This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
The Little Words
I’ve often observed that it’s the little words that make the biggest difference—or at least it’s the little words on which we put so much emphasis.
An example: a local pastor approached me a number of months back. He had been working to learn more Greek to improve his study and ministry, and (knowing my training in biblical languages) he asked me to clarify something for him.
He was studying in Galatians 2 and came across v.16, which the English Standard Version translates as: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” That final expression (“faith in Jesus Christ”) was causing him considerable grief. He had a lot of theological commitment wrapped up in this idea of being justified when we believe IN Jesus.
But as he looked to the Greek for the first time, he realized the Greek could be translated in a variety of ways: faith in Jesus, faith of Jesus, faith through Jesus, faith on account of Jesus, and so on. There are twenty different ways this exact construction might interpreted (according the grammars), though context clearly excludes many of them from consideration. My point is that he discovered he had been putting a lot of emphasis on “little words” that were not the solid foundation he previously believed them to be.
Some humility is always required as we approach the scriptures.
Hope is one of those things that we couple with (and interpret through) the little words around it.
We hope for something
We hope in someone
We hope with one another
Maybe we hope against or despite evidence to the contrary
We hope regarding a particular area of our life
We hope about the future
And so on.
Each construction means something a little different; each is directed differently or variously grounded.
Hoping in someone is quite different than hoping about the future, for instance.
But in each and every case, hope involves a future dimension. No matter who sparks our hope, where we place our hope, to whom we direct our hope, or any other concern, hope always expresses a vision of the future that we want to come into being. Hope moves us forward.
John the Baptist
The ministry of John the Baptist is deeply characterized by hope. His call to repentance is grounded in his hope for the immanently coming Kingdom of God. His entire life is rooted in his identity as one preparing for a future in which the Messiah—the Christ—will appear.
And despite his uncouth appearance and his rough mannerisms, people absolutely flocked to him.
They came because his hopeful vision of the future was truly good news for an earthy people who were often marginalized by the power players of their world, and who saw their government working against their interests and convictions.
Yet for the very same reasons that his audience grew, John brought ire on his own head. Those in power would rather see the world burn than give up a single sliver of that power. It has always been that way. And John—prophet that he is—is utterly consumed with God’s anger at those who profit by disadvantaging others and blaspheming the divine image in each human being.
A day of reckoning is coming—John proclaims:
a day when presumptive and self-indulgent piety will be exposed,
a day when those who “cut down” others will themselves be “cut down,”
a day when a just judge will replace the unjust judges of this world,
a day when all the useless “chaff” that the self-righteous surround themselves with will turn out to be fuel for the fire that will consume them.
This is the vision of the future that drives John’s hope. And—I dare say—this is precisely the hope that was so encouraging to so many in the first century.
John’s Hope, Today
In so, so many ways, there’s not much that’s changed.
I think that in our own little community—insignificant though it may seem in the global sphere—this exact same vision of hope can be equally encouraging—equally “attractive“—to the many in our midst who are downtrodden, disadvantaged, discriminated against, and despairing.
This advent season—with John the Baptist—we too proclaim the coming of “one who is more powerful than are we”…… one “whose sandals we are not worthy to carry.”
We too cast a vision of the coming of one who knows the difference between what is good and what is bad, one who is not afraid to call chaff “chaff” and wheat “wheat.”
We too are driven forward by hope as we envision a longed-for reckoning to be had—when people and motivations and policies and purposes are exposed for what they are—for the violence that is at their core.
We too realize that what is good news for the downtrodden and heartbroken is going to be very bad news for those who have built their wealth, their power, and their “kingdoms” through injustice, fear, and dehumanization.
This. Is. Advent.
This is when we look around and say: “No! This is not the way the world should be. This is not the way my life should be.”
Advent is when we recapture God’s vision of the future—a vision that is to drive our prayer and our activity and our ministry and our proclamations for the whole rest of the year.
Advent is when we remember that we are redeemed by Christ—but not yet fully transformed.
Advent is we remember that Christ is returning—but not yet. Not even if we spark global war and annihilate ourselves in the process. (Are we so vain and so self-important that we think we can force God’s hand on eternal things? What has happened to us?)
This is Advent. This is when we remember that the good news of Jesus Christ is not about destruction, annihilation, or even victory as we think of it. The good news is about God’s love and justice permeating every facet of creation—something that is, in fact, good news!
……at least for the downtrodden. The sick. The alone. The brokenhearted. The drunk. The abused. The addict. The victimized. The sinner.
How quickly we have forgotten that the Christ entered the world amid humble beginnings:
a pregnant, unwed mother……
ethnically targeted by the government and police……
unmoored from the support structures of home……
soon to become a refugee because of a governmental policy that resulted in the deaths of countless infants……
Have any years passed at all?
Given the circumstances of his birth, is it any wonder that Jesus showed a particular affinity with those on the margins? Those most vulnerable to governmental policies? Those facing discrimination and violence on account of biology? Those who are sick and poor?
We forget Mark 2:17, where Jesus says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The reason we are so uncomfortable with such things is not because of ambiguity in the biblical text. It is because we don’t identify with the people Jesus identifies with. It’s because we won’t acknowledge that we are sick sinners. It’s because: instead of seeing the Good News as hopeful, we see it threatening our way of life and worldview.
That’s what Jesus meant when he said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34 ESV).
You see, if you look at those who teach that the Good News of Jesus involves things like violence and death and genocide and despair, I think you’ll notice something similar. The people who teach that these things are somehow “good news” are people—like the Pharisees Jesus encounters—who have the most to lose when God asserts divine justice on the world. They are the ones with the darkest secrets they will do anything to keep hidden.
It’s such shame: in the loving hope for repentance, the Holy Spirit has revealed what things will be like for them when Jesus returns, but their complete and utter inability to acknowledge their own sin while focusing solely on that of others means they think these awful visions are for other people.
In the end, the bible is clear that God is working toward what theologian Stanley Hauerwas called “The peaceable kingdom.” If there’s a theme verse for this vision of God’s, it’s probably Isaiah 2:4:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4 ESV)
In the world in which I find myself today, that vision sparks a hope that moves forward in God’s mission of love and life, of healing and hope, and of Good News.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ is coming again.