Advent 3A, 2013
Matthew 11: 2-11
A Liturgy is also available
FINDING HOPE WHEN ALL AROUND US, THINGS ARE CRUMBLING
Are we really getting into serious Advent-come-Christmas stuff now?
Well, John the 'dipper' or the Baptiser is featured yet again.
And despite our general Advent and Christmas festivity expectations,
today’s theme seems to be about: Where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling?
Mmm. On the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘christmas’ does it?
So let me see if we can explore this just a little this morning.
Who was John the Baptiser?
Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s - very early 30s.
He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so,
living in the desert wilderness.
He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause.
Some might say ‘obsessed’.
Others have even hinted ‘jealous’.
Of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus.
Storytellers and poets on the other hand,
give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture.
Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus:
“John wore a garment made of camel-hair
with a leather belt round his waist,
and his food was locusts with wild honey.”
Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was:
“...a map of a man... Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175).
Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings - the latter by Pro Hart -
has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say:
“That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God...
“A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride,
‘God, it’s good to be a father!
Yes! It’s great to have a son!’ (Hart & Habel 1990:18).
Meanwhile, Rabbi David Blumenthal, in an article published in Cross Currents (eZine edition) pointed out:
"Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance. There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God. Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance. Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice" (David Blumenthal, 2010).
There is every likelihood the early christian communities
made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus,
(including the stories about John!), their efforts seemed to be designed
to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important.
From all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed
that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God
was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’
- the so-called insider.
While similar, his preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style,
that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God
was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’
- the so-called outsider.
Two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation.
So we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew
has John asking the question of Jesus:
Who the heck are you - really?
Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community),
Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.
With things constantly getting more difficult
between the various developing Jewish communities,
not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them,
it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm.
One way Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation
was to look back to some of their earlier experiences
to see if they could name something from there.
And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision...
So remembering their past,
they hoped it would open a way ahead.
Once again some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful:
“Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation. They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments... They formulate their hope in new ways” (P&F Web site, 2007).
But then these telling and hopeful words:
“From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice... people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood... the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).
And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate
‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’,
one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.
And this is what I reckon, the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about!
It is good to light Advent candles each year.
It is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols.
But there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent.
A restlessness that says: Be aware! Be alert!
And a longing for the four traditional themes of Advent:
hope, peace, joy, and love, to become concrete – real - in our lives.
A restlessness is captured in a bloke called John the Baptiser, or ‘dipper’.
He comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people
to take a long, hard look at themselves.
And the people - read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society -
hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’.
For their political situation was such they needed a word of hope.
Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers.
Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy,
meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.
Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.
A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.
Life could be pretty bleak. Often without hope.
Not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it?
But that’s the political context of the first Christmas story.
And while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams,
both were seeking to transform their world,
and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.
In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible,
the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world?
Jesus is said to reply:
There is no sin. It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.
As one of my colleagues in ministry in the USA said of this text some years ago:
You don’t often hear in church: ‘there is no sin’.
Let’s overhear a bit more from him…
“Most of us familiar with [traditional] church have heard a lot about sin. I think that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness. Sin is a fogging over. Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, Who at the time was at First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007).
It is good to light Advent candles and sing Advent songs
and Christmas carols each year.
But there is also a restlessness and a longing about Advent.
A restlessness that says: Be aware! Be alert! Be open!
With these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent
- hope, peace, joy, and love -
can become concrete, can become real, in our lives.
May it continue to be so with us as we journey through this Advent season.
Hart, P. & N. Habel. 1990. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House.
Shea, J. 1993. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing.