No harm or ruin on my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God. Isaiah’s vision of wolves living with lambs/leopards lying down with kids, embracing a degree of vegetarian commitment not even the most strident among us could top! Natural enemies, nursing babies and poisonous snakes playing together.
Isaiah’s vision was the Word of God that John the Baptist was weaned on, the Scriptures he grew up hearing and memorizing. So, what is John talking about with this fleeing the wrath to come and proclaiming that even now the axe is being laid to the root of trees; this conjuring of a Christ figure who will act in God’s stead, as fiery judge with winnowing fork in hand, separating the productive among us from the useless and consigning the latter to an unquenchably tortuous fate?
In not too many more chapters, Jesus himself will tell a story comparing the Reign of Heaven (Matthew 13) — not a place so much as a state of affairs in which God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill among us reigns in all our hearts and minds, and thus in our world — comparing the Reign of Heaven to a person who sowed good seed in a field. At night, the story goes, an enemy seeded the crop with weeds, so that wheat and weeds subsequently sprang up together. The laborers want to destroy the weeds by uprooting them, but the landowner in Jesus’ story says, “No, don’t do that, because when you pull up the weeds you might also hurt the wheat. Let them grow together.” Maybe what actors on a stage for Hamilton in New York City were pleading for a few nights ago, as a Vice President-elect waited in the wings; perhaps what world powers should seriously consider before indiscriminate airstrikes in places like Mosul or Aleppo take the mothers and fathers of war weary children away forever — letting people grow together.
Maybe Jesus’ hesitancy to play the role of fiery and vindictive judge, letting us grow together, is why John in prison will send word, asking, “Are you the One who is to come…or should we wait for another?” John questions whether Jesus is the promised Messiah because he is not judging people the way many expected. Maybe John’s expectations about the coming of the Reign of God and God’s Messiah were not being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.
Barbara Thiering (Australia) says that was a big problem in first century Palestine — people who expected a fiery judge and those who dreamed of something else. She says many people actually expected two Messiahs — one like John to shake things up, and one like Jesus, to reign in peace after all the shaking up was done. She says John’s and Jesus’ respective followers came to blows when Jesus, preaching a less rigorous, less condemning, less ascetically demanding approach to life in both this world and the next, began eating and drinking with, touching and socializing with, even healing people John and his followers considered to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually impure…. Thiering believes Jesus and John both were members of a community of believers known as Qumran and that Jesus wasn’t abiding by the very strict regulations that community upheld for all who wanted to enter into the presence of God.
Maybe John and Jesus taught different things; I don’t know. But perhaps before we look at that, we ought to ask ourselves this simple question: What do we pay more attention to? The voices of judgment? The voices of condemnation and ridicule? The voices that question our value and worth because of what we do or don’t do? Or the voice of the One who knew us before we were born and claimed us no questions asked?
You are merciful to all, O God.
You love all that exists, holding nothing of what you have made in contempt….
O Lover of Life, your imperishable spirit is in all.
Scholars say that text from the Book of Wisdom is an “unusual” one in the Bible, but I think not.
You are slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, Psalm 103 says.
I love you and you are mine, Isaiah heard the voice of God say — even if a mother abandons her child, I will not abandon you.
I will never again destroy my creation — that’s God’s promise in the very first book of the Bible.
We have to read everything that comes after that opening book through the lens of that promise.
Our concepts about salvation may change over time. The tools and information we have allowing us to interpret what we are reading in context will hopefully change. But one thing that holds steady is God’s will to save us all. Wisdom’s 11th and 12th chapters are not unusual, but people holding to the truth of God’s totally consistent mercy and love is.
Never know more about evil than you do about good — that was Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey’s advise. And I think we could extend that to say — never fear judgment more than you hope for salvation. Never put more trust in what you and others think the consequences of your failings and shortcomings will be than in the love and mercy of God which endures forever.
I don’t know what happened along the way; I can’t quite make it all come together. Somehow this terrible, horrible judgment stuff became John the Baptist’s legacy to us, but that’s not really what I think he was talking about. Judgment in Scripture is what sets us free — free to be our deepest, truest, best selves. It’s our hope, as unfamiliar as that way of understanding things may be to us.
John is calling the Scribes and Pharisees to a new kind of hope when he says, “Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham and Sarah as our parents, for I tell you God can raise up children to Abraham and Sarah from these stones.”
His warning/his call is about letting go of all the things we think give us privilege or pride of place in either this world or the next, and instead embracing the understanding that it is God who made us all and to whom we all belong. Judgment in the Bible is supposed to set us free from all the things that keep us from being who we really are — simple and honestly, children of the one family of God.
There is no alt-Right in the Reign of God; it’s on earth as it is in heaven, and that only.
There’s no withholding of forgiveness, as the Pope recently called the Church to discover again. God’s mercy knows no bounds.
“We shall all be changed.” That’s the Promise of Scripture (I Cor. 15). Sometimes to get free from whatever it is that keeps us from changing, we just have to relocate, re-position ourselves or what we think a bit. It’s what every one of us did when we came out as either Queer or Queer-supportive. We stopped living in that place of what would people think if they knew who I really was or if I stood up for my nelly or butch friend. We stopped running away in shame or hiding behind the privileges of heteronormativity and turned around and faced our worst fears. That’s what repentance is — turning around; re-positioning ourselves; no longer running from a God who scares us but facing a God who loves us and loves who we really are.
Maybe that’s the Advent question: Is knowing how deeply and profoundly we are loved enough to change our lives, or does only fear hold that power for us? John Mogabgab says that we live our lives stretched between the poles of hoping that knowing how deeply and profoundly we are loved will be enough, and fearing it won’t be.
John is trying to talk to the people gathered around him about choosing to believe that being loved by God matters enough and is powerful enough to change our lives — to help us head in a new direction; to live in a way that levels the playing fields among us.
“Repent, for the Reign of God has come near.” That’s how John’s message starts. It’s possible for God to enter our lives, to get close to us. The real issue is: How possible is it for us to receive that Presence in a way that joins us to Jesus in his mission to seek and save, not search and destroy? How possible is it for us to be close to God?
The Word and Will of God are no big mystery:
Feed the hungry.
Shelter the homeless.
Clothe the naked and care for the sick.
Treat everyone the way you would most like to be treated.
John makes it clear in the parallel version of this text found in Luke.
Somehow what many of us got taught about the message, steered us in the wrong direction — the direction of panic and fear, not promise and hope. “Repentance,” says William Sappenfield, a Lutheran minister, is an “invocation of hope,” a call to believe that things can be different, we can be different. It’s focus is on the future, the promise before us; not whatever we or anyone else may have messed up behind us.
It’s the Governor of New York saying no matter what happened in the United States on November 8th, this state — the state that has the Statue of Liberty –will remain a place of refuge for immigrants and LGBTQI people, for rich and poor, for black, white and brown, for Muslim and Christian, for all.
It’s The Rev. Michael Kimindu in Kenya organizing a retreat for 10 gay pastors in Mtito Andei, focusing not on what anyone has done to them, but on what they have to offer for a new day.
John’s question is the question we all need to be asking ourselves: Who taught us to flee from a wrathful, vengeful God? Who taught us to recoil in fear or hide in shame or lie about who we are?
I promise you, it wasn’t God. God’s voice will never ask anything like that of us. God’s voice is the one saying, “Come back to me with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart,” as Hosea heard it.
Sri Daya Mata (may she rest in peace+) taught that if people would commune with God even a short amount of time each day, (John the Baptist might say, if we’d just turn around and face God for a split second each day), we will begin to experience gradually, the love that is our true nature. Feeling love within ourselves — making room for the Presence inside us — will make it very easy, she taught, to share that with others — lions and lambs alike.
Whatever is behind us, the only thing in front of us is love — pure, unconditional, unwavering love. Get familiar with it, for as Fr. Ernest Ferlita says, that’s ultimately what hope is about: putting ourselves within love’s reach.
We live in uncertain times; there’s no way around it.
The animosity of political leaders and their governments from the United States to the Philippines;
The bulldozing of refugee camps in places like France and thousands of lives uprooted in 2 or 3 days;
Syria, Iraq and Yemen at war, with Turkey pounding at the gates and Russia trying to stir the waters and the Kurds on the march, and Saudi Arabia and Iran fighting for who’s first in the region, and a resident in the White House who thinks having a nuclear option IS an option.
I’m not trying to advocate a pollyanish response. I’m trying to say that when love finds us, it changes us, and we change the way we live and behave. When love finds us, we stop trying to take things that don’t belong to us, like what is happening from the Dakotas in the United States to the border of Myanmar, where whole villages of Rohingya Muslims are being uprooted.
When love finds you, sometimes it gives you courage. The courage born of being found by love and knowing who and whose you are is what I think George Montague, the 93-year-old gay man who refused to accept the pardon Britain is offering to every gay man living and convicted of crimes simply because they were gay, is demonstrating. “I was never guilty of anything,” he said, “only of being born able to fall in love with another man.” Love found him and gave him courage, and his courage gives us all hope.
The thousands upon thousands of women who have marched through the streets of Buenos Aires, chanting, “We want to live,” in the face of a kind of proliferation of violence that claims one woman’s life every 30 hours. Guy Phillipe, a gay man known for his crimes in Haiti, but uncatchable by any authority, volunteering to go to prison if it would mean his people, ravaged by Hurricane Matthew, could get the food and water they need to live. Love can find anyone.
It’s not about what anyone’s done wrong. It’s about what we all can do right. That’s the hope I stake my life on and that holds promise for all of us.
Rev. Elder Darlene Garner
La visión de Isaías era la palabra de Dios en la que Juan Bautista fue criado, escrituras con las que creció escuchando y memorizando. Por lo tanto, de lo que Juan está hablando es de huir de la ira por venir y proclamar que el hacha está a la raíz de los árboles; ¿es esta evocación de una figura de Cristo que actuará en lugar de Dios, como juez ardiente con aventamiento del tenedor en la mano, separando a los productivos de entre nosotros de los inútiles y consignándolos a un destino inextinguiblemente tortuoso?
En no muchos capítulos más, Jesús mismo contará una historia comparando el Reino de los cielos (Mateo 13)–no es un lugar tanto como un estado de cosas en la visión de que Dios de paz en la tierra y buena voluntad entre nosotros y que reina en nuestros corazones y mentes y así en nuestro mundo, comparando el Reino de los cielos a una persona que sembró buena semilla en un campo. Por la noche, la cuenta la historia, un enemigo siembra el cultivo con las malezas, por lo que el trigo y las malezas posteriormente surgieron juntas. Los obreros quieren destruir las malas hierbas, pero el terrateniente en la historia de Jesús dice, “No, no, porque cuando arranquen las malas hierbas también pueden lastimar el trigo. Déjenlas crecer juntas.” Tal vez lo mismo pidieron los actores en un escenario de Hamilton en Nueva York, un par de noches atrás, mientras el Vice-Presidente electo estaba en la sala; tal vez las potencias mundiales deberían considerar seriamente esto, antes de los ataques aéreos indiscriminados en lugares como Mosul o Aleppo, tomando a las madres y padres de niños cansados de la guerra eterna, dejar crecer a las personas juntas.
Tal vez la vacilación de Jesús con el papel de juez intenso y vengativo, nos permite crecer juntos, es la razón por qué Juan desde la prisión envía una pregunta: “¿eres aquel que está por venir… o debemos esperar otro?” La pregunta de Juan a Jesús sobre si es el Mesías Prometido es porque no está cumpliendo lo que la gente esperaba. Tal vez no fueron cumpliéndose las expectativas de Juan acerca de la venida del Mesías el Reino de Dios y de Dios en Jesús de Nazaret.
Barbara Thiering (Australia) dice que fue un gran problema en la Palestina del primer siglo-entre las personas que esperaban un juez feroz y aquellos que soñaban con algo más. Dice mucha gente realmente esperaba dos Mesías, uno como Juan para sacudir las cosas, y uno como Jesús para reinar en paz después de todo la sacudida. Ella dice de Juan y los respectivos seguidores de Jesús se sorprendieron cuándo Jesús, predicó de una forma menos rigurosa, menos condenatoria, menos exigente ascéticamente, mas enfoque a la vida en este mundo y el siguiente, comenzaron a comer y beber, a tocar y socializar con personas que Juan y sus seguidores consideraban física, emocional y espiritualmente impuras… Thiering cree que Jesús y Juan, que ambos eran miembros de una comunidad de creyentes, conocida como Qumrán y que Jesús no estaba acatando los reglamentos muy estrictos de esa Comunidad.
Tal vez Juan y Jesús enseñan cosas diferentes; No sé. Pero quizás antes de responder, debemos hacernos esta sencilla pregunta: ¿a qué prestamos más atención? ¿A las voces del juicio? ¿A las voces de condena y ridículo? ¿A las voces que cuestionan nuestro valor y a decir que valen la pena debido a lo que hacen o no hacen? ¿O a la voz de quien nos conoció antes de que naciéramos y aclamo sin preguntas?
Nuestros conceptos acerca de la salvación pueden cambiar con el tiempo. Las herramientas y la información que tenemos, lo que nos permite interpretar lo que estamos leyendo en contexto es lo que cambia. Pero una cosa que es constante, es la voluntad de Dios para salvarnos a todos. Capítulos 11 y 12 del libro de la Sabiduría no son inusuales.
Juan trata de hablar con las personas que se reunieron alrededor de él acerca de cómo elegir creer en ser amadas por Dios, lo que es bastante importante y es lo suficientemente poderoso para cambiar nuestras vidas, para ayudarnos a tomar una nueva dirección; para vivir de una mejor manera.
Rev. Elder Darlene Garner