Last week I gave you an Advent vocabulary word; it was “apocalyptic.” Does anyone remember what it means? Its definition is: “to uncover, or reveal,” in the sense of all the curtains being pulled back from a stage, so you can see all the behind-the-scenes workings. And sometimes that behind-the-scenes work also reveals multiple realities going on at the same time. This is especially true in this season of Advent, when apocalyptic is one of the themes running through Advent.
In the reading from Isaiah we get the image of what’s called the Peaceable Kingdom, very similar to what we heard in the Old Testament last week. It paints a picture of God’s desire, God purpose for the world – which includes God judging on behalf of the poor, God exercising justice and equity on behalf of the down-trodden, the excluded, the oppressed. God’s hope for the world also encompasses those who are enemies to one another, offering a vision for peaceable relations between them and living side by side with balance, harmony, and trust. This vision appears like a banner in the upper part of our stage, or like a film that is playing out in the top part of the screen, in the realm of eternity. We are not there yet, but that’s the plan, and the goal that God has for us.
And down below, still with the curtains drawn all the way back, we see in time, and space, and history John the Baptist walking onto the stage of human affairs – right on cue, according to God’s timing. And what does John do, this cousin of Jesus and son of Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman? John calls the people to repentence and preparation for the Lord’s coming.
Now let’s be honest: John is pretty dramatic. His clothing and his diet are decidedly off-the-grid. He doesn’t go to the Jerusalem, to the city to do his work, but stays twenty-plus miles to the east, at the Jordan River, an unpopulated area. He’s announcing the coming of the Messiah, and urging people to prepare themselves by turning away from habits of mind and life that do not align with what they know to be God’s best intentions for them (aka their sinful ways). And with that repentence comes a ritual, a mark of cleansing, of a new start in order to be ready for the Messiah’s arrival: baptism. While the people seem to flock to him, John does not welcome all comers; he’s down-right hostile to people from two different sects of Judaism: the Saducees, who were aligned with the Jewish royal family and the institutional structure of the Temple – what you might call the Establishment; and the Pharisees, who sought to live good and religiously upright lives but often went overboard in their scrupulosity and lost their sense of humanity, mercy, and human frailty. So when people who were Saducees and Phariess come out to the river to see what is going on, to investigate the commotion, John pulls no punches: “You brood of vipers” he calls them - a mess of slithering snakes. Yikes! That would want me turn and run away.
And yet, the people come. They hear in John’s message of preparation and getting their lives in order for God’s Anointed One, a message of hope. We’ve kind of forgotten that. Repentance is not about condemnation; repentance is about hope – about turning one’s life around, with God’s help, making room for hope and healing and joy. And baptism is a sign of that hope and new life.
This morning we will baptize Aaron Matthew Saitta. And while as a four-month old Aaron really has no capacity to repent and to nothing to repent of (other than keeping his parents up at night), the world he has been born into will need him to be ready to embrace and welcome the Messiah, the Christ, into his life.
Now in our mind’s eye we’ve still got that banner with God’s Peaceable Kingdom, as described by Isaiah, up over the human stage, but now the scene below has changed – as it does with every passing age – and we see ourselves facing new challenges, new difficulties, new dangers and opportunities for sin against God and our fellow human beings. In fact, in the last month we’ve seen that the slow, somewhat steady, but far-from-complete progress we have made in this country in civil rights and human rights and extending basic human decency to all people has not progressed as much as we had hoped and we had told ourselves. If anything, the unveiling of the last weeks and months has shown us that there has been a pendulum swing, a system backlash that has been driven (at bottom) by fear and a sense of scarcity.
Fear can be very powerful, but we Christians know that at the end of this Advent season we will hear the Angel Gabriel say to Mary: Fear not! And the heavenly host will say to the shepherds in the field: Fear not! Angels in Scripture almost always tell us not to be afraid. Because if we let ourselves give in to fear, we will not be able to hear and receive God’s message, we will not be able to respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, we will not have the courage and strength to act as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Our baptism calls us away from that fear. It sets before us a different reality, and a different picture of what is of worth, value, and importance – even if the world around us cannot see or will not acknowledge it. The reality our baptism ushers us into is the truth that God’s love for us is boundless; it knows no scarcity. God’s love is not dependent on how we look, how much we make, where we come from, who we love, or how often we have failed. God’s love is a gift, given to us supremely in the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And so if we choose to accept that gift, then we have the responsibility to follow Jesus, to live in his way, to be his agents in the world, offering hope and good news – especially in the places that seem most dark, most fraught, most conflicted, without regard for truth or for the infinite worth and dignity of all human folk.
In baptism we receive the Father’s love; we are joined to Christ; we are signed and sealed by the Holy Spirit. And all of this is not so that we can go to heaven when we die, but it is the launching pad for a life of faithful relationship with God and one another; a life of humble yet daring service in Jesus’ Name and on his behalf. And in some ways we could have no better model than John the Baptist: he spoke God’s truth with boldness and courage when it was called for, and did so publicly when necessary. Yet he also knew that he was not the Messiah, he was not God, this life and ministry was not his own project, but the work of the Lord who had sent him. As John said when asked, “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.” John’s humility before God and his neighbors, combined with his holy boldness, were a powerful force which he harnessed for God’s purposes.
We, too, can act with humility and boldness as we follow Jesus, as we live out our baptism, as we speak and act and pray and love God’s truth and goodness and peace into this world, fully confident that all those things await us in the next.
So in this time of our national life, and in this Advent season, let us remember:
God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.
God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.
God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2016