The cover art on today’s service bulletin is a detail from one of the great works of art-Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. Created for a hospital and designed so that the patients could see the altarpiece from their beds, the center panel of the altarpiece depicts the crucifixion. Standing beneath the cross is the image of John the Baptist, with the lamb of God, a small lamb carrying a cross, by his side. Gruenewald was a master of perspective and artistic technique, so what stands out to me in this image is John’s index finger, pointing at the crucified Christ, which is all out of proportion with his hand. Continue reading
This week’s lectionary readings.
The contrast between the presentation of John the Baptizer in Mark and the Gospel of John’s portrayal of him is striking. For one thing, in the fourth gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize Jesus. In addition, Jesus begins his public ministry before John’s arrest. There are other differences, too.
In this week’s gospel reading, we learn about who John is not. He is a witness, or testifier to Jesus Christ, but when asked who he is, whether he is the Messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, he replies, “I am not.” Later in chapter 1, when John sees Jesus, he points to him and says twice, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
The gospel writer is concerned to heighten the difference between John the Baptizer and Jesus, to make clear that John is less important, but by writing in this way, he presents us with questions that, in a sense, we struggle with as Christians. Who is Jesus Christ? For all of the doctrinal formulations that attempted to fix and define Jesus Christ’s identity for all time, the question of who he is, for us as individuals and for our congregations presses itself on us.
How do we experience Jesus Christ? How does he come to us? How do we encounter him in our lives and in our world? We are often tempted, just like those who defined the doctrines of Jesus Christ’s nature, to fit him into a certain philosophical or theological framework. We are tempted, like those who asked John who he was, to try to fit our experience of Jesus Christ into certain pre-defined categories or terms. That’s the case all of the time, but it may be particularly true in this season, when we look for Jesus Christ’s coming in a manger in Bethlehem, and ignore other ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us.
The Gospel of John consistently asks, “Who is Jesus Christ?” As often as not, those who ask Jesus the question, “who are you?” have questions asked back of them, or experience Jesus shattering the categories they use to ask him.
Who is Jesus Christ? To ask that question in Advent is to invite two very different, and in some ways contradictory responses. He is the babe who is born in Bethlehem, but he is also to one who will come to usher in a new age. Those two answers force us to open ourselves up to contradictory and unsettling ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us. To be open to his coming, however it is he chooses to come, is one of the disciplines of Advent.
Advent 3, Year C
Grace Episcopal Church
December 13, 2009
What is it you fear most? Death, debilitating illness, loss of your job? Homelessness? Are there things you are so afraid of that you cannot even think of them? And how do you deal with those fears? Do you examine and analyze them? Or do you push them away, repress them, ignore them, or try to develop ways of avoiding or not noticing them?
For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties, we can remember fears of nuclear war. The threat was always there, lurking under the surface. Occasionally it broke through our ordinary lives, during the Cuban missile crisis, for example. But we came to live with it as a reality and as a backdrop to everything we did. More recently, the fear of terrorist attack has played some part in our lives; though again, that fear has receded dramatically since 2001.
Still, it sometimes seems as if fear is everywhere. Certainly, those of us who have been driving in Madison the past few days know the experience of ordinary, common activities becoming fear-inspiring. But it goes much beyond the lingering effects of this week’s snow storm. If like me, you tend not to pay to close attention to the news, it’s because you don’t really want to know what’s going on in the world, it’s all just too scary and depressing.
It’s often the case that when the world seems to be a threatening place, that the future is uncertain, people turn to religion. In fact one common refrain by detractors of religion is that religion both preys upon people’s fears, and survives by inciting fear. People turn to religion when or because they fear death, so it is said. Many people argue that religion creates supporters by inciting fear in people, fear of damnation, fear of hell.
Among the fears that religions, specifically Christianity, (or some forms of it) exploit, is the fear of the end of the world. Advent confronts us with that fear as we hear lessons that promise destruction and the second coming. Such fear drives the perennial popularity of movies like the recent 2012 that try to depict the future according to some religious text, in this case from the Mayan tradition. There was also the recent phenomenon of the Left Behind series that sold millions upon millions of copies. There is biblical precedent for such beliefs; we have heard over the past two weeks imagery of death, destruction, and rebirth that was used by Jews and Christians to make sense of the violent and oppressive world in which they found themselves.
John the Baptizer was an apocalyptic prophet. He foretold doom and destruction, and we hear part of his message in today’s gospel:
“YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU TO FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME? BEAR FRUITS WORTHY OF REPENTANCE…. EVEN NOW THE AX IS LYING AT THE ROOT OF THE TREES; EVERYONE THAT DOES NOT BEAR GOOD FRUIT IS CUT DOWN AND THROWN INTO THE FIRE.”
John preached what used to be called “fire and brimstone” sermons, promising hell to everyone who didn’t repent of their sins and amend their lives. John is one of those biblical figures toward whom few contemporary Episcopalians feel any sympathy. We like our religion nice and tidy, and usually not too emotional. We certainly don’t want to be pressured, whether it be to repent, or to give money. That’s all too unseemly. And many of us came from Christian traditions where, like John the Baptizer, preachers pulled out all of the stops in order to effect conversions. Some of us may still carry emotional scars from those day, scars that make it more difficult for us to find our way in faith.
And even if you come from a different religious background, or even none, you may have read Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where he describes “natural men held in the hand of God over the pit of hell” or if not that, perhaps you recall James Joyce’s wonderful description of a sermon preached at a retreat in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. The notion of religion, of Christianity inciting fear and wreaking havoc on the psyches of individuals, and even whole communities, that notion is something with which we are all too familiar and perhaps turned off by.
So we hear the story of John the Baptizer and we hope to get over it and through it, and to the much better story of the birth of Jesus, which we are still waiting for. Yet Luke provides us with detail concerning the Baptizer’s message that shades the image of John as a fearsome prophet.
John delivered those frightening words, “The axe is laid to the tree, everyone who does not bear fruit will be cut off and cast into the fire.” We hear those words and imagine ourselves terrified, caught between fear of eternal punishment, the wrath of almighty God, and our own weaknesses and sin. We wonder about John’s listeners, how did they respond? Why did they come out into the wilderness to hear him preach?
We don’t notice what Luke tells us about those listeners. They don’t fall on their knees in terror, begging forgiveness. They don’t run away in fear. They engage the prophet, they ask him, “what then should we do?” Unlike the televangelist or revivalist, John doesn’t answer, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
No, John gives his listeners advice. He tells them what to do. But his advice isn’t the obvious. He doesn’t tell those who ask him to come out and join him in a counter-cultural movement. Instead, he gives them rather straightforward, and not at all that radical advice. “If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have food, do likewise.” That’s what John says to the crowds, to all those who ask. Luke has other people, specific groups come to John and ask the same question. And to them, John responds in much the same way. Tax collectors ask him what they should do, and he replies, “collect more than the amount prescribed to you.” And to soldiers, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone, be content with your wages.”
Now, as you probably know tax collectors and soldiers in the Roman Empire were not simply government workers. Tax collectors made their income by taking a percentage of what they collected. Soldiers supplemented their meager wages by extracting money from the people they protected. In other words, they were both part of a deeply oppressive, and profoundly unjust system. Yet John did not demand they leave that system.
Instead, he gave them relatively simple and easy-to-follow advice. Don’t game the system, he said. Do what you can. In fact, it’s not a message of fear at all, but rather of hope. He gives to his listeners a way of living in a corrupt and evil society. The only options are not to either flee from it or to make your peace with it. Instead, you can live within it and do our best. It’s a message many of us might find appealing as we try to make our own way in a difficult world. How many of us find us in situations, in jobs that present us with difficult alternatives, in jobs that are dehumanizing or exploitative, making decisions that are far removed from the ethic of love espoused by Jesus.
Our response is often to ignore the ethical implications of those decisions, to say to ourselves that what matters in the end is keeping the job and taking care of our families. But such decisions, such jobs, can eat away at us. In such cases, John offers us a way through. Do what you can, act as justly, as ethically as possible in this corrupt and evil system.
John’s preaching offers us one set of messages for this third Sunday of Advent. Caught between God’s judgment and the ethical demands of the gospel, we waver uncertain. There is yet another, very different message in today’s lessons. Paul, writing to the Philippians says, do not worry about anything. The rich language of Zechariah includes the advice, “Do not fear, Oh Zion.” More importantly, each time an angel appears in the gospel of Luke, whether announcing the coming of John the Baptizer, or the birth of Jesus, or even the resurrection, each time, the angel says, “Fear not.”
Our faith is not a faith created or sustained by fear. Rather, our faith is a faith that has no fear. Our God offers us salvation, love, not death and destruction, we need not worry about what might happen to us tomorrow, at death, or when Christ returns in majesty.
Fear not, the angel said, fear not the prophet Zechariah said. As we go forth from this place, let us go, rejoicing in the coming of Christ who offers us hope and love in a harsh and fearful world.