Good News? Ouch that hurts! Luke 3:7-18 Advent 2 C

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This has to be the most tongue in cheek ending to a scathing prophetic proclamation, “…with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”! John has just made it clear that God is not a nepotist, that he axes trees of tradition, and that he burns all that is not fruitful from his presence, and Luke suggests that is good news?

Surely this must be wry Middle-eastern wit?  Either that or Luke knows something that we don’t.

The secret to understanding that these purifying and pruning practices could be good news, the gospel, comes from moving their reference from outer collective religious practice to the internal and personal realm of divine development.

It was Richard Rohr who woke me up to understanding that one of Jesus’ greatest contributions to our understanding of God was that he moved our location for God’s presence from the outer to the inner.  From temple to heart, from observance to lifestyle.  And, Rohr concludes, when I am the temple where God resides then the only sacrifice required is myself.

So Jesus, says John the Baptiser, does not disrespect culture, tradition, lineage, or any social register that is so important in our outer lives. Jesus doesn’t disrespect them, he ignores them.  They are irrelevant.

Who of us has not smarted or winced at some moment of humiliation in our journey. Just when we had made it.  Right after the ordained us, or called us Reverend (what the heck does that title mean anyway?) Just after we became Senior Pastor, or Superintendent, or wait for it Bishop; along came Jesus and called us by our birth name.  He called us what our parents and siblings called us, and then he told us to leave it all behind and follow him.

That is the axing, winnowing and burning John is talking about.  It is the threshing of our pride and ego.  It is the burning of our BS. (Yes, you KNOW what that stands for and I meant to use it like that)

There is just no escape from the confrontation with pride and arrogance if we are to follow the King of Love.

That great Lebanese soul Kahlil Gibran got it spot on when he wrote in The Prophet.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Advent is not for the arrogant and powerful.  You and your ego, have to stoop low to enter the stall.

You’re a prophet? Have you lost your head?- Ordinary 15b

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I like to be liked. I suppose it’s the curse of my temperament and of my profession. Not many people like to be disliked. There is something masochistically deranged about people who like being in the bad books of others. Herod wasn’t one of them. After all Herod was a politician. I am not sure if biblical politicians had to shake hands and hug babies as they do today, but you can be sure they needed to be liked.

Herod wanted to be popular and so he kept in with the religious prophet John the Baptist because it is always a good thing to stay in step with the church. I overheard a member telling another the other day, “Always stay on good terms with your minister and your bank manager. Herod would have understood.

Herod also had to stay in step with his new wife Herodius. She had first been hsi brother’s wife and the circumstances that led to her becoming Herod’s wife are not clear, but John did not approve. So Herod had a conflict of interests. Keep the prophet happy or the wife happy?

Then there was step daughter also called Herodius, and we all know how difficult that could be.

Film makers over the years have portrayed Herod as a bit of a lech. Getting all steamed up by the dance of Herodius and rashly offering her anything in the kingdom, even half the kingdom himself. It is not clear what in the dance pleased him but Herod walked into a classic conflict trap. It was not longer a conflict of interests, it was now a conflict of values.

Herodius’ hatred for John the Baptist forcing Herod to choose between his religious appreciation of John and keeping the peace with his new wife.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  And it wasn’t 2012!

The mistake most preachers make here is to berate Herod as weak willed and gormless. I don’t think many of us would have done anything different from Herod. After all we are speaking about him countering his spouse for the sake of some disposable prophet.

Family values and all the Dr Phil shows would endorse Herod’s choice. He went with his wife and her needs. He was supportive and nurturing of the relationship and after all he was the king.  It was not as if this was the first person whose head he had chopped off!

No the villain here isn’t Herod, nor is it hate filled Herodius. The villain is expediency. For the beheading of John the Baptiser is the forerunner of the greater travesty that plays out in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus some months later.

What Herod did is what Caiphas did.
Here is John’s gospel: So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. It is most often expediency that wins.
It is no different in our day. Herod the King, Caiaphas the high priest, Presidents and Popes, Mayors and Ministers.

Who on earth would want to be prophetic and challenge evil?
You must have lost your head to be a prophet.

Jesus the untouchable deal breaker – Advent 3b

John 1:6-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out,”This was he of whom I said, ˜He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
=====
Deuteronomy 25: 5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.
=====
Ruth 4 : 5Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
9Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” 11Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses.
=====
Strange things, these sandals.
“In ancient times men generally went barefoot indoors but outside they protected their feet with a sandal usually made of a simple sole of untanned leather, tied on with straps or latchets (Genesis 14:23; Mark 1:7). A sandal was the cheapest thing one could imagine (Amos 2:6) ”only the shoe-strap was worth less (Genesis 14:23).” (http://www.bible-archaeology.info/clothes.htm)

From the above readings the most obvious interpretation of John the Baptizer saying, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” means that John sees himself as a far more lowly person than the one whose coming he is proclaiming.
It reminds me of a custom in India where a form of greeting usually of younger persons to elders, will be by touching the feet. This in turn places the greeter’s head at the level of the elder’s hands which then bless touch the bowed head and offer a blessing of long life upon the supplicant.

There is also a wonderful Indian tradition that has found its way into our Christian Hymnals, namely sweeping the dust off the Guru’s (Teacher’s/Rabbi’s) feet. The hymn goes like this:

One who is all unfit to count
As scholar in Thy school,
Thou of Thy love hast named a friend
O kindness wonderful!

So weak I am, O gracious Lord,
So all unworthy Thee,
That even the dust upon Thy feet
Outweighs me utterly.

An Indian website explains the Eastern Custom:
Touching the Guru’s feet, then, is an act of respect and reverence, but also of learning. We facilitate our own spiritual progress when we learn to be humble. Humility puts us in a place of learning. After all, when we accept a Guru, regardless of whether they are a diksha (initiatory) or shiksha (learning) Guru, we do so because we wish to emulate that Guru. By touching their feet, we demonstrate not only that we are ready to listen to them, but also that we are ready to transform and strengthen ourselves. (http://kamakhyamandir.org/culture-and-history/why-do-we-touch-a-gurus-feet/)

So it is clear that John’s reference to the sandals of Jesus is a reference to his own humility.

But to leave the metaphor there would be to miss another important dimension of John’s words.
The reference in Ruth above and the reference to the Deuteronomy passage regarding dynastic succession and deal making using sandals,has relevance for our understanding of the relationship of the herald John, to the master Jesus.

Before unpacking this let me remind us that John the Baptiser is a wonderful arche-type for the Christian Disciple. He is the one who builds up a successful ministry in the South Jordan, so much so, that people travel from Jerusalem and surrounding regions to come and hear him and to be baptised by him. This very successful operation is just as quickly dissolved by John at the appearance of Jesus. He even goes so far as to send some of his own disciples off to follow Jesus with those magnificent words that have found a resting place in the Eucharistic liturgy, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”.
Oh, how the church could have benefitted from more pliable egos like John’s ego in the history of Christendom!

So back to the sandals. I would like you to consider that by proclaiming that he was not worthy to touch the sandals of Jesus, (not even the lowly thongs that tied the sandals) John was acknowledging that he wasn’t in a position to make deals and contracts with the coming one that he was preparing the way for.
No genealogical appeal from John who was a relative, and thus no genealogical claim from anyone.
Don’t forget that it is also John who said,to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “˜We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3)

This is an example we would do well to follow as we prepare once again this year for the coming of the Christ.
We who are the way preparers. We who are the Freeway construction crew. We would have to remember what John is saying to us.
Like John, we can only prepare the way. Just as we are not worthy to untie his sandals, and to gather the dust off Jesus’ feet, so we are not in a position to assume that we can negotiate and argue the terms of his coming. Jesus will come to us and to the world on his own terms and in his own way. All that remains for us is to be as surprised as John was.

So let us keep our hands off his sandals and our egos at his feet.

Channeling God -Advent 2b

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I love words. That is why I write. Words have so many layers. They come from other words, they dance, they cascade, they evoke. Words are wonderful.
Language is such a living thing. It emerges from our primordial past. Like our genes, words carry codes that we have forgotten or were never aware of. Words carry their own grammatic history within themselves. It is an alpha-helix called etymology.
Examining the etymology of a word like etymology is a fascinating exercise. You might want to try it right now. Open Google and type etymology of etymology.
Now click the first link Google serves. You should get…
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s. Related: Etymological; etymologically.

Now I don’t know about you but that excites me.

Dictionaries are like microscopes. They let us examine words. They place the word on a slide and shine a light from underneath and suddenly we see a wonderland in the word. If you are able to crossover between languages it becomes even more fun.
Words are like families too. They have genealogies.
If you begin to track English words eymologically (hey that’s the word that ended the search we just did!) you will discover that most English words are descended from Latin, Greek, French and perhaps some Germanic Saxon as a catalyst.
When I began to play with the words in this Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent I notice that Isaiah’s quoted prophecy has for the word of the Lord, “I am sending ” the Greek word appostello. Now you don’t have to be a Greek pundit to know that appostelo is the word from which we trace our word Apostle. Apostles are thos who are sent. They are emissaries. So in the Gospel the writer of Mark quotes Isaiah as saying “God is sending,…” Sending whom?

Well here is the next bit of microscope word fun. The word for messenger that we English readers see in the text is the Greek word angelon. Again you can see that it’s the word we derive “angel” from. So angels are messengers. In fact one could say they are “messengers who are sent” or apostolic angels.

These apostolic angels are to prepare the way of the Lord in the Wilderness
Another translation could be “equip a channel in the eremetic desert for God to pass along”

Now it is when playing like this with the words of a passage, that one is able to come to some interesting insights.
We who know this story well, know that it refers to the work of John the Baptist. He is the divinely appointed and sent one who prepares the way for Jesus.
But if the apostolically sent messenger angel is the one who equips a channel for God.(Please excuse the redundancy but I needed to hold the concepts in parallel) Then we are all potential John the Baptisers.

We are all sent to prepare channels for God.
Is it too much of a leap to suggest that the Christ follower is the one who is divinely charged to channel God in a bleak world?
Maybe our New Age friends have something worth considering on this score?

Come and see…Ordinary 2

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o”clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I have always been one of those people who need to verify things experientially.  It is never enough for me to hear how something works, I want to experience it.  I am not sure if this is a helpful trait to have, but it has made for some interesting experiences!

Because I am an experiential learner I appreciate the sequence of events that are described in this gospel passage.

John who has the experience of baptizing Jesus, who has seen the Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, is able to confidently point to Jesus as “The sacrificial lamb of God” and then to wax theological about the destiny of Jesus vis a vis Israel.  That was John’s experience and insight.

Two disciples of John then decide to follow Jesus, meet him and enquire about where he lives.  This question is far deeper than merely an inquiry after an address.  Amongst the Xhosa people of Southern Africa, there is a form of introduction which goes, “U velaphi?” It means, “Where do you come from?” In the customs of the Xhosas, the appropriate answer to the question is not to give an address, but to declare your clan heritage. The answer is self revelatory far beyond geography. The question is one of identity not of location.  I believe the question of the disciples, “Where are you staying?” has similar dimensions.

Having had the benefit of John’s theological identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, I just love the way Jesus doesn’t respond, “Don’t you know who I am?”, or “What have you heard?” as so many self-styled, egotistical messiahs would answer.  Jesus’ response is a simple invitation to “Come and see.

This response is so beautiful because it is open ended and does not require any prior pre-judged concepts of Jesus.

Isn’t that the miracle of the Jesus journey?  Despite the countless layers of encrusted doctrine, dogma and determined identities that the Church has put onto Jesus as well as the requirements so many communities put on prospective followers before they even begin, Jesus does not.

His invitation is simply to experience.  Come and see.

It is an invitation to unprejudiced, undetermined, encounter.

It is an adventure where the disciple and the teacher are in relationship and not merely formulaic ritual.

It is the path to life.

When faith falters – Advent 3a

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Last week we celebrated the mercurial ministry of John the Baptiser, this week the rising star has become a plummeting comet.

John the Baptizer, popular prophet and wild man of God, had been imprisoned at the fortress of Herod Antipas 24 kilometres southeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.

Jesus on the other hand was heading north into the Decapolis, the ten cities in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee on the opposite side of the country.  Scholars suggest that the imprisonment of John the Baptist was a motivation for Jesus to get out of Judea and out of harm’s way.  It is easy to understand how John the Baptiser who had been fulminating about axes laid at the roots of trees, and who himself had been challenging nepotism of Herod, who had divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife for the sake of political power; could believe that Jesus getting out of Judea was at worst an act of cowardice.  In danger of his own life and thinking his cousin has gone soft, John sends this message with some of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question bristles with sarcasm, but also gives significant insight into the frame of mind of the Baptiser.

Jesus response is firm and two pronged.  He challenges John to reconsider his expectations and the challenges the crowd to re-evaluate their motivations.  In the response of Jesus I believe we see a map for our own times of doubt and questioning.

In his answer to John, Jesus says, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the challenge to John who seems to have been fuelled by the conventional expectations of who Messiah would be.

It is difficult for us to understand, standing this side of the resurrection and with over two thousand years of church history behind us, that in the time of Jesus people who suffered were believed to have deserved it, (or they were working off the debts of their parents).  Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would still remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi well you can watch the spittle as you say the word.  Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.

There is, in the question of John, a barbed insinuation that what he had heard of Jesus’ ministry was irrelevant to the cause and is what caused him to question if Jesus was the real deal.  In his response Jesus adds a final challenge,  “And (by the way ) blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  “Blessed is” … could this be the ninth Beatitude, building on the eight from Matthew 5:1-10? “Blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be not who they expected me to be?”

Despite how difficult and embarrassing this all looks for John the Baptiser, I have to say that I can completely identify with his doubts and his questioning of Jesus.  Just like John I have often proclaimed Jesus publicly in terms that I realise with hindsight have been my projections onto Jesus rather than who Jesus really is in himself. That is problematic enough, but what is plain humiliating is when I have proclaimed the Jesus of my projected expectations, and he then goes off north and doesn’t do what I told people he would!

For example, I really do want to have Jesus as my friend and master throughout my life.  I want Jesus to comfort, heal and console me in my dark nights of fear and anxiety.  I also want Jesus to deal with the evil of the world.  To remove the corruption, crime and chaos that so describes life in the twenty first century.  What I don’t like though is how Jesus always brings his rag tag friends with him into my life.  I don’t like how he makes me question my lifestyle, my use and abuse of resources, and I especially don’t like how he is always pointing me to the people I really don’t want to see.  The blind, the lame, the lepers and those ubiquitous ptochoi (spit it out )poor!  And just when I am about to whine to Jesus that this isn’t really what I signed up for, nor why I wanted him in my life, he adds, “ And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  That’s just not fair!  That’s just what John was doing! He had been offended that Jesus wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing… according to John.

The lesson that John the Baptiser had to learn that day, and that I have had to learn almost every day that I follow Jesus, it this, “Jesus is always going to be where the pain is, not where the power or pleasure is”  Human suffering is like a pheromone to Jesus, it draws his heart inexorably.

To illustrate this Jesus now turns to address the crowd that remains after John’s disciples have left.  Jesus has heard the challenge of his imprisoned cousin, he has answered forthrightly, but he has also heard the pain of John’s disillusionment.  He senses the same disillusionment in the crowd.  Interesting word “dis-ILLUSION-ment”, so Jesus asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

These is are difficult metaphors to access from so far away in 2010.  It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of “looking at” the “reed” or “writing pen”, oscillating in the wind he uses a word for looking at that implies contemplating or gazing at.  What do we want from the wild men of God?  We watch them, we are bemused by them, even entertained by them but truth be told, are we not more comfortable when they are locked up on the other side of the country?  Their challenge is too bright and their intensity too pure.  We fear we will be scorched. “What did you go out to contemplate?”, asks Jesus.  “Was it mere entertainment or did you expect real change?

Naturally those of us who know Isaiah’s writings recognise in Jesus’ question about reeds, Isaiah’s chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

It is speculative at best to try and connect these teachings, but what is significant is how Jesus corrects and challenges John yet at the same time never loses his compassion for his cousin. He truly doesn’t snap the bruised and quivering reed.  John, he knows, is a broken man.  Jesus in a few years will be a broken man too.  But despite the breaking of John and Jesus, there will be no retaliation no breaking in revenge.  Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 But Jesus, will not to the disappointment of John, Judas, and others will not call down fire from heaven nor wield the axe at the root of the tree.

John had been sent to prepare the way and he had.  It was however not the freeway for an avenging army, it was the rocky road for a suffering servant.  Those who prepare the way, don’t get to determine who rides on it, or how.

And as I leave this poignant cameo of a very human Jesus, speaking with such love of his broken and doubting cousin who is languishing in Herod’s prison on the other side of the country, I sense the power of this image to heal and encourage hope in the broken and doubting people of our planet.

This human Jesus, the Son of Man, who always goes to where the pain is and not where the power or pleasure is, will be with me too in the moments of my disillusionment when he feels so far away he might as well be on the other side of the country or the other side of the universe! .

When all I have expected, dreamt and even demanded from being faithful to God’s call in my life has not played out according to my scripted plans.  When illusions are exposed in disillusion. When I find myself imprisoned and losing my head, and mind; how wonderful to know that Jesus will still be compassionate whilst challenging.

There are many moments when I too wonder if I shouldn’t look for another, and then I pray for the blessing of not taking offence when he does things his way and not mine. It is then that I experience the eighth beatitude, I am blessed by not being offended, and the bruised and quivering reed is able to stand for at least another day.

The Fulfilment of Emptiness – Advent 2a

_IGP0699 Matthew 3:1-12

You can hear these ideas being preached by clicking here

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

A friend of mine, an eco-psychologist, runs a Wilderness Retreat Centre.  The slogan for the Centre is most engaging, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  You don’t get much wilder than John the Baptiser!   What is worth contemplating is whether for all his wildness he was in any way, a well person.

On the face of it, to our sanitised western eyes, the answer would definitely be no.  I mean the man is psychotic, with severe anti-social tendencies, evidence of bi-polar disorder and just a little disassociated, don’t you think?  This manifests in garish dress, non-compliance with social registers (just look at how he disrespects religious authority) and very unbalanced nutritional programme.

And yet it is of this wild man that Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt11:11)

When I first began having conversations with people who follow an Eastern religious path, I heard a description of a holy person that I hadn’t come across in my Western Christian journey.  They spoke in honour of a person as being “empty”.  Now that was foreign to me who had grown up being told to constantly be “full”.  Full of the Spirit, full of faith, full of hope and full of love. So the attribute of emptiness as a positive in spirituality got my attention.

In the gospel encounters with John the Baptiser, it is his emptiness that is most striking.

He is empty of fear and proclaims.  “Turn your lives around  the reign of the heavens is manifesting.” He also challenges the Pharisees who are “full of it”, “You progeny (gennemata) of snakes, who suggested you should get away from the impending natural punishment (orgés)? That is pretty fearless in a religious culture where the snake was the archetype of Satan! How sad, by contrast, are our faith communities today which are most often characterised by fear-filled avoidance of truth telling so as not to offend anyone.

He is also empty of propriety. His entire lifestyle was in contrast to the sedate and established orthodoxy of the day.  He is styled on the prophets of centuries before, passionate people who had proclaimed the truth of God as they had seen it, with no sense of propriety and often at great risk to themselves.  John was echoing this prophetic voice that had grown strangely silent for centuries before he spoke. Probably my deepest sadness as a Christian who has lived through the prophetic pain of a church in opposition to the viperous system of Apartheid, has been to see how the Church has fallen prophetically silent since the church got into bed with the ruling party. The only prophets who have remained consistent are Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Paul Verryn who currently houses thousands of Zimbabwean refugees in the Johannesburg Central Methodist Mission and is vilified by church and state for that stand.  It is probably too painful for the church to be prophetic yet many of us fail to see the irony in calling ourselves “Protestants”

Finally the most searing and challenging facet of John the Baptiser’s emptiness for me lies in his complete emptiness of ego.  This is the man with a successful preaching community.  People are leaving the city to come to listen to him in the Wilderness! That is completely against the logic of the day where the Temple in the city was the only conduit to the divine. Yet this man with the successful ministry, knows from the beginning that he is just the opening act, and when Jesus steps onto the stage, John graciously bows out, and sends his own disciples to follow the one who he recognises as the Lamb of God.  How much closer to the reigning presence of the heavens would the church had come if all Christians leaders could model that emptiness of ego?  The Spiritual turf wars that seem to be on every street as we compete for “market share” and “franchise dominance” makes us look more like representatives for Kentucky Fried Chicken than the followers of Jesus.

Where did John get it from, this emptiness?  I don’t know.  But I sense that the wilderness would have stripped him, burnt him and detoxed him to a point where he really did have what Paul described Christ as having,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2

The Wilderness Retreat Centre says, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  When in that wilderness we discover Jesus as John did, we too will have something worth losing our head for.