Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Interruption

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why it hasn't been updated in a matter of weeks. I was in a rather bad accident in early January and have been in ICU and now Trauma for the last 2 and 1/2 weeks. I have undergone and am looking at more surgery. Your prayers are appreciated. Thank you and thanks be to God.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Refugees

The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Matthew 2:13-23.

According to the United Nations, there are, at any one time in this world, 40 wars going on. Some are civil wars and some are conflicts between nations. That means a lot of death, dismemberment, disease and displacement. One of the major motivations for emigration is the threat of violence. Human Rights Watch says that nearly 19.5 million people had to flee across international borders in 2014 and another 38 million people were forced to move to another part of their country. 1 in 4 refugees is Syrian with 95% of them in surrounding countries. The country with the most refugees in the world is Turkey.

Why do people become refugees? It may be that they are of the wrong religion or ethnic group or political party or are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But eventually they realize that the only way to survive is to pull up stakes and leave their home.

We are a very mobile nation. It is estimated that 41 to 43 million Americans move each year, over half of them in the summer. Some move because of jobs but few move because of persecution. So it may be hard for most of us to understand how difficult it is for refugees. If you think it is painful to leave your family behind for your job, imagine forsaking family, job, home, savings, social position and more to save your life or those of your children. The reason many Cuban exiles cannot forgive Castro is that they were forced to leave everything behind when they fled Cuba and arrived in the U.S. impoverished.

The Jews were refugees. Jacob's sons went to Egypt to escape a famine in the promised land. When their descendants left Egypt under Moses, even though they brought much wealth with them, they missed Egypt and its advantages. It took 40 years of wandering for God to breed out the nostalgia for the land of their enslavement. But God never wanted them to forget how they were resident aliens in Egypt and commanded them to treat all foreigners in their midst with justice and hospitality.

In our reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph become refugees. They leave behind all family, friends, business contacts—everything to save themselves from Herod. Some commentators doubt the occurrence of the massacre of the innocents, which is skipped over in our lectionary. They point out that no other historical source mentions it. Yet it is well documented that Herod the Great was a blood-thirsty tyrant who started his reign by slaughtering the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. He executed 300 members of his own royal court and had his wife, mother-in-law, and 3 of his own sons executed. Herod even laid plans to have many prominent Jews killed when he died, so that people would mourn at his passing. In contrast, Bethlehem was a small town with a population of maybe 1000, 1/5 that of Big Pine Key. So the number of children killed was perhaps 20 to 30. As horrible as that was, it was one of Herod's smaller atrocities and included no one the world considered important and so might have gone unrecorded during a reign in which violent and irrational death was common.

Jesus was apparently about 2 when his family left Judea, since that is the cut-off age given by Herod for massacring the male infants of Bethlehem. Scholars think Jesus was born in 7 or 6 B.C. (The monk responsible for our present year number system miscounted.) Herod died in 4 B.C. so the flight to Egypt may have taken place around 5 B.C. We don't know how long the family stayed in Egypt but a good guess is at least a year or two.

Jews often evacuated to Egypt during tough times so every city of any size there had a Jewish quarter. Joseph and Mary would have lived among fellow refugees. Still they had left behind everyone they knew. In addition, imagine the anguish they felt when word came of the massacre in Bethlehem. They had lived there for 2 years and some of the toddlers killed were Jesus' playmates. Mary would have known the parents and Joseph may have been related to some of them since he originally came from David's ancestral home. They may have felt the guilt all survivors of mass deaths do. They may have felt even more guilty because Jesus was the target of Herod's fury. Even though they left because they were warned and had no way of knowing the scope of Herod's rage, and even though they were protecting God's son, they must have had many sleepless nights over the whole event.

When news reached them of Herod's death, they may have stayed a while longer to see which of his sons would rule after him. As it turned out Herod the Great divided his kingdom among 3 of his remaining sons. Archelaus was given the southern part of his father's realm, which included Bethlehem. Archelaus proved to be as cruel as his father. He began his reign by executing 3000 influential Jews. Eventually the Romans deposed him and installed one of their own as governor. Mary and Joseph did not wait for that to happen. They returned to Mary's hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee, ruled by the less lethally inclined Herod Antipas.

Jesus must have been affected by all this. His earliest memories would have been of Egypt, where he lived until he was perhaps 4 or 5. He must have remembered his parents' grief and anger and would have heard the story of Bethlehem eventually. Did they tell him why the infants were killed or did they spare him the guilt? Did he have any vague memories of a playmate he lost? We do not know.

Then he would have been the new boy in Nazareth. He might have picked up some foreign phrases or customs in Egypt that would have marked him out as different. There may have been gossip about the circumstances of his conception as well. What impression did this leave on him?

We know that Jesus often went out of his way to help outsiders. In fact much of his ministry was aimed at those who were on the fringes of society. He did not disdain the Samaritans, whom other Jews considered half-breed heretics. He healed the Roman centurion's slave, a Gentile no respectable Jew would talk to. He touched lepers, who were considered unclean, taught women, who were thought unfit to study God's word, and ate with tax collectors, who were reviled as traitors by their countrymen. Was Jesus' vision of a kingdom of God open to all influenced not only by the Hebrew scriptures but also by his childhood experiences?

When Jesus accepted the mantle of Messiah, he acted very differently than the popular idea of God's anointed leader. He did not court the powerful or influential. In fact, he frequently offended them. He built his kingdom on a foundation of 12 ordinary, working-class guys. He discouraged a movement to crown him and talked instead of humility and his coming humiliation. He washed the feet of his students, a slave's duty, to teach them the importance of serving others. He repudiated violence, even if it were to defend him from his enemies. On the night he was betrayed, he went to meet the soldiers sent to arrest him, identifying himself and asking that his disciples be let go. Was this so that no one else might die that he might live, as happened in Bethlehem?

The history of the world is largely the history of waves of people leaving their homelands, moving away from persecution, wars and disasters and seeking new lives elsewhere. The great figures of the Bible underwent such uprootings. Abraham left his home to seek a land promised by God. Jacob fled from the brother he tricked and labored in a distant land before returning home. His son Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave and only returned to the promised land in a coffin. Moses fled to Midian where he felt like a stranger in a strange land. God called him to return to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery. The nations of Israel and Judah were conquered by Assyria and Babylonia respectively and taken into exile. Today's passage from Jeremiah looks forward to the triumphal return of the northern kingdom. Jesus also knew exile and danger.

I lived in Brownsville, Texas for 2 years and was reminded daily of illegal immigration. It occurred to me that if my family lived in a poor and politically unstable country, I too would do everything I could to bring them to a free country where the opportunity for a better life existed. Let's face it: except for Native Americans, we are all of us descended from those who fled other countries. In fact, what were the pilgrims but refugees and exiles seeking freedom from persecution?

On one of the anniversaries of September 11th PBS showed a documentary on Arab Americans. One story they recorded was that of a Palestinian American family. The husband's parents were visiting them in New York. The parents were preparing to go back to their home in the Palestinian territory and their son was naturally worried. He comes home from work one day to find the whole family sitting around the TV, watching the news. The Israeli army was reacting to a suicide bombing. Glued to the screen, the man suddenly realizes where the fighting is taking place. Behind an Israeli tank he sees the church where he was baptized. For this Arab American is a Lutheran pastor. While he was in seminary, he was picked up by Israeli authorities, held and tortured on suspicion. He was hung by his arms for days and can no longer raise his hands above his head. He was sent by his bishop to serve a small congregation of Arab Lutherans in New York City. I bet whenever he reads today's passage from Matthew he knows how Mary and Joseph felt. And Jesus knows how the pastor and his congregation feel. He knows what it is to be different, to be an outsider, to be persecuted.


For Christians, no one is foreign. We are all of us displaced persons. We are all exiles from our true home. For we are all citizens of the kingdom of God. More than that, we are all brothers and sisters through Jesus Christ. When we let him into our hearts, we are adopted into a large multiracial, multicultural, multilingual family. He made us all; he loves us all; he died for us all. There is no national allegiance, no tribal tie, no earthly bond stronger than that. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

What If?

In his What If? books, Robert Cowley invites scholars to imagine other paths history might have taken. What if Socrates had died in battle and not become a philosopher? What if the Chinese had discovered the New World? What if Martin Luther had been burned at the stake? But the most fascinating question they tackle is: What if Pilate had pardoned Jesus? Carlos M.E. Eire envisions a not very compelling Christianity without a crucifixion. But this being Christmas, I wonder why no one has done an "It's a Wonderful Life" and contemplated what the world would be like if Jesus had never been born. Would the world have been a better place, as atheists say? I'm not a historian but I do not know a lot about Christian history and I know some things that would not have happened if Jesus never lived.

At first let us confine ourselves to the social and historical effects of the absence of Christianity. One thing that would have happened is the complete fragmentation of the West after the fall of Rome. As it was, there were warring barbarian tribes. But if there were no Christian church, there would have been no network of dioceses and monasteries throughout a politically divided Europe. There would have been no common tongue based on an educated clergy required to read and write Latin. When barbarians felt they needed people who could read and write in order to, say, manage their estates or empires, they hired clergy to do it for them. We get the word "clerk" from "cleric." The Emperor Charlemagne was considered remarkable simply for learning to write his own name. The true reason for the so-called "Dark Ages" was the collapse of Roman civilization under the onslaught of Germanic tribes, not the church. The church was the only light at that time.

Before that, when the Roman Empire's capitol moved to Constantinople, and the experiment of having co-emperors in the East and the West collapsed, the power vacuum in the West was filled by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who was by default the richest and most powerful person in Europe. Only he had the resources and structure to help the poor and the sick. Only he had the authority to negotiate with the barbarians, anxious to loot the ruins of the once great empire. Take away Christianity and and when the barbarians conquered Rome, they would not have been conquered in turn by the Roman Catholic faith. The Germanic pagans would have encountered Greco-Roman pagans. Since the barbarians didn't care for literacy and learning from books, the intellectual history of the West might have died right there.

Without Christianity, there would have been no monks. There is no equivalent movement among Jews or European pagans. Monasticism arose when Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire. Those who would have been eager martyrs turned to other forms of self-sacrifice and extreme Christianity. Some became hermits. Others formed contemplative sub-cultural societies. Different monastic orders emphasized different Christian ideals. While some withdrew from most interactions with society, others became teaching orders and still others devoted themselves to taking care of the sick. It is from these latter orders that most universities and hospitals arose in the West. And the knowledge they built on came from the ancient Greek writers whose works were preserved by the monasteries. Without Christian monasteries, not only would the great universities and hospitals either never have come into being or been delayed by centuries, but the same can be said of the Renaissance.

Ironically, one major, although tragic, contribution to the Renaissance would be lacking: the Crusades. Now this is a shameful period for the church, but historians point out that the Crusades did bring Europe into contact with the then more civilized Islamic cultures, which preserved some of the wisdom of the Greeks. This in turn got Christians interested in the works of the past the Muslims had, which led to them discovering so many of them gathering dust back home in the monasteries and this initiated interest beyond the monks and helped kick off the Renaissance. Sadly, without this series of terrible wars, this alternate history Europe would have remained isolated and intellectually stagnated, with no monasteries to act as repositories of knowledge and centers of learning, and no influx of new ideas to trigger the Renaissance.  It probably wouldn't have come about because of Muslim incursions into Europe, either. I'm sure that Charles Martel would still have stopped the Muslims of Spain at the Battle of Tours, if only to preserve his Frankish kingdom. I'm also sure that Ferdinand and Isabel would have would have expelled the Moors, not for religious reasons but in the spirit of conquest and consolidation. Besides I have never found anything particularly Christian about those 2 Spanish monarchs.

Might Europe have gotten the knowledge from what the Muslims left behind in Spain? After they were expelled, Gerard of Cremona went to Toledo and translated 92 Arab works, which included translations of and commentaries on parts of Aristotle, the astronomer Ptolemy, and physicians Hippocrates and Galen. But he did so under church auspices. And he made these works accessible by translationg them into Latin. But remember: no church, no Latin as a common tongue, no interest by the secular authorities in learning from books. So, again, this would be unlikely.

Might things have gone better for the Jews, at least? I doubt it. Anti-Semitism didn't start with Christianity but began under the successors to Alexander the Great, long before the birth of Christ. One of those successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, tried to force Hellenization upon the inexplicably (to him) monotheistic Jews. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jews over this attempt. But the relationship of the Jews with other pagans would have foundered over the same issue: their refusal to add other gods to their worship. In fact, during the Middle Ages, it was often the local bishop who protected the Jews against ignorant accusations by the populace. We have many documents and a couple of papal bulls in which the lies used to justify atrocities against the Jews are refuted and denounced. I fail to see that removing Christianity from the equation would make mobs more tolerant of what they saw as strangers who kept to themselves and who would not celebrate the religious feasts of the majority. Stalin and Hitler proved that anti-Semitism is not exclusive to Christians.

Remove Christianity from the world and I wonder how far science would have progressed. While China, India and the Islamic empires all had their golden ages and made notable contributions to science, it was in the Christian West where science continued to blossom. Beginning with Boethius in the fifth century, a huge number of significant scientists were not merely presumed Christians but were monks, priests, bishops and even cardinals. It has been postulated that science flourished in the West because of the belief that there is one God who made man in his image and that therefore man could understand creation, another product of the mind of God.

Take away Christianity and there would be no pilgrims with a religious motive to leave England and settle in America. The New World would have been colonized by the companies that originally had sponsored the pilgrims' efforts but would there be spiritual or ethical components to offset the commercial ones?

Take away Christianity and where would the impetus for the abolition of slavery have come? From the earliest days of the movement, Christians have been in the forefront of liberating victims of this universal institution, even making slaves into bishops in the first century.

Despite all the talk about how Islam elevated the status of women, it is in the Christian West where women have achieved the most.

And the idea of non-violent resistance to evil came from the Sermon on the Mount. That's where the Quakers and the Amish and Gandhi and Martin Luther King got it. Where otherwise would you derive this idea? And all of these ideas came to other cultures because of Christian missionaries, who translated the Gospel and set up schools.

But the principle loss to the world if Jesus had never been born would be the revelation that God is love. The Jews and Muslims see God primarily as just. He can be merciful but he is seen as chiefly interested that people keep his law. While the Hebrew Bible proclaims God's steadfast love towards his people, with hints of his concern for the righteous people outside Judaism, God is depicted only as coming to the world as a triumphant judge. He is not seen as so loving that he would become a human being and die for the whole world. Were he seen like that in the Hebrew scriptures, the Jews of Jesus' time would not be so resistant to the idea. We Christians can see the clues in retrospect: the prophesy in Genesis 3:15, the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Passover lamb, the suffering servant of Isaiah. But without looking through the lens that is Jesus Christ, it is not an Old Testament theme that jumps right out at you.

There are plenty of religions in the world that emphasize personal righteousness. There are plenty that emphasize social justice. There are plenty that emphasize inner peace. There is only one that emphsizes self-sacrificial love. There is only one that says that God is in fact that love.

Most religions have some form of the Golden Rule, usually stated negatively: Don't treat others in ways you would not like to be treated. Only one says you must go farther than that and actually love not only your neighbor but also your enemy.

All religions have a problem with people who claim to be adherents while violating the rules. Their only solution: return to following the rules. Only one says that keeping the rules doesn't matter if you do not have the Spirit of God's love within you, because only that Spirit can change you and enable you to keep the rules. Indeed, God is more interested in you becoming the kind of person who doesn't need to keep checking the rules and who knows through the Spirit when to set some rules aside. As C.S. Lewis said, Christianity is more like painting a portrait than following rules. The portrait we are to paint with our lives is that of Jesus.

As Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. Take away Jesus and you have a world even more rife with strife and ignorance than the one we have. You'd have a world in which everyone is expected to do the just thing and no more. You would have a world in which no one is expected to go the second mile, turn the other cheek or reach out to those who oppose you or who oppose God. Let us therefore thank God for the true Christmas gift: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Word of God, God incarnate, Love incarnate, Savior, Redeemer, Priest and King.                

Thursday, December 24, 2015

First Impressions

We were coming to the Florida Keys for an interview for a new job for me and I was sick as a dog. We flew into Miami and rented a car to drive to Big Pine Key but I missed my chance to admire these beautiful islands because I was unconscious in the reclined passenger seat. So I showed up for my interview for a radio job with weepy eyes, a scratchy throat and a waterfall issuing from my nose. A box of Kleenex was my constant companion and because I didn’t know if this was an allergy or a disease I was hesitant to shake hands lest I infect my prospective boss and coworkers. Fortunately the job was for production director and copywriter so I didn’t have to record anything while sneezing and snerfing. I was given a client fact sheet and banged out the copy for an ad. It must have been good enough because I got the job. Still I wish I had made a better first impression.

We all wish we could put our best foot forward when we meet others for the first time. We wish we could make as good a first impression as movie heroes do. In the first 10 minutes of Doctor No, you see all you need to in order to conclude that James Bond is cool. He is handsome, dresses well, gambles skillfully and he can handle a gun or a woman. I doubt the series would have lasted for more than 50 years had his first appearance shown him with a red nose, which he blew constantly, while producing buckets of mucus.

Ideally a first impression should do two things: make people like you and, unless you are a spy, show who you truly are. Tonight we celebrate Jesus’ arrival and ask what first impression did he make.

First impressions can be influenced by what people are expecting. And what people were expecting in a Messiah in Jesus’ day varied. Some expected that the Messiah would be a prophet, like Elijah, a fiery messenger of God’s judgment. Some expected that God’s Anointed One would be a priest, like Ezra, bringing back people to true worship of God. But the most popular conception of the Messiah was that he would be a king, like David, defeating the Gentile oppressors, freeing his people from pagan Rome and setting up a physical kingdom of God on earth. That’s what people were expecting. It’s not exactly what they got.

What they got was a baby. Now of course all prophets, priests and kings start out as babies. One of the marvelous things about a baby is that it can grow up to be almost anyone. And if the Messiah were a mere human chosen by God for a special role or purpose, it wouldn’t be surprising that he should start out as a baby.

What nobody expected is that God wouldn’t delegate the role of Messiah. He was going to do it himself. And when you think about God coming to earth you expect fireworks. You expect thunder and lightning and scary signs in the sky. You don’t expect God to make his appearance as a vulnerable infant. So what does that say about God?

Usually we think of God in Old Testament terms, a God of justice, a God who fights for his people, but therefore a God that expects a kind of military discipline. Everything has to be done precisely according to the regs. If it isn’t there will be hell to pay.

Unfortunately we see God like that because that is the role he must play at that time in that context. Israel is a tiny nation, occupying strategic territory, wedged between enormous empires. Israel was on the crossroads between Africa, Asia Minor, Asia and Arabia. Every trade route between those continents and regions went through there. Every army seeking to expand did too. Egypt to their southwest and the succession of empires to the East wanted to secure that land. There was no United Nations, no Geneva Conventions, no World Court to protect them and see that everybody played nice. There was no reliable way to know that the Assyrians or the Babylonians weren’t on the other side of the mountains waiting to slaughter or enslave you and your family as they expanded their reach. The people wanted and needed someone powerful to save them. They wanted the Lord of Hosts, which really means the Lord of the Armies. It was a precarious existence and they wanted a law code that laid everything out in black and white so they knew where they stood and they wanted a big, strong God on their side to protect them. And that colors the picture of God we get when we read the story about how a nation of freed slaves managed to establish a small, hard-won kingdom in the middle of some of the most coveted and disputed trade and travel routes in the Near East. They were not looking for and they did not need a particularly cuddly God. They wanted General Patton.

Not that they obeyed him particularly well. Like I said, a life that uncertain called for an almost military-style discipline, with everybody knowing and doing their job. You see this not just in the Bible but in most ancient societies where there are a lot of rules that don't always make sense to those of us who live in modern western rich democratic societies who live in relative safety. The threats of hostile neighbors, famine, disease, and internal conflict require an overriding concern for the cohesion of the group and everyone's commitment to the good of the whole over and above individual freedoms. The survival of all could be compromised by 1 or a few not paying attention to what they had to do. Yet over and over again, when things are good, the people get slack. They start adopting other gods, like the fertility gods of the Canaanites, who practiced sacred prostitution, or Moloch, who required the sacrifice of children. Or they were just going through the motions of worshiping the Lord but not living out their faith in any meaningful way. As a consequence they stop taking care of the poor and start exploiting them. Because if you don't really care about God, you ultimately don't care for those made in his image, especially those who need a lot of help but can't pay you or society back. If people don't have any intrinsic worth, it's hard to justify taking care of them. So again and again we see the prophets warning the people about the consequences of both not caring anything for God or for other people. And this happens so frequently, the prophets sound really exasperated on God's behalf. God comes off as the frustrated and irate parent of a bunch of unruly two-year olds at the end of a very bad day.

So what is God like when he is not on guard duty nor herding a bunch of ungrateful, disobedient and contentious people? That's what we see in Jesus. And we first see him--God Incarnate--as an infant. God Almighty not only takes on our humanity but in its most vulnerable form. What does this say?

Faith is an important quality to have. It is trust and when the Bible speaks of having faith in God it is not so much interested in merely believing in God's existence as in trusting him. I believe President Assad of Syria exists; I don't trust him. Trust underlies all relationships. It's really hard to work with someone you don't trust. By coming to us as a baby God is showing his trust in us, in the form of Mary and Joseph. Now you may say, "Of course a baby can trust its parents to take care of it." Except we see in the news all too often that some parents cannot be trusted not to harm their children. Herod the Great executed 3 of his sons. So God by putting himself in the hands of human beings is showing his trust in at least those of good will.

In the film The Trigger Effect, all power goes out. With all media out as well, nobody knows why this has happen--war? natural disaster?--and civilization starts to fray. Not feeling safe in their own house and neighborhood, Matthew, Annie, their infant daughter and their friend Joe decide to drive to Annie's parents house some 500 miles away. When their vehicle is stolen and their friend Joe is seriously wounded, Matthew treks more than an hour to the nearest farmhouse to seek help. The homeowner will not open his door or let him use his car to get Joe to a hospital. Matthew retrieves his shotgun and breaks into the farmhouse to get the keys to the homeowner's car. The homeowner surprises him with his own gun and the two are at a standoff. When Matthew sees the homeowner's little girl, he, a father himself, understands the man's fear. Just when you think the film will veer into tragedy, Matthew slowly puts down his shotgun and picks up the keys, giving the homeowner the power of life and death over him. His gesture allows the man to know that he has nothing to fear from Matthew and he trusts him in return with his car.

To elicit trust you must show trust. God shows his trust in coming as a helpless child and, by letting his guard down, shows us we can trust him as well. 

What else can we gather from our first impression of God in human form? Besides being cute, babies elicit strong positive emotions from us because they are vessels of hope. They not only hold the promise that our family lines will continue but also that humanity as a whole has a fresh start. Their talents and capabilities are as yet unknown. A baby could grow up to be almost anyone and to achieve almost anything, as we said. Now of course Mary and Joseph know that Jesus is to the Messiah but as we said, there were different concepts in the wind. Would he be a prophet, a priest or a warrior? All they knew was that he would make the world better through establishing justice and mercy, by feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed and elevating the poor. This was God’s son; whatever he did, it would be wonderful.

There is another thing we can take from God appearing as a baby. It means he is all about love. Babies are not only the products of love but are made to be loved. In fact infants not given love, even if all of their physical needs are taken care of, can sicken and even die. The medical term is “failure to thrive.” Babies who manage to survive loveless childhoods suffer crippling psychological problems. Love is as vital as light or air to babies.

And babies can’t do much in return but love you back. They can’t do chores or earn money or even scratch your back when it itches. They just bask in your love and reflect it back at you.

In 1 John 4:7 we are told that God is love. It doesn’t say God is merely loving; God is love, the eternal love relationship of the Father and the Son, in the unity of the Spirit. And if God is love, then Jesus is God’s love made flesh and blood. God’s love finds its ultimate expression in him.

It has always been hard to imagine God, this amorphous Spirit, who created a universe that science is just beginning to understand. Comprehending the Trinity is like trying to tackle string theory or quantum entanglement. But Jesus is, as J.B. Philips put it, that vast, nebulous God focused into terms that we can relate to: time and space and human personality. That means that when we look at Jesus we see God as he really is, not in his role as protector of Israel but as the one who loves all of humanity enough to die for it.

The Bible tells us in the very first chapter of its very first book that we were created, male and female, in God’s image. If that image of God is love, then it is fairly obvious that we have marred it. The world is a pretty unloving place. We love our own but we shun and even mistreat those not like us. But Jesus is the restored image of God, or as the book of Hebrews says it, “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So Jesus shows us not only what God is like but what we were meant to be. And if we open our hearts and minds to his Spirit, he shows us what we can grow to be. As it says in 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the son of God became a human being to enable human beings to become children of God.   

One last thing we can pick up from our first impression of God as an infant: when he does something, he doesn’t do it halfway. He didn’t live an edited human life; he lived it fully, from beginning to the end. He not only risked being vulnerable, he chose to start out helpless. He chose to begin the arduous process of learning to walk, to talk, to feed and clothe oneself. He chose to have to get up every morning, do chores, go to school. He chose to learn a hard profession that required strength and skill and the ability to deal with splinters. He also dealt with clients and siblings who didn’t respect him and people who couldn’t see what he could see. He chose to undergo being betrayed by a friend and deserted by others, arrested, convicted, punished and executed on a bogus charge. What ever emotions we have experienced, so has he. He knows what our lives are like firsthand. So we can go to him with anything and know that we will receive sympathy, and understanding and mercy.

Our first impression of God is that he offers us trust, hope and love. He also knows us because he has lived and died as one of us. All that we get from gazing into the face of the newborn who made the world.

We tend to picture the birth of Jesus in the manger in a kind of hazy beautiful Hallmark card kind of way. But it wasn’t like that. He was born as we are and that is a messy process. He lived as we do, struggling at times and facing injustice. He died in a way we hope never to experience: in pain, abandoned and abused. He didn't live a sanitized life; he lived a real one. It could be pretty ugly at times. The beauty is that he did all that out of love for us. Deep eternal love. The love that made us and the love that calls us back home to God.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Hero We Need

Geeks will argue about anything. For instance when it comes to Batman, they will argue about what religion Bruce Wayne was raised in. The consensus is that he is either a lapsed Catholic or a lapsed Episcopalian. Personally I would have pegged him as coming from a branch of Christianity that emphasizes Old Testament judgment more than New Testament grace. But what I am interested in is what his friend Jim Gordon says at the end of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, the crusading DA whom the city put its hope in to clean up Gotham, has gone mad with grief and pain and killed 5 people, including corrupt cops, who were implicated in the death of his fiancé. When Batman tries to stop him, Harvey falls to his death. Gordon fears that the city will despair. So Batman takes the blame and leads authorities to chase him. Gordon says that Batman is not the hero the city needs but the one it deserves, a warrior to take on the corruption and seemingly endless parade of deranged and destructive villains. Harvey, now recast as a symbol of hope, is the hero the city needs. But I would add, so is Batman, who takes on the sins of a fallen man for the good of others.

Two weeks ago we talked about the big problem the world has: that people often do what’s obviously wrong, even when they both know better and have a good alternative. Last week we talked about why God doesn’t just wipe out all people who do wrong (but then who would be left?) or make it so people can’t do what’s wrong; in other words, make a world of robots. But God is love and love has to be voluntary. So God gave us free will. That means we are free to choose to love him and other people but we are also free not to. So God must woo us. He must show us the extent of his love for us. As so, as John 3:16 says, God sent his son. Jesus Christ is God’s Love Incarnate.

The people of Christ’s day were expecting a Messiah but they weren’t expecting someone like Jesus. They were expecting a warrior-king, who would take care of things in the usual way: by getting rid of “those people!” They meant, of course, the Gentiles. But whatever the era, whoever we are looking at, the problem is always “those people!”

To the Greek city-states it was the other Greek city-states…until it was the Persians. For the Romans it was the barbarians, and sometimes the Jews or Christians. When the Empire became officially Christian, it was the pagans. When the church split into Eastern and Western branches, as the Empire had, it was Christians who worshipped, spoke, thought and acted differently. To the Muslims, it was the Europeans. And so on. Even today politicians, parties, religious people and even countries agree that the problem is always “those people!” We just don’t agree who “those people!” are.

In 1813 at the Battle of Lake Erie Oliver Hazard Perry said, “We have met the enemy and he is ours!” Later the comic strip Pogo deliberately mangled that quote to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” And Jesus would have agreed with that. We are our own worst enemies. It is from the human heart and mind that evil comes. What we need is a change of heart, which is basically what the Greek word for repentance means. When Jesus talked of repentance, he meant people must change how they think and act.

How did Jesus accomplish this? By speaking the truth. He used the truth to diagnose the problem. He did this in his teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount, he starts out by listing 8 characteristics of what our baseline behavior should look like. The Beatitudes says that the spiritually healthy know they are totally dependent on God, acknowledge their regrets (only sociopaths have no regrets), are humble, live to do what’s right, are merciful, are totally committed to God, make peace with others, and do all of this despite being treated badly by others. A spiritually health person should help preserve the world and be a beacon for others. 

Then Jesus looks at symptoms of our disorder, our inability to live spiritually healthy lives. Thoughts precede actions, so murder is rooted in anger and adultery in a lustful and wandering eye. Elaborate assurances of truth often signal deceit. We should rise above the desire for revenge and seek to be generous instead. And inability to love even our enemies is a sign we are not acting like God. Helping people out, fasting and giving lose their value if done simply to show off your piety. Worrying shows a lack of trust in God. When we judge others we reveal our own flaws.

The treatment of our condition is to repent, as we said. And when we are talking about repentance, I can’t help but think of the 12 Step programs. The founders of A.A. basically used ideas from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement, and so the 12 Steps are pretty much the process of repentance.

Step 1 is admitting that one is powerless over whatever the problem is—alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, promiscuous sex, etc. In the case of Christians, it is whatever sins we keep falling into: arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy, overindulgence, you name it. In Step 1, you acknowledge that the problem has made your life ungovernable. In fact the best definition of addiction that I have heard is a good definition of sin—any behavior that one persists in doing despite mounting negative consequences. Which reminds me of that popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Step 2 is believing that a higher power exists that can restore one to sanity. The founders of A.A. replaced the word “God” with “higher power” or “God as we understand him” so that anyone could use the 12 steps. For Christians it is the God of love revealed in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Step 3 is deciding to turn one’s life and will over to God. That certainly sounds like what Christianity teaches. As does this summary of the first 3 steps, as told to me by an A.A. member: I can’t; God can; I’ll let him. So this isn’t really “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help; this is seeking God’s help to do for us what we find impossible to do, that is, change the way we think, speak and act.

Of course this is easy to say. It is all very well to speak of these concepts but for God to truly win us over, they must be made concrete. Jesus didn’t just speak the truth about letting God take over; he lived the truth of that too. His life showed God’s love in action. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted those who mourned, served even those outside his faith, taught women at a time when that was simply not done and stood up for the poor.

Besides showing God’s love with his words and works, with his lips and with his life, Jesus also demonstrated God’s love with his death. He died for us. Scripture never gives us a detailed description of just how this worked but it uses words like “sacrifice,” “ransom,” “propitiation,” “expiation,” and “redemption.” Basically, Jesus takes upon himself the consequences of our bad choices, of the evil we have done and the evil we have permitted to be done, in order to spare us from suffering what we have incurred.

The consequences of choices usually affect more than the person making the choice. The consequences of a good choice typically benefits others and the consequences of bad choices frequently fall upon the innocent. When you drink and drive, the consequences can affect not only the passengers in your car but also people in any other car you crash into or even pedestrians on the street. But in some cases another person can voluntarily take upon themselves the consequences of another person’s bad choices.

Let’s say you have a drinking problem. Even if you eventually go into recovery, the damage done to your liver can be so severe that it will fail and you will die. Unless, say, a loved one can give you a lobe of their liver. (The liver is unique in its ability to regenerate so that a part of it can grow back to its original size.) To the donor, that’s going to mean pain and inconvenience and a possibility of infection and other complications, up to and including death, all to, in this case, correct the consequences of another’s bad choices.

In the event that one must replace a failing heart, the donor must die, of course. Remember what God said in Ezekiel 36:26? “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Think of Jesus as our heart donor, whose death bring us life. Just as the physical donor must be free of major disease, so Jesus was free of the spiritual disease that causes us to act so heartlessly.

Jesus died that we might live. That is not what we deserve; it is what we need. It is grace.

And when we are united to Christ, it is his life we have within us and it is his life we live. Just as the transplant recipient must change his lifestyle if he wants to become and stay healthy, so we must live a life that nourishes the spiritual life Jesus died to give us. We are to behave in such a way that people see him in us, in what we think, say and do. We are also to work to see and serve him in others, reaching out to the image of God, the divine love, in all whom he created and all for whom he died.

Nor are we to neglect the physical in service of the Spirit. God created us as unions of body and spirit, as a marriage of the material and the spiritual, so that we might operate in both realms. We are now the ongoing embodiment of his Spirit, continuing his work in the world. When Jesus finished his work on the cross and in the grave, God gave him back his body. And that is what God will do not only with us when our work in this life is done but what he will do with the whole creation which he initially pronounced good. As he resurrected the broken body of Jesus and made it better than before, he intends to resurrect the lives and the world which we have likewise broken. God is a God of life. Giving life is what he does.

And he has given us our roles to do in this great work of redemption. By his Spirit, we are given different gifts to plant the seeds of his kingdom on earth. We are to invite others to join in his circle of love. We are to proclaim the good news of Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response should be—so that others may have the opportunity to be part of the solution to the problem of evil and no longer part of the problem itself. If we act as Jesus would and they see the reflection of that divine love made concrete, they will have their chance to make a choice: to return God’s love and to be restored to what he intended them to be, beloved children, doing right by each other, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Problem with Solutions

The scriptures referred to are Zephaniah 3:14-20.

The Netflix TV series Jessica Jones is about one of the lesser known superheroes in the Marvel Comics universe. She is actually an ex-superhero, having given up the costumed avenger gig to work as a private eye. Part of the reason, at least in the TV version, is to lay low after encountering a particularly evil supervillain named Kilgrave. While Jessica has superstrength and can jump far enough that it can be considered a form of flight, Kilgrave can control minds. He can tell people to do anything and they are powerless to disobey. It turns out to be a very devastating power. We find out that in the past he used Jessica as one of his henchmen and as his sex slave. Even after getting away from him, Jessica can't use her superstrength to take Kilgrave out because he usually has people under his thrall to protect him or alternately, who will hurt themselves or others if she attacks him. At one point, to save further lives being lost, she agrees to live with him nonsexually and tries to see if she can convince him to use his power for good. They end a domestic-abuse-turned-hostage-situation by having Kilgrave simply walk in, tell the abusive father to not move and letting the distraught wife and kids leave, with instructions not to tell anyone about them. Then Kilgrave tells the father to put the gun in his mouth. Jessica convinces Kilgrave to have the father turn himself into the police instead. And that's leaves Jessica wondering if she can try to make a villain into a hero.

Superhero stories are modern mythology. Though they use unrealistic ideas and heightened drama, they can help us explore issues of good and evil. One of the things I like about Jessica Jones is that it solves the whole “she's got superstrength; it's hardly a fair fight” problem that comes up in regards to superheroes. The reason they invented Kryptonite is that Superman is too powerful and by rights every adventure with him should be over in about 5 minutes. That's why he always seems to be up against other Kryptonians, other powerful aliens, robots, supercomputers, supergeniuses or magical beings. In Jessica Jones they show that superstrength is not a match for someone who make anyone do anything, especially if the hero cares about other people. Might can't solve all problems.

Another major theme however is how having your mind controlled would really mess you up psychologically. When Kilgrave gives someone an order, they want to obey him. But after this state wears off, people feel violated. Even one woman, whom he merely told to smile because she had such a beautiful one, finds it hard to smile again because at the time she had no choice. Kilgrave had ruined smiling for her.

Why am I nattering on about fictional characters? Because it illustrates two problems with the way we want God to act in the face of evil.

Last week we talked about the key problem with our world, namely that people frequently do not do what is right and often do what is wrong. We talked about the actions we have tried to rectify this problem. Education, therapy, and providing good alternatives all help when the difficulty is that people either don't know any better, are impaired or lack resources. But they don't solve the big problem of people who do know better and do have alternatives but do what's wrong—what's harmful and destructive—anyway. What do we do when people do the wrong thing simply because of their arrogance, laziness, lust for power, greed, hatred, envy or self-indulgence.

Some folks think there is another reason people do the wrong thing. Because they have been educated but badly. They have been taught the wrong things—the wrong politics, or bad science or the wrong religion or any religion. If you follow the wrong ideology, even with the best intentions, you can do the wrong things, thinking you are in the right. And let's grant that that can be true sometimes. But only up to a point. Believing the wrong thing can be inadvertently harmful, like, say, thinking that not vaccinating your children will make them safer. But the minute you start coercing those who don't believe in your truth, the minute you start trying to force them to follow your truth against their will, the minute you try to silence opposing viewpoints, you are acknowledging that you doubt the full truth of your position. Because if you really believed it was the truth, the most logical course is to broadcast it. If it is really the truth, then the truth will triumph. It may take a while. If the truth is unpalatable, people may resist it. But, like the fact that vaccination has drastically reduced the incidence of death and disability in children, the truth will eventually win most people over. It's only when you are losing the argument, that you feel you must resort to either deceit or force.

Brain imaging has shown that people tend to form their opinions based on their emotions and only then do the rational parts of the brain activate. First you decide what is right, and then you call upon your logical faculties to justify it. So people often dress up their rather nakedly emotional reasons for doing what they would do anyway with ideology. It doesn't matter if the ideology is political, economical, racial, religious, or even a mixture of the four, because the specific ideology is merely a tool and deep down it is all about getting what one wants. That's why the more extreme movements are, regardless of whether they are on the right or the left, whether conservative or liberal, the more similar their coercive tactics are. One could even argue that certain people choose an extremist position because it justifies the force they wish to use to get their way.

For instance, Islam, like Christianity, has different schools of interpretation, some mainstream, some decidedly not. According to the Pew Research Center, which surveyed Muslims in 39 countries, the majority disapprove of ISIS and disagree with their tactics of suicide bombings and violence against civilians. That includes all respondents in Lebanon, 98% in Iraq, 94% in Jordan, 92% in Indonesia, and 86% of the Muslims in the US. Only 7% of Muslims said such tactics were sometimes justified.

So ISIS has chosen not just a minority view within Islam, but an extremely tiny minority view. Most Muslims view it like Christians view the Ku Klux Klan, which once declared that Jesus was the first Klansman! No one adopted these positions out of necessity; there were plenty of other options. In these cases, they chose to ignore the vast majority of their coreligionists and emphasize and follow the more violent passages of the Bible or the Quran rather than the ones promoting peace. They chose them because they appealed to them more than the other interpretations. In other words these views did not come from their heads so much as their hearts and then they used their heads to justify them.

It all comes down to the heart. And force will not change hearts. And so while we want to see Jessica and other superheroes beat down the bad guys, and at times we want, like Zephaniah, to see God as a warrior kick evildoer butt, mere strength will not solve all problems. Could Superman end racism? Could the Hulk solve the problems of the Middle East? Not unless you want them to kill all evildoers. And isn't that what people are asking for when they say, “If there is a God, why doesn't he end all evil?”

And where exactly should God stop in punishing evil? We may not be killers ourselves but we all do things that we ought not to do. Studies show that most people will cheat, if only a little, when they think no one is watching, Studies show that most people will pass by a suffering person lying on the sidewalk. A student video project showed that most people will not stop or intervene if they see a person beating up someone else in public. And we know that we ourselves do things like drive and text or go over the speed limit or pass when we shouldn't though we know that stuff endangers everyone around us. We scroll past that Episcopal Relief and Development or ELCA appeal on Facebook to help people in some disaster area, not even giving $5 and then go on to another site and spend $50 on some video game or gadget or something else not strictly necessary. We let slip that piece of gossip about the person who just happens to want the same job we do. We watch that porn, never asking if the girl is doing it consensually, though we have heard that sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business. We stay quiet when someone says something racist or makes crude comments about a woman we know. Sometimes we do what is wrong and sometimes we let things we know are wrong go on. But we want God to stamp out evil. Just not ours.

So if strength will not solve the world's problems, because it doesn't change hearts and minds, why doesn't God simply, magically change people? Again when we ask “If there is a God, why does he permit people to do such awful things?” we are asking either that he kill these people or that he change them against their will. If people doing the wrong thing is the problem, why won't God just make it so people can't do what's wrong?

In the series Jessica Jones, Jessica puts together a support group of people whose minds Kilgrave has hijacked. Even though he makes them feel that they want to do these things at the moment, they feel violated. The word “rape” is used because they had no choice.

The reason God gave us free will is because he is love. Love has to be voluntary to be real. He could make a world where no one could do anything wrong or harmful. In other words, he could make a world of robots. And he could make them say they love him and one another and he could make them act in ways that seem loving. But it wouldn't be real. Just as it wasn't real when Kilgrave made Jessica act as if she loved him. Instead it drives her to drink. To self-loathing. One of the things that makes us human is our ability to choose. The most dehumanizing thing in the world is to have your ability to choose taken away. God wants us to choose to love him and others. As Paul says, “Let your love be genuine.” (Romans 12:9)

Of course, if you have the ability to choose, you have the ability to choose the wrong thing. Otherwise it's not a real choice. There is no getting around that. God was willing to make a world in which there was the possibility of people rejecting him and other people in order to have a world in which we have the ability to choose to love.

Choices have consequences, though. That's another avoidable fact. If you made a choice and it made no difference in what happened, your choice wouldn't matter. We live in a world where choices matter. If you choose to do the right thing, one series of consequences will follow. If you choose to do the wrong thing, another set of consequences are triggered. If I choose to hit you, things will proceed in a much different fashion than if I choose to hug you. That's not coercion; that's just the way a universe that allows for real choice works. When the Bible talks about God's judgment, it is primarily talking about people reaping what they sow. You can't set off a rock slide and then grouse when it buries your camp.

God has chosen not to coerce us, by either physical or mental means. And as part of our being created in his image, he has offered us choices. And if he is true to that principle, he must solve the problem of people doing wrong without resorting to manhandling or mind-control, for those two tactics close off choice. That means he must woo us. He must show us how much he loves us and do so in unmistakable terms.

Last week we looked at the diagnosis of the problem. This week we looked at what is wrong with two popular solutions for how God should take care of the problem. Next week we will look at how God actually tackles the problem. Next week we look at Jesus.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Setting Things Up

The scriptures referred to are Luke 3:1-6.

My Kindle has been doing an annoying thing lately. When I open a new book, it skips right to the first chapter. But I like to read prefaces, especially if it's nonfiction. I like to read how the author conceived of the book, what incident or problem or question prompted its writing and how he or she wishes to frame his contribution to the issue. I also like looking at the Table of Contests, perusing the chapter titles and thereby getting an outline of what the book will cover and how it will break the topic down.

A lot of people like to just jump in and figure things out as they go. There is something to say about this as a storytelling technique. I do wish superhero movies would stop retelling the origins of Batman and Superman and Spiderman. Everybody knows those stories! The James Bond films ran for 50 years before anyone felt the need to give him an origin story and the delay didn't hurt the franchise a bit. The Shadow never had a story that told us how he knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men...until they made a movie long after his career in radio and pulp fiction were over. Sadly it was a flop at the box office. Similarly people keep trying to give Sherlock Holmes an origin story, though he never really had or needed one. Doctor Who didn't address the title character's origins for 6 seasons and still hasn't told us everything about the Doctor, hence the question enshrined in the show's title.

All you need to know about those characters is revealed by their actions. They are, after all, action heroes, even if the action in the case of Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor is cerebral. They stop the bad guys, each in his own way. What more do you really need to know?

On the other hand, sometimes a person is so wedded to a specific quest or a purpose that you do need to know something about him or at least the situation to understand what he or she is trying to achieve. The Lord of the Rings would be pretty confusing if you didn't know what the one true ring was and why it needed to be destroyed. Imagine trying to figure out what was going on in the Matrix movies if Morpheus didn't explain the situation to Neo. When the story is about more than just bashing the bad guys, especially when it's about setting the world aright, you need someone to tell you how the world got in such a pickle in the first place.

That's why Christians didn't just jettison the Old Testament once they worked out the parameters of the New. And that's why all the gospels start with John the Baptizer. He bridges the two. So how does John set up the situation?

There are a lot of theories about what is wrong with the world but it boils down to people not doing the right thing. Now, do we not do the right thing because we don't know what it is? That's certainly true in some cases. Children don't know any better and have to be taught right from wrong. When we adults are dealing with phenomena we don't understand, we may do the wrong things. In both cases, education is the solution. Education about the dangers of smoking has reduced the number of smokers to 15% of the population in the US, down from 20% as late as 2009. So education can make a dent in destructive and self-destructive behavior due to ignorance.

But not all. These days I doubt any smokers in the US don't know about the link between smoking and respiratory diseases like lung cancer and emphysema. What factors keep us from doing the right thing when we do know better? When it comes to smoking, peer pressure comes to mind. But that doesn't force you to smoke. If peer pressure was urging you to play Russian roulette, most of us would find it easy to resist. Smoking and certain other bad habits don't instantly kill you. The problem is that we are terrible at recognizing slow and gradual threats as risky. But again education has lifted the veil from our eyes on certain unhealthy activity that used to be acceptable.

If, however, you ignore the insidious nature of some unhealthy pleasures, you may end up addicted. Addiction keeps a lot of people from quitting smoking, drinking or taking drugs. It also appears that one can be addicted to behaviors like gambling, eating and even sex. They affect the same reward centers in the brain and for some people they can become compulsive. But today help exists for just about any addiction. There are various programs and all have approximately the same success rate. So once more even though addiction can make not doing what is right difficult, it doesn't actually make it impossible.

Lack of an alternative can keep people from doing things the right or at least the best way. Poor neighborhoods are called food deserts, because they lack large supermarkets offering a variety of healthy foods. So people who don't have cars simply buy junk and processed foods available at local convenience stores. In this case the alternative does exist; it's just very difficult to do the shopping when you have to take the time and expend the energy to carry your family's groceries miles by foot. Lack of money may also influence families to stock up on cheap, calorie-dense foods rather than pricier healthy foods. Can't they get help from the government? Yes, provided their gross monthly income doesn't come to more than $2628, which is $31,536 a year—for a family of 4. That will get them, from SNAP, $649 for food a month, which is $162.25 per person a month or $5.40 per person per day. Or $1.80 a meal. And some people think that's too much to spend on the poor. Would Jesus?

So, yes, sometimes people don't do the right thing because they lack a good alternative. But that's not the only reason we do wrong. Why did wealthy Wall Street executives gamble with their client's money on sub-prime mortgage loans? Did they not know any better? Other Wall Street firms knew this to be such a bad deal that they actually put their money on them failing—which they did. And I'm sure you can think of other examples of people doing harmful things when they really didn't have to. Everyday in the news we hear of people doing the wrong thing despite knowing better and having an alternative. If we further rule out those who are psychotic, who are so mentally ill that their perceptions of reality and their ability to control their behavior are severely compromised, that means the rest chose to. They chose to do things that are destructive to other people's lives. And that's evil.

In Jesus' day, the religious leaders were still trying to deal with the problem through external means, through requiring specific religious acts. Jesus knew this was useless. He said, “For it is from within, from the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (Mark 7:21,22) If that's the problem, if the intent to do evil comes from within, then merely making external changes—in dress or in rituals—won't work. Education won't work. Peer pressure, therapy groups, giving people alternatives, even punishment won't stop the person who willfully does the wrong thing. If you do not change the heart and mind, you will not change the behavior.

So that's the problem that God is dealing with. That's the context for Jesus' mission. And the person to point this out, rather bluntly, is John. He is proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” And that's pretty radical.

The Jews did baptize...converts. Gentiles who wanted to become Jews not only had to get circumcised but also were immersed in a ritual bath. They were then considered a new person whose past was treated like it belonged to someone else. But John is proposing baptizing Jews, as if they were Gentiles who had to start their life with God over. And people were flocking to him because they knew things were actually that bad and they had to repent. They had to change their minds about how they were living their lives and turn them around. It was the ultimate do-over.

Next week's gospel reveals the things John tells the people they must do. They are very much in line with the stuff the Old Testament prophets would say. They are about being fair with and compassionate towards other people. In fact in many ways John could be considered the last of the prophets of the old covenant.

The covenant God made with his people at Sinai was straightforward. Enter into this agreement with me, says God, do your part and I will do mine. And the covenant includes things like the freeing of slaves every 7 years, the protection of widows and orphans, the prohibition of interest on loans, the forbidding of bribes, the forbidding of incest, the protection of immigrants, the respect of the aged, the prohibition of prostitution, the humane treatment of animals, the wrongness of spreading rumors and holding grudges and more. In addition, there are also a lot of laws about the priests and the building of the tabernacle and the rituals of worship. There are also laws that strike us today as odd or terrible, which were either consistent with or deliberately made to contrast with the other cultures of that time and region. But the basic thrust of the covenant is exactly as Jesus summarized it: to love God with all one is and has and to love one's neighbor as oneself. If the people do their part, God will do his.

Frequently however the people do not do their part. They either worship other gods or reduce their dedication to Yahweh to mere lip service and empty ritual. They tolerate injustice and violence and corruption, and indulge in excess while neglecting the poor and needy. And the nation suffers in response, with God removing his protection and letting foreign empires conquer his people and even take them into exile. When the people repent, God relents and liberates them and takes them home.

But during the exile, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel receive word that God will make another covenant, one that calls, not for physical circumcision, nor external changes to the flesh, but a change of heart, the root of the problem. Jeremiah 31:33 says, “...this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” And in Ezekiel 36:26, 27 God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them.”

John's message mirrors these concerns. And John demands that people make a visible response to God's message. They need to come down into the river Jordan and let this wilderness-dweller with the camel hair clothes and the bug and honey diet baptize them as if they were never really Jews before. That's a pretty dramatic action.

People today seem to think that baptism is just a magical rite that protects people from going to hell. It is actually the gateway into the new covenant. And it requires a real change of heart and mind, that results in a change of behavior. As John says in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” But he knows that the people will not be able to do this on their own. So he says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16) Here's the diagnosis, says John. And for treatment you need to go to a specialist.

So the stage is set. God is about to initiate his new covenant. He will deal with the heart and the mind where the problem lies. And he will do it not through John, the one who is gathering people's attention. He will do the necessary work through another. That's the person we must look for, says John.


And that's what we are doing in Advent. We are preparing our hearts and minds for the one who will change them. God is doing something new. We must be prepared for surprises.