Sunday, December 04, 2016

"Called to Point the Way"

Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

On this the second Sunday of Advent, we continue with the themes of the season – expectation and preparation. Today, we are introduced to John the Baptist, who will guide us in a direction that the prophets of old were unable to. To be sure, John the Baptist is an Interesting, colorful character wearing camel hair clothing, eating locusts and wild honey, shouting “Repent!” to anyone who comes near. The kind of character most of us would probably cross to the other side of the street to avoid encountering. Yet, despite his eccentricities, John the Baptist is an important model for us – for where we are going and for who we are called to be. Not that we are called to wear such outlandish (and uncomfortable) clothing or to take up some strange paleo diet or to stand on the street corner and preach radical messages to passers-by.

John the Baptist holds a unique place in salvation history. He stands on the cusp of history. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets – carrying the message of Isaiah to a new generation, enlivening prophecies of a coming messiah, preaching a message of repentance in preparation for the messiah’s coming. In fact, in his message he fits the image of one who is himself prophesied by Isaiah – “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3.3).

He offers the vision of the coming kingdom of heaven, which is summarized in our reading from Isaiah. The messiah will be a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a branch growing out of his root. Jesse was the father of King David. So this anticipated messiah will be from the lineage of David, and in fact, will be a great king like David was. Only better. This evokes the imagery of the tree of life, a symbol for the monarch in ancient Near Eastern cultures. One who will sustain and nurture the people. More than a human messiah, the one who is to come will have divine provenance. “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Is 11.2).  The Spirit will direct and empower the changes this awaited messiah will usher in. A reality characterized by peace, the end to suffering, justice that is righteous, and mercy that is abundant.

And at the same time, John the Baptist is the first of the New Testament prophets. As he takes up the message of the Old Testament prophets, crying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he reframes it for a new era – “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” (Mt 3.11). John the Baptist points directly to Jesus as the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. In so doing, John the Baptist has one foot in the Old Testament and one foot in the New Testament. He personifies the transition from Old to New Testament.

The primary characteristic of John the Baptist – aside from his funky attire, his strange eating habits, or his ritual practices of dunking people in water as a sign of their repentance – is as one who points the way. He specifically points the way to Jesus as the awaited Messiah. In so doing, he begins to make the connection between the two comings of Jesus. The man Jesus, who was, like all humans, born into the world – his birth being his first coming, although, as we find out later, is not his last. And then as the Christ, the Messiah, who will come again at the end of the ages, in what we refer to as the Second Coming, to bring the promise of the kingdom of heaven to fulfillment.

The messiah is indeed coming to fulfill all of God’s plans, as promised in Isaiah, to bring justice, peace, and prosperity. And to challenge all expectations about himself. That he will be more than a man with a divine mission. That he is the integration of human and divine. He is the very Son of God. He is God in the flesh. In so doing, he will break all expectations about what the Messiah will be.

Just as there are expectations of what the Messiah will be like, the Messiah has expectations of us – there are expectations of how we respond when faced with the Messiah. The preaching of John the Baptist calls us to prepare for his coming – in ways that are quite different from our usual preparations for Christmas. How we do that is very clear, in John’s mind. “Repent!”

Now, when we think of this injunction, we immediately think of sin. And certainly “repent” carries the meaning of turning from our sins – from that which separates us from God. From that which prevents us from seeing the Messiah coming over the horizon. From that which prevents us from welcoming Christ into our midst. But there is more to it than just saying we are sorry for our sins. The Greek word translated as “repent” is metanoia, which carries a deeper, richer meaning. Metanoia literally means “to turn around.” It is defined as a spiritual conversion, as a fundamental change of heart and mind. And a change in one’s way of life.

When John the Baptist calls us to repent, he is really calling us to make a new beginning. We are invited into a total reversal of life’s values. To completely change our lives so that we they are in accord with the fundamentals of the kingdom of heaven, with the new reality this Messiah is bringing. A life that is characterized by peace, justice, and mercy. A life that exemplifies these in word and action. It is nothing short of new life.

This image of new life is reinforced by John baptizing in the River Jordan. The same river that the Israelites crossed to enter into the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. The river that they crossed to begin their new life as God’s Chosen People. It’s no accident that John chose the River Jordan for the place to baptize. For it is through baptism that we are brought home to God’s promises. It is through baptism that we are given new life as God’s beloved children.

The significance of what John the Baptist is doing is exemplified by the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to see what this crazy man is up to. They were ones who followed the letter of the law – although they did not always follow the intent of the law. They were hung up on their heritage. “We have Abraham as our ancestor” (Mt 3.9). They thought they had an “in” because of being children of Abraham, who himself was rendered as righteous before God. So why did they come to be baptized? Perhaps it was for show. To try to win the hearts of the common folk. But they were just going through the motions. They were the ones who were in need of authentic conversion. They were the ones who needed metanoia, who needed new life. They come to be cleansed, but do not want to do the hard work of changing their lives. Hence, John’s statement to them, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Mt 3.8).  Recognition that their actions need to reflect the change they say they want. They need to live into the new life they profess to want.

This speaks to the seriousness of what we profess to do in our own worship, in our own churches. As we seek to change our lives. As we seek to have them conform to the ways of the long-awaited Messiah. As we seek to live into the kingdom of heaven that he ushers in on our behalf. For what we do here is indeed serious. This isn't just something we do to kill an hour or so oh Sunday morning. It is deadly serious! Because we are not talking about saying a few prayers and singing a few hymns. We are talking about transforming our very lives.

Author Annie Dillard casts an appropriate, albeit disturbing, image of the church as a place where our lives are transformed. She writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk)

In this place, we come to the waters of baptism, seeking new life. In this place, we heed the words of John the Baptist to “Repent!” To turn our lives around to something new, only made possible through the life and death of Jesus Christ. To let the waking God draw us into new life. From this place, we are sent in the spirit of John the Baptist to proclaim that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has indeed come near. And that we ourselves are living proof!

In this season of Advent, we await the birth of a baby in a manger. We await the Second Coming of our Lord, bringing his kingdom to fulfillment. John the Baptist connects these two events in our consciousness by pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. John the Baptist issues an earnest call that we take this seriously and change our lives accordingly. And like him, we are called to go out and point the way to Jesus Christ – the one who has come, who is to come, who is here now. Ready to transform our lives, if we let him.

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