Some years ago, I read about a small, informal Buddhist day school that had opened in the UK. The writer described attending a religious assembly, during which the children were invited to disperse for a few minutes into the school grounds and bring back something ‘that would always be there.’ The youngest ran off enthusiastically, having the sense to seek out rocks and stones rather than leaves or plants or beetles. But the older children stayed seated exactly where they were. There was no point moving. They had absorbed the teaching already. There was nothing at all that would always be there.
One of the many rich, overlapping and sometimes paradoxical themes of Advent is a Christian version of that theme. I say paradoxical quite deliberately. The Incarnation of Christ that we begin to look to at this time teaches us that this world matters, this world of flesh and blood, the world of day to day life. And yet, Advent reminds us that everything around us is passing away!
Every morning in our Chapel since I came to San Francisco as a brother, more than three and a half years ago, we have prayed a prayer commending our community to God ‘in this time of transition’. I have some sense of why the brothers had begun to use that prayer. It was a time of transition in leadership. It was a time of transition in our ministries and projects, with one possible new house that hasn’t opened and another we hadn’t even dreamed about which actually has. And in our membership. Four of the eleven brothers in our province, more than a third, have joined during this three-and-a-half-year period. Now we have sometimes wondered if those words are getting a little tired. But we are always in a time of transition. Advent highlights that.
John the Baptizer is the personification of transition. He may appear in the pages of the New Testament, but he shows all the marks of an Old Testament prophet. Does he simply remind us of the prophet Elijah, or should we believe that he actually is Elijah? I don’t know! He stands at the end of the pre-Christ era, but right at the brink of a new and, as he would have us see it, terrifying work of God.
I don’t find John easy. I’m not comfortable with him. John seems so unlike Jesus, or rather Jesus himself seems so unlike the kind of destructively judgmental Jesus that John wants to warn us about. I’d prefer to be preaching on a later passage in Matthew 11 which seems to have John and his disciples expressing doubts about Jesus, precisely because of the contrast between what the ministry of Jesus looked like and the ministry that John seemed to have been expecting. But we can’t escape him that easily. Only two of the four gospels give us their versions of the nativity stories of Jesus that feed the Christmas magic, but all four tell us about John, and include strong testimony to John from Jesus. He seems to matter.
A second problem I have with John is with the pressure he puts on preachers. One commentator I read was explicit about this. The task is to preach prophetically, like John. The preacher needs a forensic grasp of the blind-spots and shortcomings of the congregation in order to call them out. ‘You brood of vipers!’ But how can I do that? I might flatter myself – and self-delusional flattery is probably right – that I would have a thing or two to say if I ever got to preach in the White House, or in some redneck backwater of the flyover states, but what do I have to say to an Episcopal Congregation in Berkeley, most of whom I never met until this weekend? And who am I to say it anyway? What is my track record on actually acting on justice and righteousness, at any level? Of course, I could always hide behind the status of my Franciscan habit – which, incidentally, in its original form should probably remind us of something much more like John’s stinking camel hair than a tailored liturgical robe.
So, John portrays Jesus as one who is coming with fire. It is, of course, an image of destruction. But it is so much more. He links this image of fire with one of a winnowing fork, and in considering the kind of separation that this image implies, perhaps discernment is a more helpful term than judgment. One of the problems about images of judgment is the way that we use them as weapons. A prevailing sin of our culture, one of the evils that prophetic voices do need to speak out against, is what has been called ‘othering’. It is hugely dangerous when this starts impacting our attitudes to people like refugees, or those of other faiths – or even those whose political stance is different to my own. Christians, through history but also in vast swathes of the contemporary church, have been some of the worst offenders. Biblical images of judgment are used to bolster a sense of the ‘them’ and the ‘us’, and especially the sense that we in our small group are clearly God’s chosen and the rest of those people out there, well, they’d better watch out. ‘Wait until Daddy gets home, then you’ll see. You’ll be sorry then!’ Again, I’m afraid I may be preaching to the choir. I am fully aware that many members of Episcopal congregations, especially in the Bay Area, are refugees from other churches, people who have had enough of a judgmental faith. Divorced people, gay people, people who just need to be honest about the intellectual questions they have. People, in other words, who find it impossible to live according to the set of rules that others insist are what faith is all about. It is hugely significant, that John, just like Jesus, reserves his strongest language for the religious elites, the enthusiasts, the Pharisees and Sadducees. But watch out. Beware the sting in the tail. One of our brothers loves to point out the irony and danger of Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple by turning it around; ‘I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that Pharisee!’ If we are the kind of progressive, forward-thinking, open and inclusive people that I might be assuming, what is the danger for us? ‘I thank you, Lord, that we are not like those fundamentalists?’ That is how some of us do ‘othering’. And what would John – or Jesus – have to say to us if they perceived us as the ones resting on our laurels in smug complacency?
Some years ago, something I read helped me see one of Jesus’ own parables about discernment in a new light, the parable of the wheat and the tares. It is a spiritual breakthrough when we stop regarding ourselves as the wheat and others as the tares, but instead begin to see that the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the chaff are present not only in every group to which we belong but within each one of us. I’m the whole field, the whole unwinnowed crop. It is me that needs winnowing. Fire, when it emerges in archetypal imagery, for instance in our dreams, is about transformation and renewal. Christ is coming, says John, to bring to us, collectively but also individually, a baptism of fire, which is also a baptism in the Holy Spirit. Fire hurts. It is going to burn us. There is very little in the preaching of John to make us feel comfortable. But it is all for our renewal and growth.
There are two other important themes in our scripture that provide context for this, and one of them is Hope. Imagine a time, says Isaiah, when the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb and the cow and the bear shall be neighbors. When I read that particular delightful translation this week, it made me think of the well-known children’s book ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’. Yes, it feels like a fairy tale or a children’s story. But it presents us with a startling vision of God’s intended purpose for the world.
The irony is that, despite John’s attack on the religiously complacent, this hope is grounded on the paradoxical fact that God has already accepted us – and that God’s acceptance is intended for the whole world. That is what St Paul is arguing in Romans. The great work of God in Christ that John heralds is greater than imagined, possibly greater than John imagined. The Messianic vision that fired the prophet Isaiah is a vision for the blessing of the nations, for all the peoples of the earth. Paul calls the Romans to welcome and accept one another because God has already welcomed and accepted them. But most of us find that so hard to believe – that God accepts us.
The Jesuit commentator Patrick J. Howell quotes Paul Tillich as saying that ‘faith is the courage to accept acceptance’ but acknowledges how hard that is. ‘It is one thing to know I am accepted and quite another to embrace it. It takes a long time to believe that I am accepted by God as I am… [it] is an act of faith. When God loves me, I must accept myself as well. I cannot be more demanding than God, can I?’
John challenges us to a faith with integrity, a faith that makes a difference in our lives – and at every level. Some seek to limit God to a quiet, secret, hidden piety, just their ‘prayer lives’. Some love the social gospel and demand that our national and international political and church life be transformed but are blind to the injustices of their own real day to day personal relationships. Others, in between these two levels, are concerned only with interpersonal concerns, regarding the problems of the world on the one hand, or the demands of genuine interior spiritual work on the other, as just too big to face. John points to a Gospel that demands a response at all these levels: in the secret places of the heart; in all our lived relationships; and in striving for the furtherance of what is referred to in Matthew’s Gospel as the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s will done on Earth.
It is too much… on our own. But once we can accept our acceptance, like the prostitutes and tax collectors who Jesus points out were the ones who actually responded to the ministry of John, then we can be ready to embrace the fire that Jesus comes to bring. Yes, it won’t be comfortable. But the burning of the chaff is, in the final analysis, simply the purging of everything in me that does not conform to Christ and hence it is the purging of everything that is not the truest, the best, the most authentic version of myself, the person I was always intended to be – as an individual, in my relationships with others, and in my engagement in society and the whole world. This purging is all for the glory of God. It is also all for my own good! As Thomas Merton wrote, ‘The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not yet Christ.’ Amen, Come Lord Jesus!
St Mark, Berkeley, Sunday December 8, 2019