Saturday, December 14, 2013

Are You The One?

Thanks go out to the work of Arland J. Hultgren for his thoughts on the Gospel reading.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the Word of the Lord.

A lot has happened to John the Baptist since we met him in last week's Gospel reading. He's gone from a wild-eyed prophet in camel's hair, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and preaching repentance to an imprisoned man facing death and wrestling with very real doubts: after all of this, has he hitched his horse to the wrong wagon after all? Is Jesus really the Messiah he had been proclaiming?

John's troubles began when Herod Antipas, who was Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, divorced his wife, then somehow arranged or forced his brother Philip to divorce his wife, Herodias, and married her. Confusing, I agree, and not only against the Jewish Law but (since Herodias was also his cousin) creepy.

It was hard to find a person in all of Judea, much less the region of Galilee, who didn't find the whole affair abhorrent, but because the Herods were a bloodthirsty lot who could pretty much do as they pleased as long as they kept Caesar happy, not very many people had the guts to speak out against it.

John the Baptist was, as you might imagine, one of the few exceptions.

Now, I imagine that it is one thing to have the odd priest or Pharisee criticize the tetrarch, but people were listening to John the Baptist, and the more John talked the angrier people got at Herod Antipas. So to shut John up, Herod had him arrested and imprisoned.

So this gives us a little background, yes, but I don't think it fully explains what has happened to John, because he had to have known this was coming. John couldn't have expected, in that day and age, to preach against the hypocrisy of the Temple elite and the most feared and respected theologians (meaning the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and condemn the private affairs of a despotic ruler, without consequence.

These are the choices and actions of someone who knows what is right and true and who knows that standing for righteousness is worth the danger. These are the actions of one who is confident in his calling, committed to laying the groundwork for the coming Kingdom of God.

So why the doubts? Why ask Jesus, who John himself had baptized, who John himself had proclaimed the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” if he was, in fact, the Messiah?

It wouldn't be a stretch to blame his doubt on the fact that he was imprisoned. All that time alone, left to his own thoughts, time to reflect and question and worry and second-guess... but I would suggest that the issue goes deeper than that.

Firstly, being imprisoned by Herod wouldn't have been like spending the night in a drunk tank, or in any fashion like being incarcerated in our modern penal system. Upon his arrest, John would have been taken to Herod's palace, and through a passage beneath the building to a dark, wet, cold, vermin infested cell. We can expect that he was beaten, malnourished, and miserable. The only things that may have kept him from starving to death or dying of exposure would have been visits from his disciples and the interest of Herod Antipas, who we read elsewhere enjoyed late-night talks with the imprisoned prophet.

Add to that John's own expectations of Messiah. Remember how he had preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “ who is more powerful than I is coming after me... he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Fire and winnowing and clearing... for John, the Messiah would come bringing righteousness, exacting judgment, finally and decisively. And it wasn't much of a journey from that belief to the realization that John needed some justice exacted on his behalf, and soon. If Messiah was going to wipe out evil, why wasn't it happening? Why was John shivering in this rat-and-sewage-infested hole day after day after horrible day?

Jesus doesn't fit John's expectations of Messiah, nor does he fit in to Jewish Messianism in general. I can't help feeling that, as understandable – and, I daresay, as important – as this question may be, it must have been a painful one for John to have asked.

We know that John and Jesus were cousins – Mary was Martha's niece, and the two women were obviously very close and definitely knew who Jesus was. Literally from “day one.” It is conjecture, but not inconceivable, to see John and Jesus growing up together, or at the very least seeing one another regularly at Jewish festivals or family gatherings. If John leapt in Martha's womb when Mary came near, how would he have felt each time he was with his cousin Jesus? Think of it – he grew up knowing who Jesus was, certain of it, and knowing what his own purpose in life was to be!

And now... what if he was wrong? What if the universe had played an awful trick on him? What if all of this was for nothing?

Scholars point out that Jesus' answer was kinda vague, indirect, that it wasn't really a yes or no response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And yes, it's true that Jesus made it a habit, at least in what are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), to never, ever proclaim himself, but to proclaim the Kingdom.

Yet, for all of this, I would argue that Jesus' response was direct, and was a resounding yes! Messiah had come! The Kingdom of God was indeed at hand! Justice and righteousness were being shed abroad... just not in the way John – or many other people, for that matter – were expecting.

After all, what is righteousness? Is it merely a state of being? Or is it a verb, something that is done?

What is justice? Is justice simply to punish wrongdoers? Or is it something more holistic?

Punishing evil may be satisfying... but it does nothing to relieve the suffering of the hungry. And all the efforts we may make to be righteous do nothing for the downtrodden.

With his simple response, Jesus is directing John's attention to the oracles of the prophet Isaiah, the promises of Messiah who comes with healing, with mercy, with healing, with hope.

Hear the Word of God from the Book of Isaiah:

First, Isaiah 29:18-19

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”

Isaiah 35:5-6

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert...”

And finally, Isaiah 61:1

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners...”

So even though John and much of Jewish literature and many portions of the Old Testament expected Messiah to be a powerful ruler, one who would usher in – by force – a new era of peace. John was looking for the God with the finger on the “smite” button, for regime change, for an earthly – if holy – Kingdom in the here and now.

God has a longer view than that. What's more, God is for us.

What that means is that God's love, God's mercy... these come first.

Jesus came to usher in the blessings of the messianic age – the healing, the restoration of life, the cleansing of the impure, the mercy, the love, the good news spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, among others.

Jesus loved, healed, cleansed, and forgave lavishly, extravagantly, ebulliently – and not just the Jewish people, but Romans and slaves and pagans and Samaritans. He spent time not simply with the religious elite – Pharisees and Sadducees – but with tax collectors and sinners. In proclaiming the now-and-coming Kingdom of God, he drew the circle of mercy and love and forgiveness wide, and sealed that forgiveness in his blood.

In Jesus Christ, God is for us.

This is our legacy, Resurrection People. We live in the promise of hope and healing and new life in the risen Christ, whose advent we both celebrate and look forward to. We live in the calling to be hope and healing, to be the vehicles which bring the good news of new life in Christ to all people: the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized... even our neighbors and our family and our friends. People across the planet and people across the street need to know that God loves them.

Yes, there is indeed plenty in Scripture which tells of a time when evil will be purged, when this present sinful earth will cease and a new heaven and a new earth will be established in righteousness. But until that final Advent, we Resurrection People continue the work of our risen Lord – to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, and always to draw the circle wide, and to be just as extravagant, lavish, and ebullient with the love and mercy and forgiveness of God... as God has been with us.

God is for us.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Prepare the Way of the Lord...

I am indebted to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton and the Rev Dr. John Fairless for their insights into the Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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 ax 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.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have resigned myself to the knowledge that there are some things I just will never understand. Calculus, how to play songs on the guitar that are in, say, C sharp or B flat... and why, smack-dab in the middle of Advent, in amongst all the pretty lights and the carols and the nativity scenes and the cooking and the shopping and all of the buildup to the day we, in our own way, celebrate the birth of Christ, we get slapped in the face with John the Baptist.

It seems that John just showed up one day, out in the middle of nowhere, yelling at the top of his lungs at no one in particular: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

Maybe a group of shepherds, watering their flock in the meager, muddy water of the Jordan, heard him first and went to investigate. It's not much of a stretch to think that they would be a little freaked out by what they saw: a man wearing a garment of camel's hair, tied at the waist with a leather strap. I imagine his hair and beard were unkempt, and that he had a wild-eyed stare, but that is my imagination talking.

But maybe, after gawking and maybe stifling some giggles, these shepherds would listen to what he was shouting, and remember some of the readings they'd heard over the years in synagogue – The ending of the book of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes...”

This was a nation and a people, after all, who were hungry for a Messiah. What's more, this was a nation and a people whose cultural identity was wrapped up in the writings of prophets... yet there hadn't been a prophet in Judea in hundreds of years. A man wearing animal skins, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and shouting at the clouds certainly could be a prophet...

In any case, word got around, and people began showing up, and kept showing up, bringing friends and family, spreading the word. Because John was doing something new, something unheard of: baptism.

No, baptism itself wasn't a new thing. One of the requirements for those wanting to join the Jewish faith – male and female – was baptism. There was also, in that day, a group called the Essenes, who, rejecting Temple worship in favor of a more personalized and rigorous faith journey, separated themselves from the rest of the Jewish culture, and practiced daily ritual baptisms.

But what John was preaching wasn't to proselytize Gentiles, nor was it introducing a regimen of daily cleansings. John was preaching repentance.

That's an interesting word in a lot of ways. First off, in the original Greek, the word for “repentance,” metanoia, isn't all that remarkable a word. It didn't have particularly religious connotations. It was simply the word they used for turning around.

The Reverent Dr. Delmer Chilton – I love his name – tells the story of a pastor friend of his who met God on the interstate. He was driving north on I-85 when a truck crested the hill ahead of them, going South. Emblazoned above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were the letters G-O-D.

As the truck drew closer, he could read the side of the trailer, “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery,” so he understood what G-O-D stood for in that case – but a question came to his mind... “If God is going South, what am I doing going North?”
In the New Testament, metanoia, repentance, means more than merely changing one's mind. There is more to repentance than feeling bad and telling God we're sorry. Confession is vital, yes, but it isn't the full picture. If we say we are sorry, but we do nothing to change, all we've done is indulge in a feeling. When we are called upon to repent, we are called upon to effect a complete change – a reorientation of the personality!

And that is what John is talking about when he comes down so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees – both, in their ways, a religious elite, both groups quite comfortable that they were God's special snowflakes. A dip in the Jordan would make them part of the crowd, gain them some acceptance in the community, show everyone around how utterly serious they were about pleasing God, and whenever this Messiah person showed up, they would be assured a place in the re-established Kingdom of David.

But it wasn't about the water. There is nothing magical or specifically holy about the water of the Jordan. Dunk or sprinkle or pour, adult or child or infant, use the water of the Jordan or the water of the Black Warrior or the water of Lake Purdy or crack open a bottle of the off-brand purified water you buy at Wal-Mart, the point of it all is changing the things which separate us from God – the things that keep us heading North when God is headed South.

When John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees – and to us – to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” the idea is not to do stuff that makes us qualified to repent. We don't run around doing good stuff hoping that God will accept our apology. Rather, to bear fruit worthy of repentance is quite simply to live like we have repented – to show by our actions that we are a changed people.

In this season of Advent, when we remember both the birth of our Savior and anticipate his return, we are called upon to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus Christ. And if not, if we are going north when God is going South, now is the time to move in a new and better direction, to jump off the next exit, turn around, and go God's direction.

God is traveling on the side of peace and justice and the poor. God travels the paths of mercy, grace, love and hope. God moves toward lifting the downtrodden, freeing the oppressed, and including the marginalized.

It is not for us to debate whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side. It is for us to get on that side.

The Good News of the Gospel is that no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God; and turning to go in a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of the spirit.

Alleluia, amen.