Funny thing, but all those readings about the end of Days no longer seem quite so bad as they did a year ago. Now, when Scriptures talk about the coming desolating sacrilege, I think, “Huh. What did The Orange One tweet now?”
I learned in college about the role of apocalyptic literature for minority communities, and always liked that interpretation, but I confess that I had never understood it on an emotional level. While I could intellectually grasp why someone hiding in the catacombs would feel better hearing about Michael the Archangel fighting with the Beast, for me, those texts were still mired in a lot of ‘Left Behind’ stuff.
This year, it’s starting to make sense. So here’s a sermon about that.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 4, 2016
Advent 2, Year A
I had a dear friend in college named Claire. Claire has spastic cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, and is easily the smartest person I know. She would sit in class and memorize the lecture, rather than take notes, and had firm opinions about everything from the puns in Shakespeare to the politics of the ADA. *Americans with Disabilities Act
Second Advent was unironically her favorite Sunday of the year. “It was” as she explained to me one year “the accessibilities act of the bible–the mountains were lowered and the valleys lifted, the rough places made plain–so that even people in wheelchairs could get to the house of God without trouble.”
To Claire, John the Baptist wasn’t bringing a message of doom–he was bringing a message that sounded like inclusion. Because interpretation depends on location.
To the Pharisees, John sounded like a really mean man. (Getting called a brood of vipers will make you a bit irritated, as I understand.) Also the Sadduccees. But to the rest of the people flocking to him, he offered something lifegiving, even as his words sound pretty harsh to us.
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. And anyone who does not bring forth fruit worthy of repentance is thrown into the fire. What he’s talking about here isn’t individual sin, it’s plural. It’s sins, it’s corporate. John is describing a repentance of EVERYTHING–not just individuals deciding not to cheat on their taxes any more.
And yeah, that may not sound so great.
But here’s the thing.
When we’re feeling on top of the world, and powerful, and like everything is going great, then John’s message of the coming judgment sounds harsh and scary. We like the way things are going; we don’t want to hear that we’re doing something wrong.
But when we are feeling like the world is working against us, like we are outnumbered by forces beyond our control, like we are being taken advantage of by mighty systems that don’t have our welfare at heart–then John’s announcement that judgment is coming is good news indeed.
It just depends on where you fall when you hear this.
Think about who John’s audience is after all.
For the Pharisees and Sadduccees, they’re doing ok. They’re organized, they’re basically political parties of Second Temple Judaism. They have pull in the temple structure, and they have the ear of King Herod. On the other hand, the people in the crowds don’t have any of that. For the most part, they are excluded from a lot of the religious power and the political power structures of the day. They live in an empire that doesn’t give them rights, and frankly–there’s a lot that’s going wrong for them.
Then John shows up and proclaims that they aren’t wrong–everything IS broken. Everyone does need to repent. And God is coming soon to fix this broken, messed up world. The Pharisees don’t like it, but boy, do the crowds love it. They were right all along!
Real quick, I want to point something out. There is a profound difference between what John is saying and the sort of political populism that we’ve seen sweep the globe recently. John’s repentance does not depend on turning people against one another or spreading fear and distrust. It rests on raising the valleys and lowering the mountains–bringing everyone together. The difference is in the perception of that–because if you have lived on a mountain all your life, that doesn’t sound as good as being raised out of the valley. But that’s very different from being told you will be supplanted as king of the mountain and made to serve someone else.
All this to say–the judgment of God doesn’t come in the form of earthly political systems. What John is preaching has material implications, but it begins and ends with the action of God. We repent and turn towards God, and God resets the world, and God brings us all in.
So where are we in this scheme? Are we the Pharisees or are we the crowd this morning? Does John’s call for a complete turn around sound like the apocalypse or a welcome reprieve?
When I lived in Jerusalem, a wise bishop told me that to the oppressed, God’s judgment always comes as good news. It is only to the oppressor that judgment is feared. So I wonder if we are both right now. If there are parts of us that, like the powerful of that time period, are not thrilled when John tells us that we need to repent, that the way things have been is not the way God wants them to be. Because–let’s face it–we’re not doing that badly. Most of us. Most of the time.
But in other ways, we are like the crowds. While there are parts of us that love the comfortable lives we enjoy, the security of this country, and the lives we know, in other parts of us, we do know that something is wrong. We do know that this world is broken. And in that part of our soul, we can welcome the coming advent of God, when the rough places shall be made plain, and the lion and lamb shall lay down together.
Because in each of us, I would wager, there is a Pharisee and a dispossessed crowd member. Someone happy in the world as it is, and someone anxious for the world to change. The struggle for us, this Advent, is to decide which inner voice we will listen to.