December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
One of the great gifts of the Bible is its honesty about the heroes of the faith: it tells us that Abraham was a liar and that Moses was a murderer. It reveals that Tamar seduced her father in law, and Rahab was a prostitute and that both women are listed as direct ancestors of Jesus. It doesn’t hide the reality that King David had one woman too many, while Solomon, his son, had 700 wives and 300 concubines too many, following the behavior of the pagan kings of his day. We are told that that Peter denied Jesus and Paul approved of the murder of Stephen and locked up the followers of Jesus. But somewhere along the way we lost this Biblical gift of honesty and we began to idealize our heroes—we removed their flesh and turned them into plastic and stainless steel.
So we idealize Mother Theresa, now Saint Theresa of Calcutta, by not listening to the reports that she could be a hard woman to work for, and we’re shocked when her letters to her spiritual directors over 66 years reveal a profound dryness in her spiritual life. Turns out this woman who brought so much light into the world, lived in darkness. In 1957 she wrote: “I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
But we hang on to our idealism because it gives us a goal to climb toward. Certainly the Pharisees were idealists: they worked hard in following the Law because they felt God calling them to be holy.
For most of my ministry I too have been an idealist and running all sorts of spiritual growth programs that promise to lead us closer to the ideal of those saints I’ve admired. One problem with idealists, though, is we can get so locked into pursuing our ideal that we lose touch with who we really are. We become what Jesus calls a hypocrite—someone playing a role instead of living a life. Whenever we are not connected with who we really are, we are also not connected with God, because as a friend says, “God doesn’t read fiction.”
The Pharisees have no need of John’s baptism out in the sticks, because they are satisfied with their sanctity: they are experts in God, masters in divinity, which is the academic degree clergy get after three years of seminary. What could this bug-eater teach them about God? Just look at all those simpletons, sinners all, who leave their doublewides in order to follow hillbilly showman. No, we’re too far along the road to holiness to need what John is pushing.
In modern terms it reads: We’ve been coming to church for 50 years, we’ve got baptism and confirmation certificates to prove our seriousness. We don’t need to enter the dirty water stained by those whose lives are so out of control they can’t keep the Law. Carry on, John, but we’ll just watch.
I suspect there were others who also just watched. These are the self-satisfied who stand on the sidelines impressed with their own nominal faith, proud of being lukewarm, and who rank seeking the Kingdom of God way down their list of priorities, way behind football, finances, and fine food—whatever is left over they might toss God’s way—after all he’s a God of grace right?
But in addition to the self-sanctified and the self-satisfied, there is a third, larger group: these are those who are blessed with a deep sense of their need for God.
These are the realists.
You’ve often heard my story of when the wheels once again were coming off my carefully constructed wagon my Trappist monk spiritual director said to me: “When you first came to the monastery you were an idealistic young priest, but now you’ve run into reality.”
Which is of course good news because that’s where God is, in the mess and muck of our lives.
The people caught by reality come out to hear this preacher because they believe his message: “God is just around the corner, get ready for his arrival.”
14 years ago I was hiking with my son in the Grand Tetons when we came across twenty people repairing the trail we were climbing. They were removing fallen limbs, large rocks, and filling in holes.
God is coming so clear the path that leads to your souls. John tells them to confess their sins—which requires the painful work of actually seeing the debris blocking the path to who they really are.
Jesus would later say we must constantly be on guard against ignoring the log in our own eyes, while delightfully pointing out the speck in our neighbor’s eyes. Jesus knows the original sin is taking God’s place as Judge. What we can’t face in ourselves we condemn in others, which leads to hate and violence and destroys community. When we dethrone God as Judge we ruin the world.
John is calling us to finally admit and repent of the pride and arrogance that places us above others and above God. At my ordination to the priesthood on Ascension Day 1979, the preacher who was a seminary professor of mine, said one thing in his sermon, I’ve never forgotten. In a humorous off-handed way he said I, and my friends, were arrogant!
I laughed because I arrogantly believed that I had dealt with my arrogance. Being arrogant means when I’m angry or out of sorts I don’t need to examine my own soul but can lash out at others who must be the source of my pain. The arrogant don’t feel the need to clear the path as they add more rocks and logs to it.
You see, what is so scary and hard in what John says is that it goes so much deeper than a how religious or spiritual we are, or how nice and friendly we are. Here’s the thing: John is not calling us to be better people. He is calling us to let the living God make us into new people.
As Karl Barth puts it, “John is not calling us just to intellectual, ethical or religious change of mind—though it will work itself out in such changes and alterations.” Church Dogmatics II, 1, 139f
He is calling us to let the One who is coming convert us. He is calling us to allow the death of our old false self, and to live in the reality of a new self, given in Christ Jesus. God isn’t coming to mess with the fruit of our lives but with the root of our being.
Baptism looks like a bath, but it’s an execution.
So whether we are a tax collector or a harlot, a Pharisee or a doctor of the Law; whether we attend church every week or like Anne Lamott tells us in her honest book Traveling Mercies, how she came to faith lying drunk on the back pew of a Black Pentecostal Church—whatever our condition the call is the same. It is a call to a full-bodied conversion at the hands of the living God. The metaphors John uses—fire, axe, and winnowing fork—point to our deconstruction.
As they listen to John, I wonder who they expect is coming around the corner bringing the kingdom of heaven. Surely they imagine it must be a “John the Baptist on Steroids”—wilder, harder, fiercer!
But of course that’s not who they get. They get a Jew from the sticks who doesn’t point fingers at sinners but identifies with them. He identifies with them from the poverty of the manger to the hell of the cross. He models what it looks like when a human being identifies with others instead of judging them. They get the judge who lets himself be judged in their place. Barth
They also finally get honest and real about themselves—because that’s what happens to people who are invaded by the love of God.