That Cliff Out There
The readings for Advent were set up for looking for the second coming of Christ, not looking back at the first coming. This helps make sense when we might wonder why we are hearing about John the Baptist yelling at everyone to repent, when we think we are getting ready for Christmas. Well, actually, no, we are getting ready for the second coming of Christ – which the first three gospel writers (Mark, Matthew and Luke) clearly expected to happen within their lifetimes. By the time John’s Gospel was written some 120 years after the death of Jesus, that expectation had begun to shift. But we are reading Matthew at this point in the calendar, and so, for them, the story really starts with John the Baptist calling people to repent and also foretelling the One to come. He was not talking about a baby.
What’s going on here? First we have the credentialing of John. In those days John the Baptizer appeared, and they go back to the first reading from Isaiah. We need to remember that Isaiah was a major reading for the people listening to Jesus. They probably would have memorized it, or at least come close to memorizing it, because it was such an important part of the canon. In the same way, I cannot read these words of Isaiah without hearing the music from Handel’s Messiah. In other words, this would have been totally familiar texts for them – and Matthew says, that voice in the wilderness? That voice is John. And what is the voice saying? Prepare the way of the Lord – the Lord is coming, and soon. Not only is he coming soon, he is coming with power.
The root of Jesse is coming. That is a very bold political claim, because the “root of Jesse” is the heritage of King David – which is why the writers include those geneologies – to lay claim to this “root” of Jesse, the Davidic line. Of course, back then, the religious and political were one and the same, so it does not matter that the claim to the Davidic line was being made in what looks like a religious statement to us. It is actually a highly inflammatory political statement.
Now John was apparently the cousin of Jesus, but that is not what made him famous back then. What set him apart was that he told the truth. He lived out in the desert, he was not beholden to anyone for anything, which meant that he did not have to live in fear of anyone. And people listened to him. He told them that they had missed the mark, sometimes badly. They came down to where he was at the Jordan River, and listened and heeded the altar call and went into the water for the release of their sins.
A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Why is baptism important? As I tell people rather frequently, baptism is not fire insurance! We do not baptize people in this church because we are afraid they are going to burn in hell. We offer the sacrament of baptism to people so that they can make an outward and visible sign of what has moved their heart at a spiritual level. People listened to John preach, and they were convicted, and they went down into the water.
Many people do not realize that baptism itself was not new to John the Baptist. It is a standard part of Jewish practice – for converts to the faith, and is called tevilah. In other words, if you are born to a Jewish mother, you do not need to be baptized. But if you convert to Judaism, then you have tevilah, and it is full immersion. What John was doing that was new was saying that just because you were born Jewish didn’t matter in terms of your relationship to God. This was very new. He says very clearly: “Don’t think you can say that we have Abraham as our father!” It doesn’t count. Your actions count. Your lineage, not so much, in fact, not at all.
This was absolutely freeing to some people, and totally appalling to others – and the line between them is very clear. It continued with Jesus. The 1% of Jesus’ time was appalled. The 99% got it, they repented. The other thing that John said was that the messiah had come. Again, the 1% immediately started planning to take him down. The 99% were ready to listen when Jesus burst onto the scene.
So what about us?
Well, it’s confession time! I have found all kinds of ways to avoid this subject of repentance. But it was recently explained to me in a way that made more sense. Here’s the picture: You see your friend driving toward a cliff – only the friend somehow missed the signs saying that there was a cliff ahead. What do you say to your friend? Stop! Don’t go that way! Turn your wheel! Don’t keep going, turn. Repentance means to turn from the way you are going. That’s all it means.
When my brothers decided to drive across Canada, they knew it would be an adventure. So they didn’t pay much attention when they saw a sign that said “road ends in 10 km.” They were on a perfectly good paved road, it was even 4 lanes worth of road, as I recall, which is why they simply could not imagine that the road would simply end – but it did. One minute they were on road, and the next minute it was dirt, and there was no future in this direction! Fortunately, it was daylight, fortunately, it was simply the end of the road and not a cliff! They turned themselves around, went back a ways, and found another direction.
But I think about what often happens to us. Often, it is a cliff. If you keep going this direction, you will fall off, our friends say. We fall off, and then we are rip-snorting mad that we hurt. In our anger, we lash out at the very friends who tried to warn us. Or perhaps it is just the end of the road. Again, we rage! Why is this the end of the road? I want to go this way, why can’t I go this way?
Because, dear heart, that way leads to death. God says, no, don’t go that way, go this way. Jesus has shown you this way to life. That way is a dead end, there is no future there for you. Come this way. Yes, you have to turn from the way you have been going. Yes, it may be embarrassing, or painful. People may call you a fool or worse. Would you rather die?
Sometimes, in our rage and our fear, we say yes, we would rather die! I have been in way too many hospitals in my time as a priest, and I have the picture in my head of watching a man with lung cancer carefully taking off his oxygen so he could light up a cigarette. Of course, by that time, it was too late. He might as well have the comfort of it. What was exquisitely painful was watching his daughter light up – knowing that her father’s fate was in her hands, and that she was choosing to follow him. Her rage said that no one was going to tell her what to do, and her fear was that quitting would hurt too much for her to bear.
We all have our own cliffs, our own dead ends, the places where our fear and our rage holds us captive. Yesterday was the commemoration of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and I saw the poster that said, Day of Infamy, Years of Infamy. The committee is already hard at work putting together the program for the next Day of Remembrance. They want the religious community to help out, but they do not want to hear anything about forgiveness, about repentance, none of that.
I cannot say very much, I am a white woman, privileged by my skin color in our society. But I do know what it means to be discriminated against, and to have my people killed in concentration camps in Germany, and to have them beaten and killed, even now, even in San Francisco, to have to fight for the right to get married, and to have equal treatment in housing and jobs, which is not available in at least half of this country. I know how important it is to remember – and I also know how important it is to forgive.
Jesus called us to the way of forgiveness. When we do not forgive, we are captives of our own rage. To forgive does not mean forgetting. We are not called to forget what our oppressors have done, and we are not called to let them do it again. When someone has hurt us, it is not OK to excuse their behavior, not at all! We need to protect ourselves from having it happen again. At the same time, when we release our anger at them, we have gained control. The aikido master smiles gently at the angry person coming towards her, moving at just the right moment to use his energy to propel him through the air with the greatest of ease. She is not angry, although he intended to hurt her, but she did protect herself. He has the choice at that point, to get curious about what just happened, or to fall off of the cliff of anger.
These days, John the Baptist comes into our tidy worlds causing trouble, telling us that we are walking straight for that cliff in front of us, and that we need to turn and do something different.
So here we are starting the second week of Advent. What would happen if you simply picked something that seems normal and necessary, but when you look at it with new eyes, might be a cliff for you – what would happen if you turned and did something differently? It might be doing something, or not doing something. It might be coming up with a different response to what someone else is doing. It might be thinking differently about something.
Where is your cliff? What would it mean for you to turn? Could you do that for a week?