Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18, True Christianity 587 (see below)
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So today, finally, we get our Advent dose of John the Baptist. If two weeks ago we spoke the necessity of upheaval, here is John bringing home just that point and dismantling some of the ways we might try to get out of it. In the gospel of Luke, John is placed in the company of Israel’s great prophets, and he is described thus:
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. (Luke 3:4)
And as we continue in our text for today, we hear exactly what John is telling everyone, what that voice in the wilderness is saying.
It doesn’t start off well. The first thing he says to the crowd is “You brood of vipers!” He sarcastically wonders who tipped them off about the coming judgment so that they might all slither to him in a panic, wanting to be baptized and therefore saved. As much as we might deny it, we are already, most of us, laid bare by this observation. Who wouldn’t want the easy way? If there are some magic words to say, let’s say them, right? Further, we might wonder: what about my name/family/reputation? Can that get me to salvation? Nope. Neither can the crowd look to their ethnicity or their linage for automatic salvation, as John anticipates the “children of Abraham” doing. Such expediency of either kind is not the way of God’s kingdom.
What is the way of God’s kingdom then? John tells the crowd to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The kingdom is about generativity and integrity. We are to produce fruit, we are to use our form and life to create something nourishing for others, and to recognize and repent for whatever it is that prevents us from doing so.
By this point, the crowd seems pretty convinced. This is not surprising; We already know that John’s call to action was in line with the prophets of old, his language evoking long held images of fruitfulness that the children of Israel were more than familiar with. Moreover, they had already experienced what felt to them like God’s judgment in the form of exile centuries earlier; I’m sure they were sensitive to that history.
So, they quickly turn to the question “What should we do then?” meaning “what does it look like to produce fruit in keeping with repentance?” And here, John gets delightfully concrete. As wild-eyed and eccentric as he is often portrayed, the John of this text means for the kingdom of God to be birthed in the *simple* actions of those around him, in their everyday interactions with each other. The gist of what he tells them is this: be generous to your neighbor and be honest with any power you are given.
So, then the people started to get excited—we are told they were “waiting in expectation”—because it seemed like what John was calling them to was actually doable, and they began to wonder, is John the coming Messiah? He assures them he is not; his baptism is symbolic, and there is one coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. And here John returns to his apocalyptic language, likening God’s action to a winnowing fork. The stakes are heightened once more. The wheat will be gathered but the chaff will be burned up in an “unquenchable fire.” Thus our text is ended with this verse: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” Um, good news? Which part? The unquenchable fire? The axe at the root of the tree? The part about being a viper? It is more than a little funny to hear John’s preaching and call it good news, especially since we usually associate good news as something of either emotional or material benefit to us.
How can God’s judgment be considered good news? How can we rejoice or be grateful or excited when we see the axe or the winnowing fork coming? We often instead feel fear, which is understandable. There is a reason that much of progressive Christianity focuses on preaching God’s love and not God’s judgment. Judgment in the wrong hands is abusive. Many times those in authority take it upon themselves to judge, from and for themselves and their own notions of acceptability, rather than looking to God’s character and nature in doing so, using single bible verses or passages to wound and bludgeon, without grounding such judgment in either context or universal spiritual principles. The church has much to repent for in in the ways that it has judged others.
And there is another reason we shy away from judgment sometimes. Judgment is uncomfortable. No one wants to be told what they are doing wrong. Especially when such judgment challenges our long-held notions of order, privilege, and power. But the issues that we humans may have with judgement cannot do not do away with the fact that God is not only infinitely loving but also infinitely just. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “All prophecy is one great exclamation! God is not indifferent to evil. God is always concerned. He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos. This is one of the meanings of the anger of God; the end of indifference.” (1)
God cannot be indifferent to the things that prevent us from being in true relationship with God and each other. The being of God demands justice. The character of God strives for justice. And so, God’s lack of indifference necessitates judgment. That can make us feel uncomfortable, or even afraid. Again, this is not an inherently a bad thing. In the words of Heschel again: “a sense of comfort is no standard for Truth.” (2) If we always went by our sense of comfort, we would never learn and grow. We might think of the lobster. The lobster’s hard shell cannot grow bigger; it must be shed for the lobster itself to grow, and that means for a moment the lobster has to lose its defenses, must endure discomfort and vulnerability in order to proceed to its next stage of life.
This is what God’s judgment is for; so that we might be reformed, so that we might be taken apart for the purpose of being put back together, so that we might grow beyond that which we are. God’s judgment is a gift. Now, honestly, it doesn’t always feel like a gift, not at all. It often feels like like fire burning us up. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us.
Judgment shakes us awake, reveals to us how our actions are affecting others and by extension ourselves. For God, judgment is for the purpose of clarity, for the purpose of truth. Divine Love wants us to be able to see clearly. So Divine Love’s judgment is a revealing, never a condemnation. *We* can choose whether or not to condemn *ourselves* based on our reaction to that revealing. When it is revealed to us that we are hurting someone else, either by our action or our inaction, we are urged to pay attention, we are urged to no longer be indifferent. This is what is communicated in our Swedenborg reading for today: that unless we make an active effort, our earthly desires will just naturally dictate the way we think about things. For the love of self and the world, We will justify our actions in whatever way we can, we will distance ourselves from thinking about consequences for the sake of our comfort. This is not even mustache-twirling evil, this is run of the mill, everyday thoughtless evil. We all do it. So, we are given the gift of God’s judgment, we are given the gift of God’s complete inability to not care about us being willfully blind. This is the symbolism of John’s baptism of water. Water corresponds to divine truth, and it cleanses us of our evils by making them clear to us.
But clarity on its own is not sufficient. We are also urged to act. We know that we are no longer being indifferent when our actions change. This is the baptism to come, the baptism of the holy spirit and fire. The baptism of illumination from the holy spirit, and of fire from divine love, working in concert to regenerate us, to birth us into loving action. God’s judgment is not meant to debilitate us but rather to rattle us into seeing possibility, to open us up into being a vessel for love. And so, in between bouts of apocalyptic hyperbole, we get John the Baptist telling us delightfully ordinary ways to love.
And this is of course, why we are asked to consider these texts during Advent, why we are asked to sit here all awkward and uncertain with John the Baptist rather than cozy in the stable with the manger. We sit here in this in-between space of expectation because we must not forget how disruptive the Lord’s birth really is. God is not and cannot be indifferent to our flaws and our walls and our temper tantrums and our fears, and so the birthing of God into our lives will involve the sweeping away of these things. When we welcome the baby, we welcome that disruption, that holy beautiful disruption. But it is not a disruption for the sake of chaos, it is a disruption of the sake of transformation. It is not a disruption that will send us flailing and twirling unmoored into an empty universe, it is a disruption held firmly within the arms of God, the womb of God. We need not fear. We just need to breathe and let ourselves be born.
Through most of his book, the prophet Zephaniah preaches a mighty destruction, a mighty upheaval. But then all of sudden, he also preaches a mighty song of hope, restoration and love. “At that time”, says the Lord, “I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.” God’s judgment is for the purpose of bringing us home to ourselves, a vision and a home that God believes in.
14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” 18 “I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what
should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” 15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
True Christianity 587
The First Phase in Our Being Generated Anew Is Called "Reformation"; It Has to Do with Our Intellect. The Second Phase Is Called "Regeneration"; It Has to Do with Our Will and Then Our Intellect
The evils we are born with are in the will that is part of our earthly self; this earthly will pressures the intellect to agree with it and to have thoughts that harmonize with its desires. Therefore if we are to be regenerated, this has to happen by means of our intellect as an intermediate cause.
This process draws on pieces of information that our intellect receives, first from our parents and teachers, and later from our reading the Word, listening to preaching, reading books, and having conversations. The things that our intellect receives as a result are called truths…Truths teach us who to believe in, what to believe, and also what to do and what to will…
…During the phase called our reformation, we come to mentally see and admit that evil is evil and goodness is good, and make the decision to choose what is good. When we actually try to abstain from evil and do what is good, the phase called our regeneration begins.