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 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