“A baptism of repentance” | 6 December 2015 | Advent II

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-18

More than any other gospel passage, Luke chapter 3 situates itself firmly within the political and religious landscape of its time.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas.”  In the ancient world, referencing such leaders was a way of telling time, but it also serves another purpose.  The story I’m about to tell you is no fairy tale, Luke could be saying.  It happened at a specific time, in a particular location, under these circumstances.  There were real people involved, people with names and stories of their own.  People whose daily lives were enmeshed in the kind of world these rulers and religious leaders oversaw.  What I want to tell you, Luke goes on, is that under these conditions, “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”  The Word, that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force, came, through John, out in the wilderness.  In that wilderness, all around the region of the Jordan River, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance.

In the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Kasich governed Ohio, when Michael Coleman was mayor of Columbus, when Francis was the Pope of the Catholics, and Ervin Stutzman the Executive Director of the Mennonites.  At this time and in this Advent season we gather here, in this place, to listen for that Word – that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force which comes to us through song and scripture and speech and the warmth of one another’s presence.

We talk about the wilderness during the season of Lent, but it also comes up during Advent.

When our learning tour group pulled into the Alon Shvut Israeli settlement just southwest of Jerusalem, it felt much more like leaving the wilderness than entering it.  All the Palestinian areas we had seen were almost entirely made up of concrete, dirt, and rocks.  But this settlement was lush with trees and grass.  All the streets were clean, the houses nicely kept.

We were there to meet with Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a leader of that community and one of the founders of an organization called Roots, which tries to overcome the fear between Palestinians and Israelis by organizing conversations and joint activities.  We had listened to a number of Palestinians about their reality, and we were eager to hear what Rabbi Hanan would have to say about his.  We were eager to hear a Word of the Lord.

A week before leaving on the trip I had unintentionally created a one-degree-removed personal connection with Rabbi Hanan.  I had breakfast with Rabbi Rick Kellner of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington.  They are a fellow BREAD congregation, and it was important to me to have an American Jewish voice in my head before going on this trip where I knew we would be spending most of our time with Palestinians.  Among other things, Rick noted that his congregation had just hosted an Israeli Rabbi by the name of Hanan Schlesinger, who gives presentations alongside a Palestinian named Abu Ali Awad.

After Rabbi Hanan welcomes us into his home he invites us to go around and say where we’re from.  When I say I’m from Columbus, Ohio he says, Oh, I was just there.  And I smile and say, Yes, I just found that out.  When you’re thousands of miles away from home, it’s a nice feeling to be in the living room of a friend of a friend.

Rabbi Hanan begins his presentation by stating that his identity is made up of three chief components.  He says, “One, I am a Jew.  Two, I am a Zionist.  Three, I am a settler.”  For the Rabbi, being a Jew is not primary a religious label.  It means that he is a part of a people, a people biologically descended from Abraham and Sara, a people who share a common story of deliverance from slavery out of Egypt, a people with historical ties to this very land we are now in.  He says that although he was personally born 57 years ago, he feels as though he was born 3000 years ago, when the Jewish people had their own nation in this place.

For Rabbi Hanan, being a Zionist means that he feels the time has come to restore Jews’ relationship to the land of Israel.  Every year Jews say to one another, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and now, after 2000 years of diaspora, they can actually fulfill this longing.  He sees this moment in history being just as significant as the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt.

For Rabbi Hanan, being a settler means that he feels specifically tied to the parts of the land where biblical events took place.  What others call the West Bank, and what the international community has agreed is Palestinian territory, he refers to with the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.  He notes that an old pilgrim road to Jerusalem goes right near his house.  An ancient mikvah was recently discovered nearby which his ancestors would have used in a water purification ritual before entering the holy city.  The almost-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham happened just outside his neighborhood, just over the way.

After guiding us through these three points of his identity, drawing us into his worldview, the good Rabbi drops this line: “And it was the power and righteousness of this story, that completely blinded me to even seeing that there are Palestinians also living here.  I simply did not see them.”

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance.  Luke and the other gospels tell us that crowds, from the countryside and cities, flocked out to hear John, and be baptized.  Most of us here would probably choose to walk away rather than toward a person who was yelling at us to repent.  Reading through Luke’s account, it appears that John was the kind of person who had little use for verbal filters.  Calling people a brood of vipers, and using metaphors that involve axes chopping down trees and fire burning chaff will most likely not get you invited back as a guest speaker at congregations like ours.

But repentance is a major cornerstone of the spiritual life.  However much baggage that word has acquired over the years, it’s helpful remember what repentance means in the original languages.  Greek is the language of the New Testament, and the word for repentance which appears throughout and here in Luke is metanoia, which literally means, to change one’s mind.  Or to change one’s thinking.  Or, if this works better for you, to expand one’s consciousness.  Or, if John were giving a TED talk these days – repentance, to have one’s neurological pathways rewired so as to experience one’s self and the world in a new light.  Repent, change your thinking, enter the waters of baptism and emerge with a new consciousness.  This, Luke assures us through the words of the prophet Isaiah, is how valleys get lifted up and how mountains and barriers get leveled, and how crooked places get made straight.  And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.  Repentance involves an inward journey of changing the landscape of one’s soul.

Although he didn’t use the word repentance, Rabbi Hanan followed his statement of how we was blinded by telling us the story of how he first learned to see Palestinians, how his mind began to change.  22 months ago he was driving two visiting Christian pastors from Dallas around Judea and Samaria, as he would call it, and he would occasionally pick up a hitchhiker along the road.  The pastors commented how unusual this was in the US to pick up so many hitchhikers, and Rabbi Hanan replied that this is one of the great things about Israel.  There is a sense of family, and people take care of each other.  “We pick up everyone,” the Rabbi had said.  But as soon as he had said it, he knew it wasn’t true.  He had never picked up a Palestinian, even though these West Bank roads are shared by Palestinians and Israeli settlers.  At that point, he told us, he realized that he had been living in the West Bank for 33 years, and had not met a single Palestinian.

He reiterated his earlier line, that he simply had not seen them, and he assured us that people in his settlement don’t have an inkling that Palestinians exist around them.  This change of thinking 22 months ago was the beginning of a journey for the Rabbi and has led to him forming relationships with a group of Palestinians who live a 25 minute walk from his home, and doing speaking engagements with Abu Ali Awad through their Roots organization.  Fear creates a different reality, the Rabbi said.  He is taking steps to move beyond fear.  He is repenting of past ways of thinking.

The Greek word for repentance means “to change one’s thinking,” and one of the Hebrew words for repentance provides the other important dimension.  That word is “shuv,” and it means, simply, to turn.  As if one were walking in one direction, and then one shuvs, one repents, and changes course.  In the Hebrew mind, repentance involves a very concrete change of not just of one’s mind, but also of one’s actions, one’s direction, the trajectory of one’s life.

So John the baptizer goes on to tell the people they need to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Changing one’s thinking leads to changing one’s actions.  This leads directly into the practice-able advice John gives to those who come to him and ask, “What then should we do?”  John’s initial response is “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  To tax and toll collectors who frequently used their position to overcharge and line their pockets, John says, “Collect no more than what you’re supposed to.”  John tells soldiers not to extort money, and to be satisfied with their wages.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely satisfied with John’s replies here.  How is sharing a coat with someone going to bring down the empire?  How are Pontius Pilate and Herod going to feel the earth shake under their feet if people are just sharing food with their hungry neighbors?  I want John to tell those toll collectors to stop collaborating with the empire and not cooperate at all with the occupation of their own people.  I want John to tell those soldiers to become conscientious objectors and hand in their sword and join the peaceful revolution that Jesus is about to inaugurate.

When it’s time for Q and A, someone asks Rabbi Hanan what kind of policy solutions he suggests for Israelis and Palestinians.  He quickly answers that this is not his area.  He’s focused on interpersonal relationships.  I want to tell him about our trip to Hebron just that morning, the most populous city in the West Bank, home to 200,000 Palestinians, but also populated by 1000 Israeli settlers who have moved into the heart of the city, some of them living in apartments directly above Palestinian businesses.  I want to tell him how we walked in those narrow business streets of the old city and saw how they are covered with a canopy of wire mesh to protect people on the street from any objects the settlers may hurl down at them.  I want to tell him that the wire mesh doesn’t even matter anymore because the once thriving businesses are shut down and the streets empty.  I want to ask him how the 1,500 Israeli soldiers in Hebron, there to ensure the safety of those 1000 settlers, is good for Israel or good for peace, or what the 350,000 settlers in Palestinian territory might propose as a peace solution.  I want to tell him how the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron spend much of their time accompanying Palestinian children through a check point on their way to and from school and how the children are often needlessly detained and harrassed.

I want to go turn on the faucet in the kitchen and, as the water runs freely, talk about how the roofs of Palestinians homes all have black barrels on top of them because  Israel controls the entire water supply throughout the West Bank and there are frequent shut offs.  Palestinians aren’t permitted to drill new wells, and even improvised cisterns for collecting rainwater can be demolished under the premise of illegality, so the black barrels ensure Palestinians a reserve of water when the tap is shut off.  I want to mention how trees that once lined Palestinian streets have been cut down by the army because they are considered a security threat, blocking the line of sight for the occupying military.  There’s a reason Palestinian territory looks like the wilderness and Israeli settlements look like an oasis.  Policy.

I want the rabbi to do more than just talk about peace.  I want him to see how his walled off, subsidized, plenty-of-water-for-swimming-pools settlement is entirely wrapped up with injustice.  I don’t want the turning of repentance to be a one or two degree shift.  I want to see a 180 degree reversal of direction.

I pause, in this living room that feels more familiar and like my own than any Palestinian home I’ve been in – and consider how my own life is so tied up in injustice.  I’m way more like the rabbi than I care to admit.  I wonder what and who I have failed to see.  I consider again the meaning of our own number one identity marker, our baptism, a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  “I baptize you with water,” John says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming;  He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire.”  I welcome the one who is more powerful than I.  One who is more powerful than all of us.  One who baptizes with Holy Spirit, who immerses us with the Divine Presence and leads our minds and feet down a new path.

At the end of the day when we are doing our group processing together, we ponder the school children of Hebron, and the stories of Rabbi Hanan.  We ponder the dust and black barrels of Palestine, and the green grass and abundant water of the Alon Shvut settlement.  As we each share our reflections on the day, Cyneatha Millsaps, the only African American in the group, says that Rabbi Hanan reminds her of the whites who quietly taught slaves how to read.  They didn’t end the system of slavery, they even kept benefitting from it, but they did contribute to a crack in the wall.

And that evening, perhaps surprisingly, that’s enough for me to hold on to.  However minor a change of thinking might be, however many degree a turn might be.  It was enough for me to end that day with thanks for all the Spirit is doing in our world, and all the people who are participating in the journey of repentance.  Prepare the way, the prophet says, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Crack in wall

Part of the 25 ft tall separation wall in Bethlehem.  This artwork portrays a Jewish and Palestinian boy reaching out to touch a crack (also part of the art) forming in the wall.

Salvation Through Subtraction – 12/9/12 – Malachi 3, Luke 3:1-6

There’s a scene in the movie The Mission, where Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert de Niro, is climbing up the side of a large waterfall with a rope around his torso tied to a bundle of steel armor which he drags behind him.  Much of the film is set in the South American jungle among the Guarani Indians, who live above the massive Iguaza Falls.  A Jesuit mission has been set up among the Guarani by a peace loving priest.  Mendoza is a slave trader and mercenary and makes his living kidnapping Guarani and other natives and selling them to Portuguese colonial plantation owners.  But after killing his brother in a duel, Mendoza has a break down, repents of his previous way of life, and seeks penance with the Jesuit missionaries.  The priests bundle his armor and weapons and bring it to the foot of the falls.  His penance is that he will climb the falls to face the people he formerly enslaved, dragging behind him the burden of his old way of life.  Mendoza struggles up the cliff with the priests and when the group finally reaches the top the Guarani are waiting for them.  When they see Mendoza, one of the young men from the tribe grabs a knife and goes over to him.  There are some extended moments of drama as the young man holds the knife up to Mendoza’s throat who makes no effort to defend himself.  Then the tribe leader motions to the young man, who proceeds to use the knife to cut the rope, then pushes the bundle of armor and weapons over the cliff, plunging into the waters below.  The tribe breaks out in smiles as Mendoza breaks down in tears at this gesture of forgiveness.

The film came out in 1986 and I first saw it sometime in the early 90’s and this scene has been one that has stuck with me, although it’s nice that YouTube has movie clips easily accessible to help refresh the memory on some of the details.  It’s a scene of grace, forgiveness, of salvation through subtraction, the cutting away of the baggage which burdens, leading to a transformed life.  (Watch the clip HERE)

We are in the season of Advent, when we look for the salvation of God through the coming of Christ.  In this week’s scriptures there is a strong theme that this salvation looks very much like a process of subtraction.  The prophet Malachi says it will be “like a refiner’s fire and like a fuller’s soap; (the Lord) will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offering to the Lord in righteousness.”  Salvation is like having the temperature turned up to the point of burning away everything that is not of value.  Or like being scrubbed and scrubbed soapy clean.  Luke says that the word of the Lord came to John in the desert, who went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Bring all your baggage to the river of baptism.  God is a Guarani Indian with a knife, smiling.

Both Malachi and John the Baptizer preach that not everything that has conglomerated around us is our true self.  Over the course of our lives we take on all sorts of false notions of who we are, believe all sorts of false voices that shout and whisper in our ears.  We enact all sorts of wrongs against our family and friends and ourselves, and these things stick to us, like grime.  After a while the grime is all that can be seen and we start to identify ourselves with that grime.  That’s who we are.  We are the sum total of all our thoughts, words, and actions, many of which have been hurtful.  We are the accumulation of all those things others have said about us, good or bad.  And they keep building up.

This is not who you are, says the prophet Malachi.  “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire… and will refine them like gold.”  Who you are, is what is left after that refiner’s fire has its way.

I was interested in this reference to the refining of gold and whether there’s much mining and refining of gold going on these days or whether that’s pretty much a thing of the past.  It turns out there are still goldminers out there, although it has gone very high tech.  In the US, about 80% of gold mined each year comes from Nevada.  I watched a brief clip from Nova from their feature about the different elements of the periodic table.  The clip about gold involved the host taking a field trip to the Cortez mine in Nevada. The days of finding veins or nuggets of gold are pretty well past, so at these mines the gold cannot be seen with the naked eye.  But huge amounts of earth are loaded onto trucks and taken to a state of the art refinery.  For every ton of rock that they haul and process, they are able to extract about ½ – 1 ounce of gold.  This sounds like a really bad business venture, except that each truck can hold 400 tons of rock, which means that each truck carries over half a million dollars of gold.  At the end of the process, when the standard gold bar emerges from the fires, it has come from over 1 million pounds of rock dug, moved, and processed.  As an interesting side note, unlike oil and coal extraction, the gold companies pay no royalties to the federal government for their mining activities on public land, operating under General Mining Act of 1872. (References HERE)   I wonder if this is on the table for the fiscal cliff negotiations as a new source of revenue.

If I’ve got the math right, when this gold goes through the refiner’s fire, the ratio of gold to not gold is 1: 32,000.  You can check in with William B., our in house statistician, after the service for a fact check on that, but I’m pretty sure that’s what one once per ton works out to be.

In light of the metaphor at hand, this is a rather humbling ratio.  One would hope that the ratio of what’s of value to what’s not of value in our lives is higher than that.  I did a little more math, and figured there are 86,400 seconds in a day, so if we have at least three quality seconds each day, just 3 loving, God-filled seconds, then we beat the ratio that the current gold mining companies are working with.  God is like a refiner’s fire, but, Malachi asks, “who can stand when he appears?”

In theology, there have developed two different paths for coming to know and talk about God.  One is the positive approach, which basically says that there are things we can say about God.  There are things that have been revealed about God that we can speak about.  We can say God was in Christ.  God cares for the poor.  God is love.  God is a Guarani Indian with a knife and a smile.  These statements teach us about God.  The technical name for this approach is kataphatic.  Kata – to descend, phatic, having to do with speech.  Or, bringing God down to the level of speech.

The other theological path is the negative way, apophatic, speech that denies.  In this approach, one gains knowledge of God by stating what God is not.  God is not hate.  God is not injustice.  God is not an object or a person.  God is not a concept.  God is not knowable through speech.  Some of the ancient theologians, the Cappadocian Fathers, went so far as to say that Yes, they believe in God, but No, God does not exist, since everything in existence is created, and God is uncreated, surpassing even our categories of existence or nonexistence.

The apophatic path holds that we come closer to God by whittling away that which is not God.  This has been emphasized by Eastern Christianity more than Western Christianity, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a more full understanding of this.  Often, when people think they are having a crisis of faith, or questioning and rejecting their religion, it’s not a tragedy at all.  It’s a natural maturing from a strictly kataphatic approach, when there are things we can say about God, to also including the apophatic path.  God is not this.  God is not that.  God is not just what I have been taught. God is not just what my religion has claimed about God.  You clear out everything which is not God, and what you are left with is a more pure relationship with God. This is where agnostics and atheists have much to teach people of faith because they are much clearer on what God is not.

I won’t try and pretend to understand the technicalities of all this, but I bring it up because what is being stated in the scriptures is that the negative way, the apophatic, is not just a way for the human self to find God, but is also a way for God to find the human self.  God is also about the work of clearing out everything of us which is not our True Self.  Who are you?  You are not this.  You are not that.  You are not your job.  You are not your bank account.  You are not where you were born.  You are not your thoughts.  You are not an accumulation of past experiences.  You are not your successes.  You are not your failures.  Who are you?  What’s left when the waters of baptism wash over you?  What’s left after the refiner’s fire?  Who, what, can stand before its coming?

I don’t remember where I heard this, so I don’t have a person or an article or book to attribute this to, but these were words from a cancer doctor.  After talking some about how difficult his work can be, the doctor said that one of the most rewarding parts of his work is his interactions with cancer survivors.  He said that of all the people he knows, it is these cancer survivors who have the greatest clarity about what is important and what isn’t important in life.  They are not distracted with trivial things.  To put it in the language of today’s scriptures, the process of being brought to the brink of death and having your life handed back to you is like a refining fire.  Everything that isn’t essential is burned away, and what you’re left with is that kernel of your True Self, the eternal self which lives now with God.

When talking about John the Baptizer Luke goes on to cite the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying 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.”  In the past I’ve not known quite what to make of this passage.  It makes God’s coming sound like something akin to mountain top removal in West Virginia, with the hilltops getting blasted off and the valleys getting filled in.  Or, it makes God’s coming sound like the whole earth is going to look like Kansas.  Flat as a pancake and straight as an arrow.

But I think it makes a little more sense now.  Every valley shall be filled.  Every hill made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.  God wills that all obstacles be removed between the human and the divine.  It is a smooth, clear path from one to the other.  And for God, this is already the case.  There is nothing that stands between God and our deepest self.  They are already united.  And in Advent, it’s we who welcome the removal of the obstacles of our own making through this coming.

Fire, Song, Baptism – 12/06/09 – Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; 3:1-6

Text: Malachi 3:1-4                         Meditation: Fire

Slip with me, if you will, into the mind of the prophet.  The prophet finds herself in a world charged with the grandeur of God, yet overrun with violence and unfaithfulness.  She bears this contradiction in her bones.  She is, at the same time, both blessed and cursed with pathos, an ever present sense of deep feeling with and for the world, for her people, for God, who won’t leave her alone.  Visions and longings keep her up at night, her imagination charged with hope, with sorrow, with a madness that comes from the gods.  When the sun rises she carries with her the burden of love.  She cannot keep still or silent with the world as it is.  She must speak.  She must write.  Her desires must be converted into words, phrases, into language.  The undifferentiated groans in her gut force their way up her throat and start to take shape in her mouth, her tongue forming itself, tentatively at first, then confidently learning to dance with the wind of her breath as feeling finds articulation and cadence, thought finds expression.  Her speech forms a structure that builds on a previous foundation already laid by those who have gone before her, kindred spirits who have also carried this yoke.  The pillars have always been the same: justice, mercy, loving kindness, covenant, faithfulness, right action.  These are the rhythm, the structure, the beat that holds everything together.  In between the pulses of this steady beat she finds she is able improvise and stylize her words to fit her particular setting, reflect the unique contours of her particular time and place.  This is an old song, a cover, remastered and remixed to reach the ears of a new generation. 

At times she feels in complete control of her words.  Knows what they mean.  Seems sure of what she is trying to say.  Other times she is given phrases that she can herself barely understand.  Uncertain if they are ready to be delivered in this form, still uncomprehended by the sender.   This is a song, poetry, but it’s anything but beautiful to hear.  Sometimes broken.  Sometimes abrasive.  Rarely resolving into a note that gives it a sense of finality.  Rather than being soothed, the listener is alarmed, unnerved, bothered.  Sometimes leaving the scene so as not to have to absorb this cacophony of sound.  Those who hear find themselves receiving the same restlessness that led the prophet to speak in the first place.  To start to be filled with the same longing.  To feel the charge of grandeur that calls for praise and the weight of human sin that calls for lamentation and confession.  

“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to this temple.”  These words come from the prophet Malachi.  Malachi means “My messenger.”  Of whom does the prophet speak?  When will this take place?  In this generation?  In a generation to come? 

“The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

The questions are proposed, but not answered.  Who is this?  Who can endure it?  Who can stand? 

“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

The words keep coming and themselves bear semblance of fire.  Kindled somewhere within the soul of the prophet and flaming out.  Dangerous words.  Fire not just to warm the cold body or to provide light to the tired eye, but also fire that purifies, that burns, that turns impurities to ashes.  That leave the prophet, the listener, us, almost speechless, undergoing the coming of the Lord.  Fighting the impulse to run for cover, to flee the scene.  Knowing that the only way to salvation is to stand in the fire and let it burn whatever it will.   

Text: Luke 1:68-79.  HWB 179 “Blessed be the Lord.”                  Meditation: Song

By his own account, Zechariah is an old man.  When the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear him a son, who will go forth in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, Zechariah answers.  “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years?”  It was a good question, but it was the last thing that came out of his mouth until Elizabeth became pregnant, came to full term, and gave birth to their son John.  He is silenced.

One of the things I’ve noticed about old people is that their words carry an extra force, an added weightiness that comes with the accumulated years of living, pondering, trying to say something true.  When we’re young, I think, we’re still experimenting with language, trying it on for size.  Saying things, and then wondering whether or not we believe what we just said.  If so, we keep saying it in however many ways that seem appropriate.  If not, we drop it and move on.

By the time people get old there seems to be at least a few things that each one has come to believe they can speak with a good amount of confidence, even if it is that life remains a mystery.  And the words carry weight.

Mondays are my day off and I was lucky enough to be able to tune in to the Diane Rehm show this pasto week as she interviewed longtime poet, farmer and philosopher, our neighbor to the south, Wendell Berry.  He is now 75 years old and has written a new book of poetry.  You could hear the age in his voice, and also the wisdom and moral force with which he spoke from a life time of living in such a way that treats the land and fellow human with great dignity.  At Diane Rehm’s request, he read his poem called Questionnaire.  It goes like this:

Questionnaire

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill. 

It’s a pretty good poem when I read it, but listen to Wendell Berry read it in his aged voice and it will make you repent of every evil you’ve ever participated in, however indirectly.  The voice carries weight. 

Zechariah is an old faithful man who temporarily loses his voice because he could not fathom the gift of a child at his age.  But when the child is born, and when he does open his mouth, his words carry the fullness of his years.  In this case, words of confident hope.  Words of praise and exultation. 

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for God has looked favorably on God’s people and redeemed them…as was spoken through the mouth of the holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

In Zechariah’s song the ancient yearnings of the prophets, the visions of hope that were carried from one generation to another – these articulations of expectation, find a focus.  The old man, no longer mute, having months of silence to ponder just what it was he was witnessing, now gives expression to that which he knows to be true now more than ever.

Can you hear the age in his voice?  Can you feel the weight of his hopefulness?    

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Yes, to guide our feet into the way of peace.          

Text: Luke 3:1-6                Meditation: Baptism

Luke narrates this passage with an eye toward situating the events in the socio-political reality of the time.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emporer Tiberius, when Pontius was governer of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas.”  This description spreads out a map and highlights the rulers of different regions and religious leaders around first century Palestine where the following story is about to unfold. 

It would be something like opening up a story today by saying “In the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State; when Ted Strickland governed Ohio, Mitch Daniels governed Indiana, and Steve Beshear governed Kentucky; when Mark Mallory was the mayor of Cincinnati, when Benedict was the Pope of the Catholics and Ed Diller was the Moderator of the Mennonites…  had to slip that in….

To open in this way gives a sense of a concrete, specific geographical, historical, and social context in which the story will take place.  The significant happening to be told, Luke goes on to say is that “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  The word came to John in an isolated desert area of an insignificant corner of a vast world-wide empire. 

The hearer of the story already knows that strange and wonderful things happen out in the wilderness.  That this is the place where old habits are broken and new habits are created, where an entire people were formed and re-formed to learn what it means to trust in the economy of manna, daily bread.  The people of Israel had already experienced this journey away from a world that was familiar and predictable, the bondage of Egypt, toward an unknown land of promise.   

Now through John the wilderness again becomes the place of re-creation.  “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Along with the familiar territory of the wilderness, Luke would have us know that the story is couched within the ancient longing of the prophet.  This time Isaiah provides the coordinates:

“Make straight the path of the Lord.  Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” 

The activity sounds like a massive civil construction project.  “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

Prepare the infrastructure of your souls and your lives so that there are no obstacles to the movement of grace and generosity of God’s economy.  The years of recession are coming to an end.  The economy of salvation, of forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of debts, has now come.  A way has been cleared.

“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  What began as a groan within the soul of the prophet, was composed into language, preserved in the hopes of the elders, is now becoming visible.  All flesh shall see the salvation of God.  From the emperor Tiberius to the landless peasant.

Salvation is something that is seen.  It’s concrete, grounded in history.

We emerge from the refining fire, from the baptismal waters, surprisingly, still alive.  And we find a path, a way that is made for us.  Salvation is becoming visible.  There it is.  Now walk towards it.