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.

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