Enter John the Baptist

12 12 2007

Texts: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12

At the Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY, we had an Honor Code: “A Midshipman will not lie, cheat or steal.” Doing any of these things was considered a violation of ethics on the highest order. The consequences were severe, for one committing an honor violation risked expulsion, suspension, or being held back a year regardless of one’s standing at the Academy. It is fallen human nature to twist the intentions of a simple code of ethics into something self-serving. To some, the unwritten Honor Code was “A Midshipman will not get caught lying, cheating or stealing.” This, sadly, is the way of the world. Even though we might mean no harm to each other, our selfish side struggles with the unselfish to define what we can get away with. To subscribe to a code such as “not getting caught” mean that we have no higher ethics than what is good for ourselves rather than what is good for the whole. This is one of the many reasons why are grateful for John the Baptist, a man who “tells it like it is.”

Every second and third Sunday of Advent features John the Baptist prominently. This strange looking man wandering around the desert calls for us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. He preaches a message of repentance and forgiveness. Why do people flock to this man? Perhaps they are weary and ready for a change. Perhaps they are happy to know there is some justice in the world after all. Perhaps they are rejoicing to hear ethics that are not summed up by the commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.” How horrible it would be if terrorists, child molesters, even our own inherent racism, sexism and homophobia would be answerable to no one. John the Baptist points us to a God who cares, who desires accountability of all of us for the havoc we may wreck on our planet, our society and ourselves.

John has been typically identified with Elijah from Old Testament prophecy. He was expected to return from heaven to herald the coming of the Messiah, but God sends his messenger in an unexpected form. John talks about the Kingdom of Heaven — God’s entrance into human history in a new and dramatic way. Many thought the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven was like the establishment of an earthly kingdom. This is a different sort of Kingdom. This Kingdom exists both in the present and in the future. It is already here but not fully realized. It manifests itself in space and time in the community of those who receive the proclamation of the Gospel. Being a part of this Kingdom is life changing. It should spur us to action socially, personally and institutionally. The coming of John and the proclamation of the Kingdom signals the beginning of the full restoration of and the blessing of God’s people.

So we have John wandering through the wilderness baptizing people who received his message of repentance and forgiveness. Now, baptism was nothing new in Judaism. It was required of adult converts and a ritual bath was required for a daily cleansing of sin. The different thing about John’s baptism is that it stuck and no future ritual cleansing was required for it symbolized a change of the heart. Tagging along the coattails of John were the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and Sadduccees, and the people for whom John saved his strongest message, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Why did John rebuke them so strongly? Maybe they flirted with the idea of change, or they wanted some of his message but not all … not too much, but just enough to know they can feel good about themselves again. Perhaps they felt secure in their position of power and strength and felt they were good enough to have earned God’s favour. After all, were they not children of Abraham? John attacks their arrogance for they try and presume a place of privilege when such places are only God’s to give. More importantly, they are rebuked for the desire cheap grace, a salvation that comes at little cost. As I’ve said in earlier reflections, “salvation is free, but it ain’t cheap.” John is not the herald of some feel-good self-help movement, but of a New Age … a New Order for Creation where the Kingdom of Heaven draws near in the coming of Christ.

We see something similar in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he speaks of the relationship between the strong and the weak. His sharpest words are reserved for the leadership, the strong, those in power. But in that rebuke we see Scripture speaking to us a word of hope, for he calls for both the strong and the weak to accept and embrace each other. One does not overcome the other, they are reconciled. After all, it should not be difficult to extend the hand of friendship to one who is loved by God. We are to welcome and receive one another as Christ has welcomed us into his Kingdom. This is a radical welcome that Christ extends to all. It is a welcome which is close to the heart of the Gospel and also its scandal. Paul calls us to be one in Christ. It is not a unity of thought, but a unity of perspective — the perspective of Christ: HIS values, HIS priorities. This is our Advent hope: we do not only proclaim the welcome received by Christ, but we can reach out to others with that welcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.

John’s message of faith, repentance and forgiveness is about a change of heart. It’s not just about right thought or right belief but right action, and the two are intertwined and are influenced by each other. It is the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and the new Messianic Age to welcome new people who are socially powerless and to cause unease to people who thought themselves secure. The Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom both present and not fully realized, encompasses not only fallen humanity, but all of Creation. In our own time we learn that our actions and policies affect everything (greenhouse gases, climate change, premptive strikes), but when we DO justice and live into the Kingdom we see harmony is maintained. Like the prophet Isaiah, we look forward to the day when the vision of a restored and reconciled creation is reality, a time when brutality is tamed and deadliness is overcome. The coming of Christ promises an age of a new innocence where trust, gentleness, and friendship are possible, and even a reality among old enemies.

Amen.

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