Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent 3C

Although we missed Part One of John the Baptist, today we’ll jump to Part Two. And it isn't a pretty picture.

If all we knew about John the Baptist was that he asked us to prepare the way for the Messiah's arrival, then that would be something we could easily handle. In fact, we're doing just that. We've decorated the sanctuary, put up the tree. We’re rehearsing the Christmas pageant. We're planning our Christmas celebrations. We're buying the gifts and organizing the Christmas meal. We've decided what charity we'll support over the holidays, and maybe we've decided to volunteer a little extra time helping the less fortunate.

What else need there be to do?

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the Baptist bellows at us last week, “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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

So far, so good. A familiar passage to most of us. Some of us even sing along to Handel's Messiah version as we hear this being read.

But flip over the page and sunny, helpful, and hopeful John the Baptist turns into someone you'd cross the street to avoid.

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.'”

Yikes. Sounds like someone needs a weekend in Vegas. Or at least a basket of bran muffins.

But he does have a point. Taking our faith for granted probably doesn't exactly warm the heart of the Almighty. John felt the urgency of the coming Messiah and wanted to make darn sure that folks were ready. He wanted them to remember who their God was.

It's not as if they were complacent or clueless. Which makes John's stinging indictment all the more painful. They were poor, struggling, nobodies just trying to get through life the best way they knew how. They had lots of pain and very little joy. They had hope. But little expectation that their lives were going to improve. Not anytime soon, anyway.

At least not with the Romans around. The Romans were the problem. Trigger happy and greedy. They took all they could from these Jewish peasants and discarded the rest.

So, it's no wonder that those who came to John to be baptized had questions about his teaching.

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” If the Messiah's coming the day after tomorrow, then what's our job. How can we prepare?

John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” John said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” John said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Pretty basic stuff, when you think about it. Give out of your surplus. Don't cheat others. Any questions?

It's a far cry from what Jesus demanded of his followers. John just asked us to behave the way any decent human being would behave towards others. John's preaching seems like common-sense and basic human decency, when placed beside Jesus' demands.

But maybe that was the point. Maybe people were forgetting their basic humanity and his volatile language was meant to set a fire underneath them; to help them see beyond their own needs and worlds and into the lives of others. Maybe he was offering a different vision of what life could be.

Instead of flailing around trying to get what they can for themselves, John was calling them into deeper community, reminding them that their baptismal obligations had more to do with how they treat each other than how much they prayed.

He reminded them that their status as God's children was more about how they look out for each other than how they worship.

He seemed to be saying that the Messiah was more interested in justice and fairness than whether or not they regularly went to church.

He said he was baptizing them for repentance. Often we think of repentance as turning from sin and moving toward God. But John meant something more than that. He was recruiting people for a movement, a movement of people whose allegiances weren't with the powers of the world who sought to dominate others, and devour the riches of the world.

John was recruiting people into a movement where people's love and concern for fellow human beings was placed at the core of who they were. A movement where God’s vision of justice and peace stood central in peoples’ lives. A movement motivated by a life of praise in service to God and the world.

However, I think John’s urgency masked a deeper understanding of who Jesus was. Yes, he was preparing the way for Jesus - God’s chosen one, who was going to clean up the world, set things right.

But Jesus wasn’t the one who insulted hurting people, threatening them with eternal destruction. That wasn’t his focus. Jesus’ mission was to save us, not to condemn us. I think John was telling us only half the story. Because in the rest of story Jesus becomes our repentance. The cross IS our repentance. Jesus’ died our death so we can rise again with him. Jesus knew that repentance isn’t something we can do. Repentance is something God gives us.

If we could repent, if we could turn from sin and move toward God under the strength of our own wills, then there would have been no need for Jesus. The Word became flesh because our words were not enough. Just like our faith is not our own, but a gift, so is our repentance.

Or maybe John was getting ahead of himself. He saw the world the way God did; where people loved each other the way they loved themselves. Where the lion laid down with the lamb.Where swords were beaten into plowshares. Where tears were wiped dry and death had been destroyed.

And he was recruiting people into that new world.

Still, today, you are being recruited into that world. In fact, you already been enlisted. In the waters of holy baptism when you were joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has conscripted you into service for God’s kingdom.

And God has equipped you for that which you have been commissioned: hearts that love, hands that heal, minds that think, ears that hear, and voices that pray. God has placed you were you are.

May the Spirit lead us to live lives worthy of his coming. Amen.


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