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A People in Waiting, Part 2: “A Baptism of Repentence”

Luke 3:1-6

 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Christians were not the first to celebrate the sacrament of baptism.  Ceremonial washings were conducted throughout the Ancient Near East.  The people of Israel, for instance, were commanded to perform ritual washing after becoming unclean by touching carcasses, menstruating women, and the like (see Lev. 15-16).  In the first century, baptism took on a new meaning for the Jews—it was used not only for ritual purification, but as a rite of initiation into the prevailing political parties of the day.  We might not think of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as political parties, but that’s precisely what they were.  Each had their own idea about how to be Israel under the rule of the oppressive Roman government, (a problem to which Christianity offers a strange and refreshing answer, which was in part the topic of part one of this series). 

The Sadducees thought the answer lay in the Jerusalem temple.  (Jesus directly confronts this philosophy with his cleansing and condemnation of the temple, and act so politically charged that many scholars think, in at least two of the gospel accounts, it is to be read as the direct cause of his execution).  The Pharisees—whose apocalyptic literature reveals how deeply displeased they were with the supervision, the size, even the ornamentation of the second temple—thought that the identity of Israel must instead be rooted in stringent observance of The Law.  A third party that we hear little about in the New Testament, the Essenes, thought that there was no way for Israel to be faithful under the fist of Rome, so they practiced a politics of exclusion, drawing away into caves and practicing their piety in proto-monastic communities.  What each of these groups held in common, however, was a similar recruiting process.  Each party produced teachers, or Rabbis, who would disseminate their particular biblical interpretation and political philosophy.  The Rabbis would in turn make disciples who, if they were deemed worthy, might be initiated into the elite inner circle of the political party represented by their rabbi, through a particular kind of ceremonial washing called baptism.  Thus baptism, to the first century Jew, was primarily a way of separating people, a distinguishing ritual not unlike the role of tattooing in modern gang subculture.   

For obvious reasons, each party’s rabbis would look for the best of the best.  After all, if a politician is to wield his influence over the masses, he’s got a reputation to keep.  Those confirmed, through baptism, into the upper echelons of the political sphere were Jews of high pedigree, with high moral standing in the community, and expensive education—the schmaltz of the matzo, so to speak.  On to this scene comes John the Baptizer—a prophet with a fire in his belly, camel skin on his back, and bugs on his breath—preaching, as the gospel glibly states, “a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.”

What?!?  John’s baptizing who?   You’ve got to be kidding me!  We knew he was eccentric, what with the honey-roasted locusts and all—But baptizing sinners?—has he lost his mind?  He’ll defile the whole practice.  Baptism is reserved for the best of the best.  But now, coming up out of the waters of the Jordan are gluttons and drunks, common whores, Rome-sympathizing tax collectors, and—what’s that?—even gentiles?    John’s acting with complete disregard for our entire social system of how people are valued.  He’s acting like some cosmic shift has taken place, and we’re all living in some kind of alternate universe you’d see on the X-files where God is not counting men’s sins against them, and where children of the devil are given the right to become children of God.  What on earth has gotten into him?  

Prayer.  God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation.   Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with uprightness of heart and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Read Part 1: The Days Are Surely Coming

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A People in Waiting, Part 1: “The Days are Surely Coming”

For each of the four Sundays of Advent, I’ll write a brief reflection on the lectionary text, that I’m calling “A People in Waiting.”  My hope is that these meditations will help us navigate our journey as a people who wait expectantly for our Lord’s coming.

The Prophet Jeremiah, Saint-Pierre, Moissac, 1120-35.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.

In the age of the divided monarchy—after the northern kingdoms of Israel had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians, and lost forever in the pages of history—Judah, made of the two remaining Hebrew tribes, found herself caught in the crossfire of the power struggle between Imperial Egypt and Babylon.  In 605 BC, during the reign of Jehoiakim, the last real king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, defeated the Egyptian pharaoh Neco in the battle at Charchemish, effectively placing Judah under Nebuchadnezzar’s control.

The battle at Charchemish was a turning point in Jewish history.  Before that battle, the Judeans lived in relative peace in the land promised to their father Abraham.  They were ruled through the line of David, Israel’s favorite son, and they worshiped the God of Israel in a temple made of gold built by the wise king Solomon.  After the battle, the Jews know what it means to be an oppressed people:  Nebuchadnezzar lays siege on the temple in Jerusalem, and destroys the Jewish house of worship.   King Jehoiakim, and many of the other Jewish nobles are taken into captivity in Babylon, and a puppet-king named of Zedekiah is employed by Babylon to keep the peace in Jerusalem.

Zedekiah, however, was not seduced by the offer of rule —he wanted justice for Judah.  After winning the trust of his people, Zedekiah planned to build a grassroots militia and overthrow the Babylonian empire.  Meanwhile, in Babylonian captivity, a beatnik prophet named Jeremiah—no doubt wearing black eyeliner and his emotions on his sleeves—wrote letters pleading with the king not to try to overthrow the Babylonian empire.  Jeremiah’s prophetic message is about how to worship without the temple, how to remain faithful to the God of Israel in the empire of Babylon, how to sing the songs of Zion in a strange and foreign land.  Far more difficult that staging a coup on the oppressive government, Jeremiah’s message is about living faithfully under the rule of the empire

The foundation of Jeremiah’s message is this week’s text: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  At the heart of Jeremiah’s prophecy is a message of hope.  God has promised to care for Israel, and God will deliver on that promise.  The days are surely coming.  There is no need for the king to build his army, because The King will cause his Branch to spring up out of David.  The days are surely coming.  God will be the one to execute justice and righteousness in the land.  The days are surely coming.

Like the people of Judah, you and I find ourselves this advent season, taken captive by a foreign regime.  Our temple has been usurped by the mini-mall.  Our spiritual disciple: shopping.  The message of Christ’s coming has been drowned out by billions of dollars in advertising.  Yes, Christmas is long dead in American culture—we only attend its funeral.  Our first reaction, not unlike the over-eager king Zedekiah, is to power over the kingdoms of this world—signing petitions for the use of “Merry Christmas”  rather than “Happy Holidays” as the liturgy of our retail churches, and fighting for the display of nativity scenes in on public lots—as though we will have won some battle for the faith.  And in this hour Jeremiah, the beatnik prophet, comes to us pleading that we only remain faithful within the empire of this world.  The days are surely coming.  You see our struggle for cultural power reveals a deeper problem: we do not believe that God will keep his promises.  We want to overcome the empires of this world with petitions and voting power, because do not believe the day of the Lord’s righteousness will come without our help, not really.  We cannot live in peace with secular society, because we have no alternative vision.  And the prophet comes to us saying, “Thus sayeth the Lord, In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he—that branch that is our Lord, Jesus Christ who comes to us at Christmas—shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. ”  Relax! The days are surely coming.

Prayer.  God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvelous deeds. Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Read Part 2: A Baptism of Repentence

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