There’s a press release that showed up in several publications a number of months ago that I clipped out to save for an appropriate time. With the character of John the Baptist being front and center for this and next week, alongside the Isaiah passage about the peaceable kingdom, now seems like that appropriate time. It was released by Religion News Service and carries the title “Jordan River ‘too polluted’ for baptism.” Maybe you caught this when it came out this summer. The article starts by saying: “Concerns about pollution and water quality have prompted an environmental advocacy group to call for the banning of baptisms in the lower Jordan River, where the Bible says Jesus was baptized. ‘For reasons of public health as well as religious integrity, baptism should be banned from taking place in the river,’ said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East.”
It goes on to talk a little bit about this particular site, which is claimed as the authentic site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It has attracted pilgrims year after year who come to see it or who themselves choose to be baptized at this site, which can be accessed from the west side in the Israeli controlled military zone or from the east from the country of Jordan. The claim from the environmental group is that the river has been severely mismanaged with 98% of the freshwater diverted to Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Add on top of that the discharges of untreated sewage and the agricultural run-off and the water is in a pretty bad way.
The article ends with Bromberg saying, “If the same thing were happening to a Jewish or Muslim holy site there would be a public outcry.”
The article focuses just on the basic information around this situation and doesn’t venture into the muddy waters of making any commentary on it, but think about this for a little bit. Think about the twisted irony going on here. This site, these waters that are the symbol of the new creation, the birthplace of the ministry of Jesus, the symbol of humanity repenting from our sins and beginning anew, washed clean, these waters are no longer fit for wading. Forget about washing with it or drinking it, don’t go in there at all. Just stay away, and try not to let your skin touch the waters from this river where John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What do you make of this?
Advent began last week with an imperative from Jesus to stay awake. To be alert. To pay attention and to be ready. It seems to me that if we take his advice, we’re in for a bit of a shocker. Part of the call for alertness, for wakefulness, is that we ready ourselves for the coming of Christ, the coming of the Son of Man, the Human One. This is the journey of Advent. But if we do risk alertness, if we start to stand watch and really pay attention to what is happening around us, we notice a whole lot more than just the good news that we’re apparently on the look out for. In a world of Wiki-leaks, things are always more devious and troubling than what they appear to be on the surface. More corruption in our allies, more cover-ups of torture, more civilian casualties than what has been previously acknowledged. The baptismal waters of the world are polluted, anyone can access the documents detailing the levels of toxicity, but few of us know what else to do other than throw up our hands. That’s just the way the world is and there’s not much we can do about it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the prophet Isaiah is getting more and more out of touch with reality. Last week he went on about nations beating their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, that nation will not lift up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. As if that wasn’t far fetched enough, this week he has to bring the animals into it. He paints a picture of harmony in the created order that has been called “the peaceable kingdom,” but which just as easily could be called the “the impossible kingdom.” “The wolf will 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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
Either Isaiah hasn’t been paying attention to the way the world is or he’s having some fun with us. I can’t imagine the arrangements in this petting zoo being a family friendly environment for all that long. Too much hardwired animosity and aggression between these species for this peaceable kingdom to be much more than a feeding frenzy of the strong overtaking the weak. Woody Allen noted that the wolf might live with the lamb, but the lamb isn’t going to sleep very well at night.
It’s a wonder any of this stuff survived the trials of history in the first place. A wonder that Isaiah didn’t just crumple up his scroll he was writing on, toss it in the recycling bin, throw up his hands in disgust, and submit to the cruel hard facts of existence. That cow in the far off pasture is never going to graze with the bear, and their young aren’t going to hang out together like friends who live across the street from each other. The Assyrians pounding down the front door of his nation are never going to be anything but fierce brutes bent on warfare and bloodshed. The low forms of life overtake those who seek to live on a higher plane of peace and coexistence.
Somehow the “peaceable kingdom” text survived, made the editors cut, and was considered worthy of being scripture. Not just the words of a lone lunatic, but the words of the Divine voice speaking through a prophet. God’s words, spoken to God’s people. Words of impossible hope made possible through a power beyond the ability of any individual or community of people.
Another part of Isaiah’s vision speaks of a branch that will grow out of the stump of Jesse. A live shoot that surges out of the otherwise lifeless stump of the tree of the nation of Israel, a tree which had been hacked down by its surrounding enemies, the Assyrians. Where typically we might see only decay and rot, a stump, a new hope shoots out. Isaiah says, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge of the fear of the Lord.” There’s the wildcard. The spirit of the Lord. The breath of the Lord. The unpredictable wind of God. The same breath of life that created humanity out of the dust (Genesis 2); the same wind of God that Jesus said you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3). Throw that into the equation and all bets are off. Who knows where this whole thing is headed?
Annie Dillard knows a thing or two about how the natural world works. She’s written elegantly about it for decades and doesn’t shy away from the harsh aspects of death, decay, and violence. She has been spoken of as one of the best observers of the living world that we have with us. So we might be inclined to pay attention to her when she makes a comment about the church and how we in the church tend to domesticate and underestimate the Spirit of the living God.
About us church folks, she writes this: “Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?…On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 40.
How’s that for a new Cincinnati Mennonite greeters policy?
I’m thinking John the Baptist knew a little something about the explosive nature of the force that we’re dealing with. He was pretty much a wild man himself. In the wilderness, camel’s hair and leather belt for clothing. I don’t know about a crash helmet, but I’m picturing dread locks and maybe a tattoo, or ten. Not exactly the kind of guy you’d want to invite to your office Christmas party, or maybe so, depending on your office.
So John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea and camps out by the Jordan River. He makes his base of operations around a low point of the landscape. The river basin. Water flows downhill. It seeks the lowest spots where it pools up and flows even further down the way. I believe plumbers have a saying about something else flowing downhill, something you’re trying to flush away, down and out to where all the waste and crud collects, seeks the low spots. This is where John makes his ministry headquarters.
His message is fairly straightforward, and fairly abrasive. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” He’s also got a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone in his preaching arsenal, warning about fleeing from the wrath to come, talking about wheat getting separated from chaff and the chaff getting burned up with unquenchable fire. And people come from miles around. On foot. Seeking a new start. Bringing their dirt and grime, wanting to have their sins forgiven, washed in the waters of the Jordan river. Ready to repent, do an about face and walk in another direction.
When Jesus would later talk about John the Baptist’s ministry, he would liken it to a funeral song. I don’t know anyone who strives to have their ministry characterized this way, but that’s what Jesus says John the Baptist was doing. Jesus said, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played a flute for you, and you did not dance, we played a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11) You go on in the passage and it’s clear that Jesus is the flute player, the one calling everyone to dance, sinners and drunkards and everyone all on the same dance floor, and John the Baptist is the one who played the dirge, the funeral song.
John was composing a requiem, declaring the death of an old order. The order of the strong overpowering the weak, the order of the lions devouring the lambs, the order of people getting stuck in their sins.
The death comes about through the action of repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Something new is being made possible.
Repentance, literally from the Greek, having a new mind, it’s not about guilt, it’s about having a new mind, repentance is our pathway into the kingdom of heaven, which, is near. Repentance is our preemptive strike against the destructive forces of sin and harm. It’s how John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus and it’s how we prepare the way. How we give God a chance to do something with us, baptize us with the Holy Spirit as John preached.
Given Annie Dillard’s warning about the Spirit of God, I suppose there’s a chance we might not want it. Maybe it will ask too much of us. Maybe it will drive us to do something that we hadn’t even considered an option. Maybe it will cause us to see in the Christ child of Christmas a fierce gaze looking back at us calling us to come, follow him into the world of murky waters and hungry wolves.
That might be the case. Whatever the Spirit of God, the coming of Christ in our lives, calls us to, we can be assured of this: Grace flows downhill, seeks the lowest point, it collects at the bottom, pools up, and spills over to the surrounding landscape. It displaces the crud and pollution that we shake off in repentance. It is what enables the new creation to flow again, to keep hoping, to keep thinking impossible thoughts.