Saturday, December 05, 2015

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”[a]

Don’t judge me for what I eat. Locusts are not the locusts you think, not the kind that fly and torment Egyptians. Locusts are from the locust tree, they have pods, and when you cook them in honey, it’s like something from the Food Network.

Don’t judge me for what I wear. If camel’s hair appeared on some runway in Milan, you’d all be wearing camel’s hair next year. That mink coat in the back of your closet, how is that any different from my camel’s hair by Oscar de la Renta?

Don’t judge me for the company I keep: baristas, dog-walkers, bloggers, craft-brewers, freelancers, organic grocers, Genius Bar workers, and curious clergy. They find me, I don’t find them. I presume they ask Siri where I am.

Don’t judge me for my home. While ‘river’ might be overstating things, wait until it rains in Lebanon. Then my beloved Jordan is fast enough that needy people are white-water rafting to my place.

Don’t judge me for my birth. Somehow my famous cousin gets a entire shopping season dedicated to him. He got abiding shepherds, angel choruses, random livestock, gold, frankincense, myrrh, and his own private star! I got a poem, and I think some of it was lifted from Isaiah.

Don’t judge me for the message I share. In fact, the message is judging you! A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins! Everyone needs that—especially the people who think they don’t. Don’t you love the irony? I’m a good person (they say) and I have nothing to confess (they claim) and I try to do my best (until no one is looking) and I don’t know what led me here (the Maker of All, obviously).

Don’t judge me for ranting. How else can I get my message across? We tried flooding, smoting, snaking, pillar of salting, and that curious way Ananias and Sapphira died in the fifth chapter of Acts just because they withheld their weekly offering. Having exhausted every other option, we’re trying baptism. It’s our last, best hope.

Don’t judge me because we’re using baptism. My people have been doing it forever—we call it ritual washing. You head to the mikvah, you immerse yourself in the water, and you are made clean. People do it when they convert, and people do it when they need some ‘routine maintenance.’ If you see your neighbour at the mikvah, it’s impolite to ask them the nature of their routine maintenance. Consult Leviticus for a list of possible reasons.

Don’t judge me because my baptism and Jesus’s baptism don’t exactly line up. Remember that poem my father mostly wrote?

And you, my child, (that’s me) will be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord
to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God.

I’m the opener, the warm-up band, the supporting act. I point the way to the Way and remind them—just before they meet him—that their sins will make it impossible to hear his message. I give them a little tough love—I admit it—but when I’m done they’re back on shore and finally ready to see God’s salvation.

Don’t judge me because Lang ended up with one of those readings that makes every lay reader break out into a cold sweat. “Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene.” Dear Luke wants to make sure you understand this story has a time and a place, filled with real-life rogues. A sample? Lysanias: treason and usurpation. Philip: vanity and incest. Herod Antipas: more usurpation, more incest and deicide (literally killing God, since he had ultimate responsibility for the crucifixion). These were bad people, and corruption at the top made the entire nation corrupt, and in deep need of renewal.

And this is the heart of John’s message. Sick people in a sick society being led by sick leaders who made God sick to death of what had become of God’s people. But then something happened: one-by-one, then in small groups, and finally en masse the people found their way to the river’s edge, to hear the message of ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ They dove in.

But just before we get to the happy-ending, we need to honour our friend John by remembering that his message of repentance has the same currency now as then. Let’s look at the territories listed by Luke, and check in the today’s rulers, to see how we have advanced from those rotten tetrarchs of antiquity.

Abilene, and areas to the north are intermittently controlled by ISIS, and therefore can be said to be suffering under the worst quasi-government in recent history, with well-known crimes including murder, genocide, and the reinstatement of slavery.

Areas once known as Iturea and Traconitis are largely controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suspected by the United Nations to have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and the wholesale destruction of a country.

And we can’t forget Judea, divided between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, one led by a rightwing government that has done nothing to stem the construction of settlements and the other—even before achieving independence—is considered one of the most corrupt governments on the planet.

And John would say ‘don’t stop there, preacher, bring it home!’ 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women, nearly 30% of children in this city living in poverty and an entire sector of the economy dedicated to cooking the planet. Can you see why John the Baptist was never invited over for dinner? Can you see why John the Baptist Sunday is the most curious element of our month-long journey to Bethlehem?

Or is it curious at all? John’s marching orders come from Isaiah, restated by Luke right there in the middle of John’s story:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’

This is not a cosmetic change, this is not renovation, but destruction and reconstruction—the gapping voids in meaning filled in and the mountains of excess made low. The crooked road of human failure forgiven, and the rough places in each of our lives made smooth through the birth of our Saviour.

In just a few short days, we will sing a beloved Christmas Carol, written by Isaac Watts, considered to be the father of English hymnody. It has all the phrases that we associate with the season: “repeat the sounding joy” and “let earth receive her king” and—of course—”Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” What you may not know is that Watts didn’t write it as a Christmas carol. Rather, he wrote it to welcome Christ’s return at the end of the age, when he will rule “the world with truth and grace,” and make the nations prove “the glories of his righteousness.”

So I think we can safely say it now belongs to Christmas, because we want it too, in the same way we want the destruction and reconstruction of the present age to be tied to the birth of Jesus. We want “all people to see God’s salvation” here and now, in this age, and understand the peace, joy, hope and love found in Christ Jesus. Amen.


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