A young woman lit up with new love
the radiant smile of a groom
the inner glow of a pregnant woman
beaming parents, a newborn child
the long-married luminous and dancing under the moon
the light that gentles us from this life into the next.
Each brush with love transforms us
if only temporarily and like the sun
it burns so bright we must look indirectly or go blind.
We can only come so close to the Great Source
before we catch fire from the inside out.
Like Moses our beards shimmer
Like Jesus our garments blaze white.
This is transformation--
shining from the mountaintop
in momentary perfection
dumbfounding those in our presence.
As the blush fades we descend from the peaks
to the plains of our existence
uttering our small prophecies.
We are no longer dazzling or set apart
but, oh, we have been changed.
Thoughts on Matthew 5:21-37
Adapted from my message at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church February 16, 2020
Have you ever been to a retreat or conference or read a book where the presenter or author speaks or writes in ways that “blow your mind?” Their words expand your thinking, open you to new ways of understanding life and its struggles, as well as purpose and you’re inspired to take this learning and incorporate it into your daily life?
It’s what we sometimes call a “mountain top experience” and that’s what happened to the disciples who followed Jesus up onto Mt. Sinai for The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teachings from the encounter comprise Chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel and begin with famous Beatitudes. “Blessed are they who…”
These first verses weren’t in the Episcopal Sunday lectionary readings this month since we observed Jesus’ dedication in the temple on the first Sunday of February. But last Sunday our gospel reading included verses 13 through 20 of Chapter 5, and Fr. Steve, the priest at St. David's presented the heart of those verses.
To paraphrase him: “You are salt and light and stardust. You come from love, live in love, and will return to love. Your worth is in being; not doing. You are beloved simply because you exist.”
As the priest spoke, a glimmer of sun shone through the stained glass windows up in the choir loft casting a tiny rainbow on my bulletin and I soaked in the beautiful truth of being God’s beloved, having a mini-mountaintop experience.
After worship, instead of floating off on a cloud to the top of Mt. Rainier, I stood in line for a potluck lunch and sat down for our annual meeting reporting the business of church, affirming those who are leading, and dusting off our rusty recollections of Robert’s Rules of Order.
Eventually, we have to come down from the mountain and live our lives. Jesus knew this, and he didn’t stop with metaphors of salt and light. He got down to brass tacks as it were, reminding his companions that he didn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.
We need rules and order.
But if we are to live as God’s beloved, we need to live by more than the law—beyond the law, but not above it—as Jesus makes clear in today’s lesson. In four different examples, Jesus opens with “You’ve heard it said,” and quotes the law. Then he continues, “but I say…” going beyond the letter of the law to the spirit behind it.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Certainly, we shouldn’t kill one another. But if we are to live as God’s beloved, our concern for each other must extend far beyond refraining from fatal violence. We are called to not only avoid physical violence, but to control our emotions, to put aside our anger, even when we believe it’s righteous. And I have a feeling that might’ve been easier in Jesus’ day when people only moved as fast as their feet could carry them, instead of hurtling down freeways at 60 or 70 mph, forgetting there are humans behind steering wheels.
We’re called to deny our desire for revenge against those who’ve wronged us, in our perceptions as well as in fact, and to employ our best efforts at conflict resolution.
[W]hen you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
After worship few weeks ago, a parishioner shared her experience as a nurse in the prison system. She talked about how sentences are computed, time subtracted for good behavior, added in other situations, how in some form or another every day must be served. “Prison isn’t for rehabilitation,” she said, “it’s to keep the public safe.”
And from Jesus’ words I gather that even centuries ago the legal system was not a place for rehabilitation or reconciliation, it was a place for punishment. Yet how often do we hear the threat, “I’ll see you in court” when neighbors are fighting over a property line, or “you’ll hear from my lawyer” in a contentious divorce?
Jesus tells us to stay out of court, and away from systems that are purely punitive. And beyond that, if we have “unfinished business” with another person, whether it’s a grudge, a debt, or an estrangement, Jesus tells us to get right with that other person before we come to the altar offering ourselves and our gifts as a sign of our love and devotion to God.
One morning when I was pastoring my church in California, two parishioners came running in from the parking lot yelling at one another as I was ringing the bell in the entry to begin service. They stood on either side of me, vilifying the other, each wanting me to take their side. I was shaking, pulse racing as I walked into the sanctuary and began the call to worship as they sat on opposite sides of our small church, glaring and fuming. The next week they both filed restraining orders against each other.
This is an extreme example, but how many times have we come to worship feeling unspoken tension in our midst? We can’t offer the best of what have to God if we refuse to offer the best of ourselves to one another as a sign of love and devotion.
To live as salt and light and stardust is to see every other person as God’s beloved. And yet, we objectify each other. Jesus told his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Like most women, in my younger days I was propositioned and cat-called by strangers who saw me as a body they had some right to comment on or possess. Growing up, I saw infidelity and mistrust tear apart my family, and like Jimmy Carter, I too “have committed lust in my heart” imagining, at a time when I was struggling with my identity as a wife and mother, how perfect my life would be if I’d married someone else I imagined as flawless, lusting after some unattainable image of life, as if a life partner exists just to fulfill my needs.
At other times we lust after material possessions, power and status, longing for the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” We dehumanize celebrities, athletes, and models. People Magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” issues call from grocery store checkout stands, and scan any magazines on the shelves and we’ll find barely-clothed women (and men) draped over all manner of products. Our God-given nature splintered and reduced to commodities to buy, sell, use.
Despite all this dehumanization, Jesus offers us the lens of wholeness with which to view one another. Though I don’t think Jesus is being literal about cutting off our body parts in response to our transgressions, sometimes we need extreme examples to shift our thinking. I thank him for urging his disciples and us all to see the humanity of others, to recognize that none of us are products, and that our desires can lead to disaster when they are not grounded in recognition of each person’s inherent belovedness.
Jesus continued that message of affirming our inherent worth:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
At the time Jesus lived, women were not citizens, we had no rights, and our existence was subject to the whims of fathers and husbands who had likely not married for love, but according to societal expectations and for property consolidation, which included women. Here, Jesus is speaking to an audience of men, and I’m curious what he might say if he were talking to Martha and Mary then, or to a group of women about this issue today.
I don’t think he would insist that we remain in a marriage where there is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, since those are the very acts of sin he just spoke against. And I don’t think he’d insist people who are absolutely miserable stay married, since his desire for us is to live life abundantly as God has designed for us.
What I do know, is that Jesus warned men to be extremely aware of the position they put women in by undertaking divorce. In his time, after a divorce, a woman was forced to remarry in order to survive—very literally—surrendering her body and her life to another man due to the whims of the first. It’s not a comforting thought for anyone. Which is why Jesus makes it.
And finally, in the last passage in today’s gospel reading, Jesus said:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Oaths back then were serious matters, much more serious than using profanity today. An oath was more like being sworn in during legal proceedings. We swear to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” and often perjure ourselves by failing to do so. In those lies, we harm not only ourselves, but other individuals, the community, and even the state.
In biblical times, an oath was often in the province of God. God’s oath was a pledge to make good on an action, one that might bless one group and curse another. And often, God, acting with compassion, decided not to follow through on the curse. When people swore in biblical times, their oaths explicitly or implicitly involved God, and the flip side of the oath meant the threat of punishment on others, and people aren’t as quick to refrain from punishment as God is.
An oath, especially one broken or false oath sworn to God, put humans in the role of God, a position that is not rightfully ours. Jesus told his disciples to leave God out of it, to say yes or no, to live by their own word, without the threat of cursing God or others. He asks us to do the same.
A few days ago, I mentioned to a good friend that I would be preaching this morning. She asked what the scripture was, and I said it was from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but I didn’t have the verse numbers in front of me. “It’s the passage where he says, ‘You’ve heard it said, but I say,’ where he tells people to step it up,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. “when Jesus presents all those commands that are impossible to fulfill. When he levels the playing field and makes it clear that all of us are in need of grace.”
Jesus asks us to step it up, to try the impossible and he offers grace when we can’t do it. That sounds right to me.
Right that the both/and of Jesus, his being both human and divine, is echoed in the both/and of his words to us, “you’ve heard it said, but I say…” and rings true to the both/ and of our life experiences: memorable mountaintop and mundane valley, as well as the both/and of our human nature.
Jesus asks us beloved children of God to live in a state of radical love with one another. At times our brokenness, shortcomings and sin will surround us, dulling that love so that it’s almost imperceptible. And in other moments, that love infused within us will radiate from us and we will shine like the light, salt, and stardust we are.
A reflection on Matthew 3:13-17 in observance of The Baptism of Our Lord.
Thanks to St. David of Wales for the opportunity to deliver the message yesterday.
Jesus was thirty years old when took the plunge. As scripture relates, he sought out his cousin, John, the desert dweller who ate locusts and honey and preached to a good-sized crowd to repent of their sins before he dunked the converts underwater. Matthew’s gospel tells us that John would have prevented Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But that Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
It seems an odd statement from Jesus, who doesn’t come across as a man concerned by what is proper. In fact, he’s usually the opposite, setting aside customs and rules that interfere with right relationships. Did propriety really compel Jesus to show up at the river? Or was it something else?
There are no Biblical clues. We assume that Jesus already knew his identity as Son of Man, that he was aware he’d been born to a unique destiny, that showing up at the riverbank and submitting to John’s baptism was perhaps a formality, the ceremonial swearing in after God’s election. And soon after his baptism he finds himself on a vision quest in the wilderness battling temptations as he determines how to live out his destiny.
But on the day of his baptism Jesus queued up along the riverbank with the other sinners, with nothing in his appearance or reputation signifying to anyone that he was anything other than exactly like them. A person, soon to be wet and repentant, sharing a desire to turn their lives around, or at least to align them more closely with what they perceived in John’s message to be God’s intentions.
Whatever private message God had telegraphed to Jesus over the previous thirty years when he sat by firelight sharpening his carpentry tools and contemplating life was confirmed in the light of day along the banks of the Jordan, in front of the crowd, who must have been startled by the resulting thunderclaps, the holy spirit descending as a dove from the clouds, and the booming voice of God announcing his Son’s belovedness.
Baptism of water and the Holy Spirit was the first sacrament that Jesus instituted among his followers; the Eucharist was the second. Two thousand years later, public baptism remains the principal Christian rite for those who want to join with Jesus. I assume that most, if not all of us, in this room have been baptized. And most of us have stories about that momentous event the Book of Common Prayer defines as “union with Christ in his death, resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (p. 858).
I was twenty-four when I was baptized in 1985, standing in front of a United Methodist congregation of sixty or so people as my pastor dipped his hand into a small bowl of water and touched it to my forehead three times. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, he baptized—my bangs. Water never touched my skin.
I had thought of baptism as a sin-proof coating like Teflon. Promise to stop doing things my grandmother (the only religious person in my family) would disapprove of, apply water to skin, and after death I wouldn’t burn to a crackly crisp in hell-fire. The words in the United Methodist Hymnal were pretty clear, “Forasmuch as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, our Savior Christ said, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’” It was one thing not to have been baptized when I didn’t believe in God. But, once I was a believer, wasn’t I still in danger of the fiery pit since I hadn’t been adequately spritzed?
Sister Ishpriya wrote, “a tiny drop of water can cleanse the whole of my impurity when blessed by your forgiveness. But, O Lord, more than all this, this tiny bit of water passed over my head is the symbol of my birth in You.” A tiny drop of water on my face—Was it too much to ask?
“The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love,” the United Methodist Book of Worship told me. I had done my part with my vows, but I was convinced my pastor had failed in carrying out God’s part and suspected my baptism was a fake, though I’d later learn that Methodists, like Episcopalians, believe that baptism is “permanent and indelible” (Walk in Love p. 25). I smiled when people hugged me after the service, but deep down I worried that I was still flammable.
I knew I was God’s, but not because of this ceremony, where there certainly hadn’t been enough water to scrub even a follicle of me clean from sin, but because God had come into my life a few months earlier and arrived while I was in the shower. As I rinsed off the last suds of soap, the water changed. It flowed softer, filling me from inside out with what I can only describe as pure love. This love wasn’t a zingy, romantic pulsing, it was absolute and unconditional, love I’d later feel for my daughters at birth. This love was expansive, excessive, a gift I hadn’t even known I’d asked for.
I had no doubt this love came from God, and later, when I came to know the stories, it seemed entirely plausible. If Jesus could turn barrels of water into wine at a wedding reception to please his earthly mother, then his unearthly father could change water to love in my bathroom pipes. When I turned off the faucet and reached for a towel, I felt like a different person, raw and alive, claimed.
God loved me and I had to respond. I’d overheard something about leaving everything to follow Jesus. Was I supposed to leave my husband and join a convent, or move to a kibbutz? I decided to attend a peace study at the local United Methodist Church instead.
I took a membership class after that appreciated a faith that took into account not simply scripture, but tradition, experience, and reason. I was encouraged to think for myself, something I’d always assumed becoming a Christian would negate. The social principles focused on everything from eradicating poverty and disease, to fair wages and union rights, from racial equality and respect for the environment to opposition to gambling. This care for others was so broad and contrary to the cries I’d heard from Bible thumpers during my college years, and so close to the values I held, that I was prepared to pledge my prayers, presence, gifts and service. The only obstacle to my membership was fact I hadn’t been baptized.
It was an easy problem to solve. I didn’t need a class to study biblical accounts and precedents or understand historical or theological reasons for baptism. I only needed a few more questions inserted before my membership vows. My pastor didn’t even tell me specifically how my baptism would be done. If he had, I might have reached up and pushed my bangs to one side.
If I’d had access to the Book of Worship then, I would’ve read, United Methodists, like Episcopalians, “may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates…have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes.” Knowing that, what mode would I have chosen that might have felt as powerful as my shower experience?
By the time my oldest daughter was born in 1988, I’d come to understand that baptism was more about the type of claiming that brought doves to Jesus and unconditional love to my shower––a recognition that we belonged to God—and less about applying two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen to human skin as insurance. But I wanted her welcomed into the arms and family of God from the very beginning of her life something so absent in mine, so she was baptized at six months old, though I answered on her before. Like before, I repented of sin and declared Jesus Christ as my Savior. But this time, I pledged to nurture my daughter in Christ’s holy church and was aware of the congregation’s pledge to do the same. The pastor dribbled water on my baby’s mercifully bald head.
Jennifer’s scalp wasn’t soaked, but there was no doubt she felt something. Her eyes grew wide. She looked straight at Pastor Lorraine who took Jennifer in her arms, lifted her high overhead and walked down the aisles presenting the newest daughter in Christ.
Even now I think sprinkling seems the perfect way to baptize a baby, the water splashing like tears of joy, as we become aware of how precious life is, and how this ritual is not only an offer by flawed human beings to raise a child to know God, but acknowledgment that this young life is as pure and full of possibility and unconditional love as it ever will be. The infant baptism of sprinkling wraps water and spirit and gratitude and enormity into a holy moment filled with unseen and ever present doves and voices. We know the beloved is in our midst, in the form of this tiny person.
But sprinkling for me as an adult was a complete bust. I was a Southern California water baby. The first fourteen years of my life if I wasn’t swimming in the community pool, wading and bodysurfing along the shore, or submerged in the bathtub submerged, I was drying off. What type of baptism would feel most like giving up an old life and becoming a new creature?
It was more than decade after my baptism that I first saw pouring. Thirty-year-old Shannon, with a purple beach towel wrapped around her neck, received a pitcher of water overhead as she knelt before the altar.
The towel took the brunt of the water, but the back of her gauzy dress darkened, and she sat in clammy garments during the remainder of the worship service. I was baptized in November, and even in retrospect, the idea of a quart of water dumped over my head in the midst of a Sunday service on a cold cloudy morning wasn’t appealing. Under the right circumstances, though, pouring does have its appeal.
In the Cathedral of our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles, California, “The Baptism of the Lord” is depicted in the center panel of the baptistery tapestries designed and woven by John Nava. This is the image on our bulletin cover today. Against a background of sand that wavers like a mirage, Jesus kneels low, bare backed, head bowed before John. His legs are not immersed in the watery Jordan, but pressed against its gritty bank. John, looking tenderly at his cousin’s submission, pours a bowl of water over Jesus’ head.
The gentle cascade saturates his hair, cools his scalp, refreshes him in the scorching heat. Jesus can feel the small stream of water, each drop sliding over his skin, and in John’s measured pouring he has time to breathe deeply of the significance of this moment. Soon the heavens will open, soon the voice that called us into being will speak to the crowds, and will say of this son, the words we all long to hear, “You are my beloved.”
Finally, there is immersion. As much as I’d like to think I’d have chosen immersion, the truth is, even if I’d known it was possible, standing on the banks of the local reservoir while my pastor dunked me into the municipal water supply would’ve been too much spectacle as a fledgling believer. But many years later, I stood with my congregation on a hot Sunday morning as we concluded worship at the edge of a swimming pool to witness ten-year-old Sarah’s baptism. Over their bathing suits, she and our pastor wore white robes that billowed around them as they waded in.
Secure in Pastor Margo’s arms, Sara went under, and reemerged soaking, hair plastered to head, watered to the bone. Then, as she climbed out of the pool, water flowing from her robe, we gingerly hugged Sara, trying not to get too wet.
“Baptism is both God’s act of grace in the world and the human community’s response to that grace in faith and obedience,” according to the Book of Worship, and Sara’s was close to the way I imagined the experience of those who came to John the Baptist, as they flooded to the Jordan River, eager for sin cleansing and a fresh start. They kicked off their sandals and waded in, gasping a bit when the water slapped against their hips and stomachs. Then they held their breath as John dunked them under. There was the sensation of surrender, closing their eyes, allowing themselves to be submerged, the shock of cool water enveloping them, the smallest sensation of drowning before they surfaced gasping, and stumbled ashore into the arms of family, friends, and even strangers afterward. Before Jesus came on the scene, John warned them that there was more to it, that this was just the beginning. Someone else was coming who was going to baptize with fire. No doubt that branding would sear us into family, scar us for life, leaving marks no one could ignore or forget. Whether the people listened, whether they followed Jesus into the fire or not, there could be no arguing that their baptisms were memorable.
In the Methodist tradition, each year on this Sunday when we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, and each time there is a baptism, we are called to “Remember your Baptism and be thankful.” It wasn’t hard for me to remember mine, but I couldn’t bring myself to be thankful. When I didn’t want to remember my shoddy baptism, I remembered both my daughters’ baptisms, and how meaningful they were to me, though my children have no memory of their baptisms outside photos and stories I’ve given them, and I wonder if I have taken from them the opportunity to remember and be thankful.
I’m too new to the Episcopal Church to have experienced many of the traditions that surround this day. But I do know that, as much as we try, we can never do God right. Our sacraments and rituals, the big moments in our lives of faith will always reflect our humanity, our frailties, bad aim, and the things our parents did or didn’t choose for us.
My baptism wasn’t the big bang I longed for. But as I look back, I can see the event perfectly illustrated not only my need for God’s grace, but my need to extend grace to my pastor, to the congregation, to God and even to myself. As Gayle Felton writes in This Gift of Water, “Baptism, then, is not so much an event as it is a process…dynamic, not static; a journey, not a destination; a quest, not an acquisition.”
Today we come to the water alongside Jesus, who had no need for repentance, but who chose to be baptized, his first step into the river of his destiny. He chose to enter into our human experience entirely, despite his divinity. He became one of us and through his surrender, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, the comforter he would leave with us. With him we step into the river, we submerge under water that envelops us like our first home where we are cradled and blessed before birth, a place we can only occupy momentarily as we hold our breath and float in the weightless present that surrounds us in the expansive love of our Creator, dying to all that would separate us from that love. And when we can bear it no longer, we emerge from the water gasping, blinking, dripping, shivering, filled with the reminder of who we are and whose we are.
May, each dip into river, Sound, lake, and stream, may each flume of sea spray, each drop of rain upon our skin, each sprinkling of the shower head and garden hose, each submersion into bath and dishwater, each hand dipped into the baptismal font before worship remind us again and again that we are God’s beloved. And to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer, may that belovedness raise us to a new life of grace, give us an inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage and will to persevere, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Amen. (p. 308)
A reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 delivered to the people of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Shelton the Second Sunday of Advent.
The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins by foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. An angel came to his father, Zechariah, a priest saying:
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Today’s scripture introduces us to John as an adult, just a few months older than his cousin Jesus, fulfilling the angel’s words about him.
In Matthew’s gospel, John proclaims, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,’ and 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.”
Later, John will baptize Jesus to mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and because of this, we often think of Jesus as the first person to be baptized in a ritual that John invented, and that we continue today.
But before John began baptizing people as a symbol of their repentance, converts to Judaism were baptized, leaving behind their old idols and gods to follow Yahweh. Jewish people already participated in ritual washing which was sometimes full body immersion, and other times handwashing only, but unlike baptism, which we observe as happening only once, the ritual washing was repeated over and over again.
We don’t know what John said to the regular people who came before him as they confessed their sins. He may have met them with hard words, with the intent of pushing them into radical change.
Maybe his words weren’t scathing, but just blunt. He doesn’t seem the type of person to mince words or to speak carefully so that everyone will like him and get along with him.
We do know that when the religious leaders came before him to be baptized, he didn’t hold back, calling them a “brood of vipers!” which is a family of snakes that eat their mother! And he warns them of coming judgment that they must bear good fruit or be destroyed.
Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN writes that, “we tend to forget that the prophets in ‘Old Testament Times’ were not doomsdayers or predictors of the future. They were truth-tellers of the present.”
John, who grew up as the son of priest, familiar with church and has scathing words for those in religious power, those serving the institutional church, as he sees where their present behavior is leading—to a love of power more than a love of God, to a love of power more than a love of God’s justice and mercy for the poor and oppressed.
In his book Democracy Matters, philosopher Cornel West writes that “Prophetic beings have as their special aim to shatter deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others, and to expose the clever forms of evasion and escape we devise in order to hide and conceal injustice….”
It takes courage to speak truth to power, and the world then and now needed and needs people like John who say it like they see it and don’t worry about what others think of them.
In the words of Karoline Lewis:
There are too many in the world terrified of telling the truth. There are too many in the world who cannot speak the truth because they are afraid—and rightly so. There are too many for whom telling the truth brings too much pain, both personal and professional. To be a prophet … is to give voice to those whose voice has been silenced. It is to give voice to those who have been told that their place doesn’t matter.
My guess is that many of the ordinary people who came to John were those who had been silenced; those who were told they didn’t matter.
They find John in the wilderness of Judea dressed in simple clothing and living off the land, forsaking the comforts and conveniences of the day as he relies on God’s provision. And he preaches repentance in order to prepare our hearts for the coming of God among us.
Matthew writes that John “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.’”
“As much as we should focus on the identity and the foretelling of the prophet, we can’t overlook a prophet’s place,” writes Karoline Lewis. “A prophet’s place gives a prophet purpose. A prophet’s place locates the testimony to an explicit need. Prophecy means nothing if it does not touch the specificity of setting and site,” she continues.
John appears as,a wild man eating nothing but locusts and honey, and he cries out from the wilderness, not from the gates of the city or inside the synagogue.
In the Old Testament, the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years while waiting for a place to call home, relying solely on God for everything they needed to survive, and complaining in the process. Later in the gospel accounts, Jesus journeys into the wilderness for forty days as he encounters temptations and determines the manner in which he will follow God’s claim on his life.
Even today, being in nature restores us. In the wilderness, away from our daily responsibilities and distractions, we have time in solitude to meet ourselves and God in new and transformative ways. Living where we do on the edges of the Olympics and Puget Sound, we understand that the physical wilderness is not a place of desolation, but a place of beauty and abundance, a place where humans are not in charge, but are reliant upon weather and landscape.
But venturing into the wilderness doesn’t always mean a welcome hike to the top of Mt. Ellinor or a planned backpacking trip along the coastal beaches. It can be any situation that pulls us out of daily rhythm and routine and makes us more aware of our humanity. It can be longed for yet jarring like isolation of being a new mother home alone all day with an infant, or moving to a new community where nothing is familiar.
It can come suddenly in the shock of being laid off, or in the form of an unwelcome diagnosis. It can be a long wandering living with chronic illness, or the journey through grief and loss.
John and Isaiah before him ask us to enter our wilderness not in a state of hopelessness or despair, but in a spirt of repentance—of turning away from that which separates us from God’s presence.
I’m not a prophet, but I know that repentance born of fear and anxiety isn’t sustainable over the years. It might turn us from destructive behavior, but our letting go and turning away from must also involve a reaching for and turning toward—a repentance of openness, preparation and expectation that will serve us over the long haul.
And though our individual repentance is an inward journey, we are also called to repentance is a church and community, so that together we turn toward God. You and I have done some of that already this morning: choosing to gather in worship instead of at Wal-Mart or in front of the TV.
We don’t necessarily know what’s on the heart of the person sitting next to us, but we are here together, a community asked to prepare the way of the Lord, particularly in this Advent season.
For me part of that preparation happens as I prepare to speak before you in response to the Gospel. As I do so, I pray for guidance and I meditate on the words for days and weeks while I cook and wash clothes and paint rooms and clean litter boxes. What is God calling me to say to us? What sort of prophet might I, or any of us who stand before you and deliver a message be? How do we discern and speak the truth for this particular time and this particular place in a way that honors God and is true to who we are as individuals?
I wonder what John the Baptist would say to us if he were here in Shelton just weeks away from the winter solstice, more than 2000 years after he thought the end was at hand. Would he be surprised at God’s seemingly infinite patience? Would he quote Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?
I once read an anecdote once about a little boy having dinner with his parents at Denny’s. The boy stood up, leaned over the top of the booth and said to the diners behind him, “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
No one knows what’s going to happen, could easily be the extent of my prophecies. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know what has happened when I prepare myself for God’s coming, and I feel called to invite you join me on a guided poetic journey into the wilderness.
I invite you close your eyes if that feels comfortable, or to gaze softly at the cross. Let the sounds around us come and go easily, and begin to breathe deeply, noticing the rise and fall of your breath. Allow my words to take you anywhere the spirit and your imagination lead.
We inhale deeply as we step into the unknown
relying on nothing more than God’s provision
Alone with our thoughts with our God
we find a wilderness that calls to us
a place of peace away from the clattering city
stripped of noise and demands
free from expectations, responsibilities and roles
that sever us from our true selves
We exhale deeply as we step away
from friends and family with all their familiarity
and stand alone in this wild place
noticing our frailty and dependence on God
and embracing our need rather than running from it
We let even the trappings of religion rest
setting aside forms, rituals, and conventions
that constrict our desires and dreaming
We let our faith unwind itself
from outward expression
and find what makes our souls sing
We step beyond the boundaries of city gates
stand outside the walls which welcome
and shelter but also stifle and suppress
We walk into the unknown where any wonderful
or terrifying event might transpire
where our fears and insecurities may surface
but where our hearts might hunt for beauty
and our feet trod toward truth
In wilderness we face the sun and know
we are more than the boxes we tick off
more than the blanks we fill in
more than the questionnaires we complete
more than our latest test results and lab numbers
more than any diagnosis or prognosis
We let the rain fall on our faces and know
we are worth more than any achievement
more than any award or trophy bestowed
more than any business success or failure
more than any relationship restored or fractured
We feel the breezing blowing and know
we are more than our weakest impulses
We are not defined by the worst thing
we have ever done
Though we wander in the wilderness
we are not abandoned for God is with us
The fire that baptizes
does not destroy the true self
but burns brightly within us
Beloved—with every breath
and every step and every thought
in this Advent journey
may the path unfold before us
a blazing highway for our God
a wildfire of hope illuminating
the darkness welcoming all
that is lost and all who wander
back home into the arms of Eternal Love
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.