Bringing the Kingdom of God Nearer – December 4, 2016
On Friday I had my semi-annual checkup with my cardiologist, a routine I have observed religiously since I had angioplasty in 2007. I arrived early to check in at the reception desk but the process seemed more involved than usual. Then the receptionist left for a few minutes to confer with another staff person before returning to tell me I could take a seat in the waiting room..
What is usually a no more than five minute wait in what is a pretty efficient office turned into over a half hour and even after I was called to the exam room and the EKG was done, I waited again. When the doctor appeared he was smiling and, after the usual pleasantries, asked if I knew that I was not on the schedule. “No,” I said. “I made this appointment six months ago.” “Well,” he said, “You weren’t in the schedule and the folks out there didn’t want to tell you why but I will. It seems that the new state-of-the art computer program has you listed as ‘deceased.’”
(Well that explains the gasp when I appeared at the check in!) Of course we had a lot of laughs about the question of resurrection which continued at the reception desk as I made my 6 month follow up. But, as I drove off, I thought of how startling that news could be for some: deceased. The system says you’re dead. Not what you’d expect to hear when you visit your doctor.
I’ll wager that the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to hear John the Baptist preach did not expect what they got either. “You brood of vipers!” You bunch of snake-like phonies, you biting, poisonous, slithering things.
Bear in mind that these guys presented strong opposition to the ministry of Jesus. They thought that, just because they were descendants of Abraham, they had a direct line to God. They believed that their ancestry was a protection from God’s anger. John says that descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. It’s what we do with our life, how we treat one another, what is in our heart and, most importantly, the good fruits we bear that matters,—not our pedigree. And, if we think we’re on God’s “A list,” and look down on others we think are not, we better climb out of the swamp of holier-than-thou-ness.
Odd ball that he appears to be in his retro dress and weird eating habits, John was a prophet—someone endowed by God with the power to speak the truth, to give his audience a good dose of reality, to give voice to the silence of the forgotten, hurting people. Prophets are regarded as having a role in society that promotes change. The word itself comes from the Greek word προφήτης (profétés) meaning advocate which suggests that the prophets are not our antagonists. They are on our side. They want to encourage and support us on our life’s journey.
We heard from another prophet this morning. Isaiah uses the image of a tree to talk about the difficulty of the era in which he was writing and the hope of the future in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, the root of Jesse. Animals also run through our prophetic readings in Advent. Isaiah looks forward to the time when God would make everything right and “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” This is the messianic age of reconciliation and peace, the new reality that will break forth in the Kingdom of God. It is a powerful metaphor of transformed human society. What a concept: transformed human society—and how very relevant to our “right now” experience of our world and our times.
Our challenge today is to separate out from John’s preaching what was meant for the enemies of Jesus and what is meant for us. I could spend time this morning parsing all of John the Baptist’s rants like, for example, his talk about fire, especially with fresh images this week of the raging flames in Tennessee. So before I cut to the chase here, I’ll just suggest that throughout the Scripture, fire is a reliable sign of God’s presence, what the Hebrews called the Shekinah. God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush; a pillar of fire guides the people of Israel through the wilderness.
This is the fire of God’s presence and not of judgment and condemnation. It is about the experience of being known by God, who sees us through, deeply, to the core, and loves us as we are. It is about standing before God without our masks, our titles, our possessions, our pretenses with nothing but our wounded hearts and the story of our life to commend us. The fire of which John speaks is not the fire of destruction, but rather the fire of transformation, that changes us, restores and fashions us into the image of God in whom each one of us has been made.
Writing for The Christian Century several years back, author Rosalind Brown says, “John greeted those who came to him with the demand for repentance and baptism, or rebuffed them as a brood of vipers—hardly a gentle welcome from God. Why these demands? Because so much has gone so very wrong. Our world is full of injustice, oppression, and unrighteousness, so something has to give when God enters this world—and it is not going to be God.”
Today we are called to this unpopular process called repentance. In the original Greek, the word is metanoia (μéτανοια)—which means “to change one’s mind” –to have a change of attitude and heart, to do a complete turn-around. It’s the path to the kingdom of God.
What do we need to turn from? I think even those most unfamiliar with the Bible can find the answer to that question. We just need to go to the root—to Jesus—and we will find the prescription, the blueprint for repentance in his life and his teaching.
I know when we find people expressing deep hatred for any of God’s children by abusing them and defaming them, we are not in God’s kingdom. Where we find violence and oppression towards the marginalized and the withholding of justice we know God’s realm is not there. When we find the poor getting more desperate and the rich getting a bigger slice of the pie, we are way off from God’s economy. Where we refuse to welcome the stranger because of skin color, orientation or religion, we are miles away from encountering the reign of God.
Repentance means doing something positive, something proactive—turning ourselves around and facing in a new direction. Jesuit Scholar Dean Brackley writes, “The worst danger is not pain or poverty. The worst danger is sleeping through the drama of life.”
The good news for us is that even when the human condition becomes sordid, God’s love prevails because somehow grace enters the picture and enough of God’s people respond to its call. The question is who will answer the call.
I wonder if in the silence that will follow, in our conversations at the coffee hour, in your drive home today you might consider how you can respond to God’s invitation to transformation in the next several weeks, how you can be proactive in your small corner of the world, to be a light in the darkness that someone is experiencing—either someone you know, or a stranger, maybe even someone in a far- away place and let them see, if only for a brief interlude, that the kingdom of God is near. Just don’t think about it too long—go for it.