Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Having a teenager is like taking a master class in sarcasm.  I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to discover the first teen who said who "oh yeah, that's just great" when, in fact, they meant the opposite.  Did they need to explain?  Did they persist in such sarcasm until other teenagers picked it up?  And how is sarcasm passed on?  I wondered the same thing in my previous career as a daycare cook.  Who was the first kid to say "you're not the boss of me"?  Did they know they had altered daycare history, and maybe the history of parenting?

And who first introduced the idea that sarcasm could be dripping?  As metaphors go, 'dripping with sarcasm' is a good one, conveying what we already know about sarcasm: handled right, say by someone between 12 and 14, you truly feel like you're covered in it.

I also wondered about people learning English for the first time, having to struggle with someone saying 'that's just great' when the circumstances suggest just the opposite.  Then it occurred to me that sarcasm must be universal, just as the experience of parenting young teens is universal.  I assume you drip sarcasm in any language, and my proof is John the Baptist.

To the crowds who followed him out to the desert he said, "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (3.7).  The meaning changes when you say it in 14 language, doesn't it?  But the meaning is clear: no one warned them, and if there was any doubt in their minds about the wrath to come, our sarcastic friend John the Baptism made sure they took it seriously.

In many ways, John the Baptism proves the adage 'you are what you wish for.'  He was ready for the coming judgment—he yearned for it—and it somehow made him a very popular fellow.  More on that in a minute.  First, his other words, this time less sarcastic:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

As a convinced 'end of days' guy, John was convinced that things were about as bad as they could get.  I'm sure if we could get a few minutes of his time, he might give us the usual list of 'couldn't be worse' topics like disrespectful children, a world gone mad, and the rising cost of honey (and locusts too).  He would tell us that the downward spiral had to end soon, and when it did we ought to get ready.

Now, without belabouring the theme of the end of the world, I'm certain John would be equally at home in our century as his own.  If you have ever caught yourself saying 'back in my day' then you and John are simpatico.  We live in a time of some uncertainty, and massive change, so the allure of BIMD is pretty strong.

And this is precisely why he was such a popular fellow.  He was able to speak to the longing that said everything used to be better and the possibility that everything might suddenly come to an end.  And this is not a form of resignation or defeat, since most people who are looking forward to the final judgment assume they will make out just fine.

The other gift we receive from the 12 to 14 crowd is the constant and unyielding search for hypocrites. Of course, playing ‘spot the hypocrite’ can be a lifelong exercise, but the real search begins in those tender years when you first grasp the disconnect between what people say and what people do.

And once again, John the Baptist leads the way in exposing the hypocrites that have followed him into the desert:

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

It’s an interesting argument, saying ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ one that Jesus takes up in John and one that Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans. In a nutshell, the argument is that since the people believed that they inherited the promises God made to Abraham, that was pretty much all they had to do to be considered faithful. In other words, faithfulness and personal behavior were not really linked so long as your lineage was clear and you continued to name Abraham as your spiritual father.

Clearly John the Baptist was not impressed with this line of thinking, a line of thinking common enough that it was actively discussed in three places within the New Testament. There is a caution here, of course, that this may be a case of early Christian anti-Judaism—creating a biblical theme to cast Jews in a particularly bad light. But in the case of Luke, and the words spoken by John the Baptist, I think we can be assured that this is little more than an attempt to name the hypocrisy that surrounded him. Behaving badly and then naming Abraham’s covenant as proof of your goodness makes you, well, a hypocrite. The same goes for hiding behind Jesus or The Prophet, or any other religious founder while keeping on with whatever behaviour that disappoints the God of all religions.

One of my favourite stories related to this happened in the classroom while I was studying in Chicago. With 30 pastors in the room, we would have lengthy, free-wheeling discussions on a variety of topics, with more than a little Bush-bashing which would always make the lone Republican pastor in the room unhappy. The six of us from north of the border would taunt them with our free healthcare, or quiz them on their broken political system, or just sit back and watch as ‘only-in-America’ conversations would unfold.

A day I remember vividly, and one that had me playing ‘spot the hypocrite,’ was watching these left-leaning pastors who loved ending every sentence with ‘it’s a justice issue’ become very silence when the topic of reparation for slavery came up. Suddenly the classroom became divided between white pastors and African-American pastors, while the Canadian pastors felt uncomfortable or maybe a little smug that we don’t have such a complex historical question to solve.

Or do we? A quick thinking American pastor might point to the Canadians and say ‘yes, but what are you doing about your First Nations,’ and then it would our turn to get defensive. The Idle No More protests may be just the beginning of a long series of actions to highlight the troubled relationship between our government and First Nations. And each of us may need to ponder the mixed emotions we feel, both in terms of tactics but also in terms of the shared legacy of failing to live up to the promises made to First Nations.

Maybe the way forward might be to take a page out of the ‘Abraham is our Father’ idea and flip it on its head to say ‘the earth is our mother.’ She is literally the common ground that we need to stand on to appreciate the source of the protests: The waters, the rivers and lakes that suffer and die in the production of petrochemicals (as just one example) is really a great debt we all live with, aboriginals and non-aboriginals, and it should draw us together as one.

It seems all too ironic that the heart of our story today is a river, a river that provides the cleansing water of baptism, the water that purifies and sets the stage for a ministry of baptism and repentance. Jesus submits to baptism, not to remove sin, but to stand in a common place with us as his journey begins. He receives the title ‘beloved,’ a title that Jesus extends to each of us who choose to stand with him the the purifying waters of the River Jordan.

We would do well to safeguard the purifying waters that surround us, not just as a religious symbol, but as a gift to future generations who will only understand the action of baptism if water remains pure and clear and fit for human consumption.

John the Baptist is calling to us once more, always the unhappy figure, seeing human potential but struck by the ways we continue to fail. Thank goodness he is there to remind us, both in Advent and as the ministry of Jesus begins, that we can gather by the river, and be purified once more. Amen.


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