2 Advent Cycle C December 9, 2018
Malachi. 3:1-4 Song of Zecariah
Philippians 1:1-11 Luke 3:1-6Lectionary Link After reading the writings of the prophet Isaiah that are used to characterize John the Baptist, I respectfully rename him, "John the Bulldozer."
Winding roads made straight. Valleys filled in to be made level. Mountains and hills leveled to get rid of the climb. All the work of a bulldozer. And that is how the writer of Luke's Gospel used the prophet Isaiah to describe mission and work of John.
I like to watch the young preschool children walk on the Labyrinth. Some follow the rules of the Labyrinth by walking in the path and so it takes several minutes to get to the center. But then there are the children who walk across all of the lines and get to the center of the Labyrinth in the way that a crow flies. They stand in the middle of Labyrinth and exclaim: "I got here first."
John the Bulldozer would like this. Why? John saw that too many of the people of his time were given a long labyrinth that they had to walk toward God. And they were not given any hope of making progress. They were being told to walk through the wilderness and maybe you'd make it to the Promised Land, but probably not because there were too many mountains to climb, too many deep dark valleys and too many winding roads with no way of knowing what was around the bend.
What kind of detours and obstacles was the prophet writing about? What kind of obstacle did John the Bulldozer have to clear away?
Many of the obstacles were religious obstacles and detours. The history of the practice of religion is also the history of institutional obstacles which build and accrue and the original purity of religion is lost or covered up. People get blocked from having access to God. People get blocked from knowing and practicing the direct access to God that they have simply because of their being made in the image of God.
What kind of obstacles did the people in Palestine in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist face? The main obstacle was that "official religion" was too much of a closed and exclusive club. The requirements for membership in this "closed club" left many people unqualified. But large numbers of those unqualified people became the curious audience for John the Baptist and Jesus.
How did Judaism in the time of Jesus result in the need for religious reformers like John the the Baptist and Jesus?
Too many people in Palestine fell through the religious nets. The religious netting had gotten very exclusive. Since Palestine was controlled by the authorities of the Roman Empire, all of the people in Palestine had to play according to Roman Rules. If one was a Jew in Roman controlled Palestine, how could one retain one's distinctive Jewishness and not become tempted to be compromised with the people who controlled the country?
The Jews in Palestine could become adherents of one of the religious parties, like the Pharisees or the Sadducees. There were leaders, scribes, priests and rabbis to provide guidance for the appropriate religious behaviors.
The Gospels have very tough words for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These were the prominent parties in the political council called the Sanhedrin. This council had to negotiate a very limited area of religious freedom for the Jews in Palestine. They had to avoid upsetting the Roman authorities and so they needed to "control" their communities and avoid any public disturbances or anything that looked like a threat to public order. People who drew crowds of people would draw attention. Governors and kings like Herod and Pontius Pilate would warn the Sanhedrin, "If you can't control your people, then we will have to step in and do it for you." This is, in fact, what happened in the crucifixion of Jesus.
I hope that we might appreciate the complexity of the situation for the Jews in first century Palestine. The Sanhedrin need to control their communities as well as to preserve the purity of their ritual practice meant that many people were denied religious significance. If they did not have status with God because they were not and could live in full observance of all of the rules that pertained in Judaism in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, it left them like sheep without shepherds.
So shepherds like John the Baptist and Jesus arose. They saw the crowds which did not have access to an understanding regarding their own worth and esteem. "If we can't please the religious authorities; if we can be fully observant and compliant with all of the religious requirements how can we be regarded as God's people?"
This is where John the bulldozer comes him. What did John do? John simplified the religious ritual. What ritual did he require? He required baptism in the Jordan River. But not just a ritual; he required repentance. What is repentance? The Greek word is "meta-noia." It literally means the "after-mind," the "future mind," or the "renewed mind." John only required a belief that one could be better today than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. John only asked that people be committed to future perfection and he asked them to make this commitment by being baptized in the Jordan River. What was the last barrier that the ancient people of Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land? It was the Jordan River. John the Baptist, by baptizing everyone, including Jews, was requiring an individual commitment to a new future identity. And this was quite a radical religious reform. But it was viewed as a prologue to all of the reform which happened because of Jesus Christ and his after-life effects in the early church.
To be God's chosen people, don't you need to be circumcised and be fully observant of all of the ritual purity rules? Too many people were forced by their situation to live compromised lives with the Roman authorities and soldiers and they couldn't fulfill the religious rules of the parties of the Sanhedrin.
So, John the Baptist was regarded by the early church to be a bulldozer, and certainly as one who provided the way for Gentile Christianity. The repentance and baptism of John the Baptist was a belief in a God of grace who was ready to meet anyone who believed in God's gift of living a better life.
The church and any organization can accrue much in our histories. We can begin to carry lots of baggage and slowly the task of carrying our baggage make us forget that we are really here to make the journey directly to God; we are not here to do luggage shopping.
The message of John the Bulldozer and the season of Advent is this: Go directly to God and God's grace. The church and religious ritual are the after effects of doing this. The church is to be a gathering of people who are committed to help other people believe in repentance, that is, to believe that their lives can be better in the future. And we proclaim Jesus Christ as the one who can inspire us and help us on this road of repentance.
Let us get out our Advent bulldozers and see what we need to clear from our lives, especially the things which have distracted us from going straight to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Little boys love bulldozers. We can love John the Baptist and John the Bulldozer too, as we look to reform our lives toward perpetual excellence. May God help us to find the most direct path to God today. Amen.