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John the Baptiser

December 9, 2018

Cate Thorn

Advent 2     Malachi 3:1-4     Luke 3:1-18

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Today is the second Sunday in our season of Advent. This year we decided to pay attention to the characters in the narrative of Advent. The narrative leading us to Christmas when we say God is born with us, one of us, in human form. To look to what the characters do, what the verbs reveal to us of them. We do this together. In a time after church we gather, read the text and pay attention to the verbs listening for what it speaks to us.


Last Sunday a larger number joined the bible study verb searching session. With generous engagement we looked into the scripture. We who gathered were not all familiar to one another or necessarily to the subtleties of the English language. All of us were pretty new to this way of opening the scripture. Even so there was engagement and enthusiasm aplenty. 


John the Baptist was the character of Advent we were seeking to learn more of. It was around his presence that the particular piece of Gospel had been chosen. Not all in keeping with Advent, it is true, yet all preceding the ministry of Jesus. The ending of last week’s gospel left us hanging mid drama. Somewhat in the ‘until next episode’ style of the soap opera genre thechild John we left “in the wilderness until the day he [is to] appear publicly to Israel.”


Last week we learned of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the events leading to the birth of their first child, a son. Before conception the stage is set. The appearing angel promises that the baby to be conceived, to be named John, will be filled withthe “spirit and power of Elijah.” Elijah looms pretty large in the prophet stakes in the Jewish faith narrative, so its fair bet John is likewise to be a prophet. From John’s beginning, we’re told, “the hand of the Lord was with him.” The gospel of Luke read today, exploring the character of John the baptiser, is going to be about a prophet. It is inevitably also going to be a prophetic text. 


Having gathered as a whole last Sunday, we then divided into smaller groups for a time. One group was to look for nouns, one for verbs and the other for adjectives. Nouns were most numerous, then verbs, then adjectives. The process helped us see the familiar text with different eyes. 


Then we came together to consider the verbs, verse by verse. This began straightforwardly enough. The first couple of verses only had a verb or two. Then it got a little trickier. Words from the prophet Isaiah entered stage left. With them arrived some challenge, a little confusion and some consternation. We had worked out what the verbs were but which verb related to whom? Were we looking for the one doing the verb or the one being told they were to do the verb? It wasn’t that one way was better than the other just that we had to be consistent. 


As we mused our many voices spoke into the room, some to the group, some to each other, some to themselves. A cacophony of noise arose as we puzzled and wondered. Different things were being discovered, different voices were present. How were we to talk with, to one another? The context was new, a new group, a new way of doing things. I’m not sure we were all attending to the same task. It made me smile and reflect, nothing like chaos, confusion and competing voices when a prophet is introduced! Were we also distracted by wanting to get it “right” wanting to solve the puzzle, to have an answer? Even as we were simply seeking to discover what was uncovered, perhaps not seen before because of our preference for nouns we could nail down.


Once we’d done the best we could we stopped to look at what was before us. The first verse is stacked with the names of the powerful few. They’re full of titles Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias ruler of Abilene, the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. They introduce John the baptiser and they allget just one verb, “was.” The powerful “was” on this prophetic stage. 


John’s introduced, he’s more than just of his time. John of the wilderness who’s going about proclaiming a baptism of repentance isn’t just an isolated crazy man. Those collating the stories for Luke’s gospel introduce John then quickly deploy the text from Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies of a future “voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” It’s not spelled out but the deft positioning of this text from Isaiah hints and points, suggests and intimates so we, with Luke's community, will join the dots. John is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John stands in continuity with the lineage of prophets threaded through the Jewish narrative of the Lord their God. Echoing through Malachi, the prophetic messenger comes to prepare the way. A prophetic lineage points from and to. That’s the intention. That’s the link the compiler of these stories for this Luke community wants us to make.


Malachi, then the words from Isaiah in Luke, repeats the imagery of a messenger coming, of preparation for a new way. This strand of prophetic voice, the threat and promise of a fundamental inversion of our landscape, these images are stored in me. I’ve heard them so often they’re like memories, they’re known, if mostly unexamined. The words spoken are of how things shall be. They’re not written as an invitation to participate. It’s more as if we’re being told, being warned of a fundamental rift, shift in the status quo after which things will align.


The voice crying out in the wilderness declares things are going to be other than the way they are. High places shall be levelled, deep places raised, crooked straightened, rough smoothed. The voice from the wilderness spoke this way into that day. The voice of the wilderness crying out in our day echoes same warning. The boundaries between water and land are moving, the effect of climate change, valleys will indeed be filled and hills thus levelled. Certainly we have to align ourselves differently. 


Preparing the way of the Lord involves smoothing, straightening and evening out of that which disrupts, erupts, roughens or chafes. Smooth evenness precedes the way of the Lord. Surely we yearn for this, desire that which shall come to pass. Yet my enthusiasm’s a little muted as I imagine the making real of such imagery. I can’t help but wonder if it’d be a bit boring, a lovely but bland sameness landscape.Yes, I know I need to be careful not to be too literal. I confess to also have an issue with the ideal of heavenly bliss. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with a world of discord and dissatisfaction. A world disrupted, roughened and chafed for sure. But the competing, claiming clamour of daily survival also energises and enlivens. It causes us to question, to desire to engage and participate to bring change that is life bringing. In a strange way the discord of the world generates a friction to strive against. Our world is far from an ideal evenness but in it you know you’re alive!! I wonder how much we yearn for, want to live in a world of straight, level, smoothed ideal.


Consider the crowds that come to John in today’s gospel. John’s portrayed as a loner, a somewhat rogue character, even if the hand of the Lord is with him. Today’s gospel has John haranguing the crowds. John doesn’t woo them, or bestow reassurance. “Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” Even sothe crowds flock to him. What or, maybe who is it that sent them? What are the crowds restless for? Those who John accuses and convicts of their shortcomings, do they recognise something in John? Something’s stirred in them, they desire to be different, to change. To those coming, familiar with the paths of God, John warns, don’t come thinking you know how it is, don’t come thinking what you know will keep you safe. Your status as a child of Abraham is known as you fulfil your potential and promise to bear good fruit. Being a child of Abraham’s a verb not a noun, revealed through living in a way that brings God’s ways of justice and righteousness to life.We might find ourselves like warned. It’s not sufficient to rest on the laurels of religious tradition if it echoes emptily to serve its own ends.


The crowds who’ve come to repent, be turned, baptised plead, “What then should we do?” “Share,” that’s the verb given to the crowds. The verb for the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed” and for the soldiers, “do not extort, be satisfied with your wages.” It’s not complicated, no one’s asked to give up their day job. They’re told to be fair handed in their dealing, to be straight forward, transparent and honest. It’s as if they, like us, already know how to live rightly, righteously and equally how often we choose otherwise. Prepare for the day of the Lord, is it still to come? Might it come each time we choose to raise up one bowed down. Each time we choose to speak truth to power, relieve the isolation of those in high office and be reminded of our mutual responsibility for care. Each time we heed the cry of the wilderness, open hearts and minds to learn and willing hands to enact a way of being well together.

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