place," and his answer is this:
They take place before the coming of the Son of Man, before Jesus' coming to complete his work among us, and that coming is beyond the powers of this world to prevent. It is more wondrous than the words of this world to describe. It is the vision that gives us the strength, the hope, the courage to carry on, and to do so experiencing the abundant life even now that is breaking into the world in Jesus' word. Luke's community saw their world crumbling, and in the midst of that, with hearts "not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life," caught a glimpse of God's kingdom come near. When we are willing to confront the suffering around us truthfully and serve as agents of God's hope in the midst of that, God gives us grace to glimpse it too -- and the height and depth and breadth of what God is bringing about that we can glimpse together will keep us grounded when everything else starts to shake. These times in God's timeline are the hour of redemption, an opportunity to experience participate in what God is doing in bringing peace, freedom, and wholeness to the world God made and loves.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King, Year B
Last week, I had a lot to say about why we shouldn't dodge preaching on and wrestling with the apocalyptic texts like those in the lectionary this week, and that we are called to engage in Advent. This week, I want to concentrate on the payoff for doing so.
In a sense, these texts are talking about "the end of the world." Only the most jaded reader can encounter the kind of vivid imagery of power in passages like our reading for this Sunday from Daniel without a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat. That's not merely normal; it's necessary, I think, to appreciate what these texts are talking about. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are both talking about the judgment of the nations, history's end. I want to underscore that word 'end,' and at least two resonances it has, because I think it points to the heart of Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to our Advent anticipation.
'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so pronounced that we can say, "things will never be the same." Facing 'the end' means that we must finally acknowledge our attachments to what is and our limitations in perspective and power as mortal human beings. 'The end' means that we will no longer be able to deny or dodge them, and we will -- we must -- let go. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to illusions that what we know is all there is and can control all we know, the more frightening 'the end' will be.
That's why I want to suggest this week that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "my kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he understands Jesus.
The reign of God that Jesus proclaims, that in Jesus' ministry is breaking through among us even now, is not just a reshuffling of this world's cabinet while worldly power structures continue mostly as they are. Jesus is not seizing Caesar's throne. A plan to do so, leaving Caesar or his heir and his generals in exile to plot a return to power, would have been more than enough for Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. But Jesus' plan is far more radical than that.
Jesus is not seeking a throne in the world as it is; Jesus is inaugurating the end of this world.
I'm not talking about the destruction of the planet; that just doesn't make any sense from a biblical perspective. God made this world and said it was good. God made humankind and said it was VERY good. God so loved the world that God sent the Son that we might have abundant, eternal life. Read Left Behind for amusement or to dialogue with others who have read it, but its theology has no substantial claim to be "biblical." God does not intend destruction for Creation or for humankind.
So what do I mean, then, when I talk about "the end of the world" in the prophetic thrust of Daniel, Revelation, and the canonical gospels?
I do mean that a sharp transition is on the way. Someone who, like Pilate, likes the world best to the extent that it is ordered by empires will probably receive the news of the world's end as very bad news indeed, at least initially. After all, the world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. I'm hardly the richest person in America, for example, and yet I consistently make the top tenth of better in the ranking of the world's richest people. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is.
And yet I long for change. My heart aches for children whom the world as it is leaves without a chance -- those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. But my longing for change isn't just a generous impulse. Maintaining this world order is costly beyond my ability to add. It is polluting our atmosphere with such abandon that one way or another, it will come to an end within a generation or two -- whether because we change how we live to slow the global climate change, or because the devastation that change causes -- devastation we've already observed in weather patterns causing drought in some places and flooding in others unparalleled in our time -- so profound that our planet will never recover. And there are less immediately measurable costs to maintaining this world order as well. Our children inherit our all of our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world in which many of us live will leave us without resources and without community in a world of hostility. I've preached about the cost our children pay here and now for maintaining our world of privilege before in communities profoundly privileged by worldly standards, and I encourage you to take a look at this sermon if you're wondering what I mean when I say that the world order of empires -- even for those of us now living in the world's richest empire -- imposes a very steep cost in body, psyche, and spirit to ALL of us. And yet who or what can disentangle us from all of the tangled webs we and our parents' parents have woven that have made this world so many of us think is all there is? We might well cry with St. Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
And, if we have claimed the story of the prophets and apostles, the story proclaimed by Jesus as the story of the world God made and loves, as our own, we can also answer with St. Paul: Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus, our and our only Lord! The world of empires, the world that places the Pilates in palaces and so many children in the grave, the world of endless scrabbling and scrapping for resources and power, the world of anxiety and domination, is passing away.
Think I'm dreaming? Well, I'm happy enough to be guilty of that; it would place me in the company of the prophets who proclaimed God's dream for the world even in the midst of the greatest darkness, the ugliest violence of intense persecution. But the dream is close enough to reality. Many of the world's brightest economists tell us that the world in which thousands upon thousands of children die in extreme poverty -- the world into which I was born, and through much of my life the world in which I thought I'd die -- could see its end by the year 2015. Extreme poverty GONE in under ten years. Imagine the dancing at the party where we celebrate that!
And, by the way, please check out my earlier sermon, "Dancing at the World's End," if you haven't already. I was born in 1970, and by some people's reckoning (especially among U.S. Episcopalians!) am still young. And yet I've seen in my own lifetime empires fall, rules change, "certain" destruction averted, new worlds open. I've seen enough poverty and suffering in my travels to be glad enough at the news that a kingdom not of this world is coming to change everything. The judgment of the nations sounds like bad news -- but not to those who know Jesus, and who identify him as the Christ, the anointed king, the one of whom Daniel spoke with awe as "one like a son of man" who would judge.
Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God's dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus' kingdom breaks through that much more.
The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need -- the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy.
It's not just the end of the church year, we're anticipating this Sunday.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel FINE.
Thanks be to God!
November 21, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Christ the King, Christology, Current Events, Daniel, Eschatology, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
When Mary heard the angel Gabriel address her as “favored one” and tell her, “The Lord is with you,” “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” “Perplexed” would be an understatement by the time the angel had left her. She was to bear a child, who would be called a son of God, and would receive the throne of David. “How can this be?” Mary asked.
Good question. It sounds impossible, and that business about Mary not “knowing” a man is just the beginning of the obstacles. As I preached about last year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary had to be wondering about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” weren't infrequent in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married; it was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications: if Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and, if his identity were known, the man who had stolen Joseph's betrothed and gotten her pregnant.
So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, should others come to the conclusion Gabriel has about the child's identity, odds are against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, wouldn't have been very keen on another trying to claim David's throne and title. And the designation “son of god” was claimed by Roman emperors; anyone else acclaimed as a “son of god” by the populace was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. And the paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.
The story of God's angel proclaiming the Lord's favor on a young single mother gives us all a great deal to ponder this Advent. We live in a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty -- three hundred during an average Sunday sermon in an Episcopal Church, and sixteen hundred during each celebration of the Eucharist (thanks to Mike Russell for that powerful way of putting it), and yet God's promise is that through Jesus' work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”
But we're called to do more than ponder. We're called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of the dignity of those considered lowly by the powers of this world. We're called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, giving flesh to God's hope, God's peace, God's justice, and God's love for the world.
How can this be? Through the faithfulness of the God who promises David that his house will be established forever, and whose promise is fulfilled, we believe, in Jesus. Through the power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, and clothed her with dignity and grace throughout the village's pointing and whispering. Through the compassion that led Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered. And through the peace that comes of catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally God loves each of God's children.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
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?
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!
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
Sorry this took so long, all. It's been one heck of a week. Phew!
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed:
John the Baptizer proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This was a radical thing to do. It wasn't radical or even unusual to proclaim that people could find forgiveness for sins. The Temple hierarchy had been saying for hundreds of years that God was merciful and eager to forgive: the sacrifices in the Temple brought forgiveness to God's people. Prophets like Isaiah proved to be a thorn in the side of the Temple hierarchy, proclaiming that God isn't impressed by burnt sacrifices, doesn't live in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land. The prophets proclaimed that God's reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants.
John the Baptizer made his ministry a living parable of that message. Isaiah 40 speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying out that the Lord is coming, and we are to prepare the way (depending on your comma placement, that is -- there was no punctuation in the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint, so readers were free to play in their communities with the many possible variations of meaning from which modern editors choose. Many, like the community in Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, read the text as meaning something more like, “A voice cries out: prepare in the wilderness the way of the LORD.”). John the Baptizer based himself in the wilderness along the Jordan River outside Jerusalem, and proclaimed to all who would hear that forgiveness was available to any who would be baptized — no Temple sacrifice necessary. According to Matthew and Luke, John the Baptizer taught that blood ties to Abraham were of no account in God's eyes — the high priest needed the baptism of repentance just as much as a Gentile convert to Judaism, and Abraham's inheritance would go to any who would receive it through that baptism.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed.
The world did not need Jesus merely to hear a message that forgiveness of sins and a relationship — a close, personal relationship — with the God who created the world was available to all. That message of grace was proclaimed in the Temple by Sadducees who believed that the blood spilled in the Temple was sufficient to cover sins, and by Pharisees who said that God welcomes converts from any nation who want to join God's people and walk in accordance with God's Torah.
And if I may bring a bit of Passover into Advent, I'll take up a refrain from the Passover liturgy: dayenu, “it would have been sufficient.”
The world did not need Jesus merely to hear that we can find forgiveness and join God's people without a Temple, without preconditions apart from conversion through repentance and baptism. John the Baptizer taught that much, and it would have been sufficient for that much. If all we expect from Jesus' coming and Jesus' work among us is that we will find forgiveness for sin, find relationship with God, and join God's people if we're willing to repent and experience conversion, we're due for a surprise.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, God's Anointed. And the grace of this message is astonishing. But it is only the beginning.
We expect more. Especially during this Advent season, we expect Jesus, and the full realization of Jesus' reconciling work on earth. As 2 Peter tells us, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where God's justice is at home. And we will not be disappointed. Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming, inviting us to experience conversion, to be given a heart full of God's deep compassion, to be forgiven for our sins — and much, much more. Jesus is reconciling the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. Jesus gives us a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us — the poor from the rich, the West from the South, nation from nation — will be no more. And that would have been sufficient for us to sing God's praises forever.
But it's just the beginning. Jesus has given us not only the vision, but the Spirit — the power to prepare the way of the LORD, casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly in the ultimate leveling of the proverbial playing field. As the Psalm says, “justice (a better translation, I think, than ”righteousness,“ as it makes clear what the prophets proclaimed is the right sort of relationship that defines God's righteousness) shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet”; we prepare the way of the LORD whenever we do justice and make peace.
This is the grace we experience and the calling God gives us. And it's just the beginning. I'm inclined to that that the opening of Mark 1, the phrase, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ,” refers not only to the ministry of John the Baptizer we remember today, but the whole of Mark's gospel, the whole story of Jesus' work among us, his death on the Cross, the empty tomb and God's messenger's proclaiming his resurrection and sending his followers forth. As you probably know, the last words of Mark's gospel have long been a puzzle to scholars. The very last word in our earliest texts of Mark 16:8 is gar, Greek for “for.” It seems almost like the “Castle of Aaaaaaaaaaaa ....” in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail -- a trailing off rather than a proper ending.
It isn't a proper ending.
It's a proper beginning. All of this — the whole story we'll be reading in this Year B of the lectionary as we journey through Mark's gospel — is the beginning of the Good News. That beginning ends with God's messenger saying something that's always true on our journey with Jesus — “he has gone ahead of you” — and the call to follow. We have become characters in that story, that Great Story of Good News, and we are to expect great things. The end of extreme poverty in this generation isn't overreaching: it's just the beginning of the Good News of the Lord whose way we are called to prepare. Have you or your parish been giving money to help our impoverished sisters and brothers in Haiti or Africa? That's good. But on December 13th, we have the opportunity to let the nations of the world know that we will no longer support trade practices that flood markets with subsidized American and European rice that robs Haitian and African farmers of their livelihood and Haitian and African children of life. We have the opportunity to Make Trade Fair, upholding the dignity of work and of workers and coming closer to giving every child the chance we want for our own children.
Now THAT would be a beginning. I say that not because we haven't had real, honest, and significant beginnings before; we have. But as we deepen our sense of what the end, the telos of Jesus' ministry is — and that's what all of these apocalyptic texts we read in Advent are meant to instill in us — we find the need and the power for a new beginning.
This is the day. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus?
Are you ready? Let's begin.
Thanks be to God!
December 1, 2005 in 2 Peter, Advent, Conversion, Eschatology, Forgiveness, Isaiah, Justice, Mark, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Prophets, Repentance, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
First Sunday of Advent, Year B
This reflection also appears in The Witness, a magazine that's been an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and also happens to be my new employer. Please do visit there regularly; reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary readings appear there every week, along with compelling news and commentary from around the world.
Sometimes I wish that Mark 13 came, like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with a cover bearing the large-type friendly admonition, “DON'T PANIC.”
Yes, I know it can be a pretty scary chapter — especially the parts our lectionary leaves out. It starts with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It continues with images of war, earthquake, and famine, of family members betraying one another, of great suffering. But don't forget that in verses 30-31, Mark says very clearly and emphatically that these things are NOT predictions of doom in the distant future: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, that even gets backed up with an oath in very strong terms indeed: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The truly frightening stuff described in Mark 13 is, for Mark's readers, not a prediction to frighten future generations, but words of comfort for a generation that used this vivid language, the language of nightmares mixed with literal retellings of the kinds of betrayal and threats facing community members, to describe what they'd already seen brothers and sisters in Christ going through. Jesus went around calling women and slaves and sons alike to follow him, and leaving out any hint that they need to get someone else's permission to do so. His followers after his resurrection called him “lord” or “master,” suggesting that others who wanted to claim that title need not apply. That's not the kind of thing you can say — let alone a way of life you can live — without getting in trouble, and so Christians were dragged before local authorities, sometimes by members of their own family. Furthermore, war was on the horizon, if not already happening — the Jewish Revolt of 66 - 70 A.D., the war that would bring the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, an abomination causing desolation to match Antiochus Epiphanies' desecration of the Holy of Holies in the Maccabean Revolt a century and a half earlier.
That's the bad news, and that's the stuff that the community didn't particularly need to be told. They knew it already. Under those circumstances, a person who just danced up and said some first-century Greek equivalent of “don't worry — be happy” would be more likely to get a sock in the jaw than to succeed in encouraging listeners. When people are going through that kind of pain, you've got to acknowledge that pain, that grief, the seriousness of the obstacles before saying, and not seeming flip:
Yes, there is serious pain in the world, in your community. There are wars and rumors of wars. There's strife within families, and even within the family of faith, those called to be one in Christ. And God's name is profaned, used as a political prop to assert power over the powerless — an abomination to those for whom God's name is the name of one who feeds the hungry, lifts up the lowly, frees the prisoner. The first readers of the Gospel According to Mark knew that as well or better than we do. So when you see these things happening, don't think it's a sign that the kingdom of God Jesus promised is late in coming or has been derailed.
A community that saw Nero's power come and go has another word for us. Heaven and earth will pass away before Jesus' words will pass away. We don't know the day or hour, but we know that God is faithful, and Jesus' resurrection from the dead is a sign to us as it was to Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Mark's community, and our own wounded communities: Jesus is coming, and God's kingdom, inaugurated with Jesus' ministry, is being revealed, finding fulfillment.
Yes, I know that there are people who want to say that the Day of the Lord should inspire terror, but we know something that they don't seem to realize: the person we call Lord is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, who taught and healed, who welcomed the outcast and broke bread with anyone willing to eat with him. It's Jesus, whose way of life and manner of death underscored what his words taught: love your enemies. When we know Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, we know that God is love, and love drives out fear.
So don't panic. Panic, like sleep, keeps a person from watching and listening, from the ability to respond to another person, and with that, the ability to love. Don't panic when someone tells you about suffering in the present or suffering to come: keep watch, and respond with love. Don't nod off when the comforts of life in one of the richest nations of the world try to lull you into complacency: keep watch, and respond with love. There will be earthquakes and wars and famines, as well as more personal catastrophes of betrayal, but there is nothing that can derail this train, so people, get ready:
Jesus is here, and Jesus is coming.
Thanks be to God!