Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis, OHC
Second Sunday of Advent- Year A - Sunday, December 4, 2016
Whenever I read this Gospel aloud, I like to put some real umph into John’s tirade against some of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. I often picture myself standing behind him, (hiding behind him), and saying things such as, “That’s right. You tell ‘em, John. Give ‘em hell.” However, John could turn around and fix me with that same menacing look. One rather visceral description of John the Baptist is put forth by the New Hampshire, Congretional Church minister, Nancy Rockwell:
“Wildman John leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below. His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees. He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, the brink of doom. Advent seems too small a stage to hold him.”
If I am too quick to take the moral high ground, I might find such a “wildman” from below pointing a rough finger at me, “seizing me with his eyes” while calling me a viper. I am not to take for granted that I have Abraham for my ancestor. John throws the kind of assumption, that I am somehow above the fate of any other human being because of some inherited privilege, right back in my face and compels me as he does all of us to repent. And we can’t repent unless we know we need repentance. To do so would mean climbing down from our moral high ground and joining the rest of the Children of Abraham in the same wilderness where that voice cries out from.
John tells us that he baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with Spirit and fire. They penetrate and burn through our defenses to the very core of our being. It causes such a dramatic conversion of heart raising our stoney selves up to be the Children of Abraham.
This process is not just a one-time event in our childhood. It is the constant great equalizer that unifies us all into one being with God through Christ. The Incarnation allows us the full freedom to be vulnerable as Christ is. The more I resist and deny that truth the more isolation and fear lingers within me, which is binding. I soon believe that I have no more worth than the chaff that is burned in that Incarnational fire that is always here and always to come.
Yet at the same time, as simply and unobtrusively as a branch growing out of a tree stump, we see that God does not hold us in that same unworthiness, but draws us into life. Into this quiet scene, dramatic changes occur all because of a child receiving “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord and righteousness and faithfulness.” Predator and prey play, lie down, graze together. God will do anything to make this happen even if it means a rod from the child’s mouth will strike the earth, with his breath will kill the wicked and will baptize with fire and Spirit. He makes a difference on this earth no matter what it takes, even if it means God empties himself for us to become this boy.
John may seem terrifying to us, but as Paul says in the passage from the Letter to the Romans, God is steadfast and offers encouragement which extends all the way back to the prophets if not before. God is present and vibrant in history itself. He is the very source of life that we answer to, where we are all in it together. How do we know this? Through the steadfastness and encouragement of scripture and prophets such as Isaiah and John now embodied in the Word himself.
Christ enlivens all these words, making them to be spoken and offered to all people, even Gentiles and a voice crying out in the wilderness pointing his finger not only at them but all of us as well. As we welcome Christ into our midst, there is no them or us, only us who are just as capable of being a brood of vipers as Sadduccees and Pharisees. We can’t escape that truth. But we are just as capable of being forgiven and offered God’s grace also. And so we await the coming of Christ with great expectation and hope as one brood of vipers, one voice, one people welcomed and in harmony with one another.
We don’t have to run. We don’t have to claim entitlement over anyone else for God’s gift of salvation. We have no more claim upon it than anyone else. We can cry with one voice with the Psalmist in Psalm 72, “May all the earth be filled with God’s glory.” The promise and reality of the Incarnation is summed up in this one exclamation. AMEN.