Last week I spoke about this season of Advent, this time of preparation that begins the Christian year, as the memory of a collective waking up. The community of those who experienced the bursting out of the light of God in the person of Jesus Christ keep the impact of that experience fresh by remembering the time that preceded it. They were days of an almost unbearable tension, when everyone recognized that things couldn’t just keep on going the way they had been. Suffering under foreign military occupation, squeezed by corrupt rulers who lived in luxury and raised extravagant monuments to their own egos, caught between the savage uprisings of false messiahs and the equally savage reprisals of the Empire, the people looked for God to act, to send them someone to give them reason for hope and a way to go forward.
Who were they looking for? Some said they were looking for a king, a king like David. David, who had come from tending his father’s sheep to lead the armies of Israel to victory over their oppressors; David to whom God had promised a line of descendants to rule on a throne established forever; David of whom it was said that after he had subdued his enemies in war and unified the tribes of Israel under his rule, he “administered justice and equity to all his people.”
The histories of the Hebrews recorded in the scriptures tell how that the successors of David broke faith with God and with the people, and how, as a result, God stopped protecting the nation and allowed it to fall again under the sway of foreign rulers. They speak of things going from bad to worse and tell how David’s descendant Zedekiah was made to watch while his sons were slaughtered, and then taken into exile in Babylon. But the hope never died that God would one day restore his people to their land and that, as the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear this morning says, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse”
We never read it in Sunday worship, but the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his descent beginning with the prophet Abraham, through Jesse the father of David the King, and David’s son Solomon. There are many interesting things to say about this genealogy, but its most obvious purpose is to prove that Jesus is in the bloodline of the patriarchs and kings of Israel, and especially of David. Matthew goes on to tell of the birth of Jesus, in the form of a political thriller, with the cruel usurper Herod plotting intrigue against the newborn King but failing to catch him in his net.
But all that is prologue—the curtain opens on the main action of the gospel with the passage we heard today, with the fever pitch of excitement and expectation because one has come to rouse the people, telling them to make ready, to prepare the way of the Lord. But who is it who has come, this forerunner of the promised king? A wild man, whose clothing and diet mark him like one of the ancient prophets. And the kingdom he says is coming is not the kingdom of David or even the kingdom of Israel, it is the kingdom of Heaven. “Get ready” he says, “not by sharpening your weapons or storing up provisions for war. Get ready by washing yourself clean, by changing your mind and your heart, and by acting as if you’re giving life a fresh start.”
John pointedly repudiates the genetic bloodline—“do not assume that being descended from Abraham will matter when the Lord comes. God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” “The one we have been waiting for is coming behind me,” says John. “His bloodline is the spiritual bloodline of the prophets—the fire of truth that burns in the heart, and in the bones. And he will baptize you with that fire, giving you the Spirit of God.”
This fire that John sees coming is judgment and even wrath, in as much as we have been clinging to a false image of ourselves, or have invested ourselves in belief systems that take what is partial and transitory and make it absolute. But fire does not only consume and destroy. It also purifies and transforms. Many grains are gathered and milled, mixed with water and yeast and salt, and kneaded into a single dough, but it is the fire that transforms it into bread.
When I was still a teenager I came across this quote: “What is to give light must first endure burning.” It is from the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi extermination camps and in 1945 wrote a best-selling little book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d like to share with you a story from that book that says more about the burning and about the light:
“... We stumbled on in the darkness…along the one road leading from the camp. The … guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us."
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers… Then …I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
John the Baptist came to a people despairing of their ability to change their situation. Instead of promising a strong man who would change things for them, he issued them the challenge to change themselves. He told them that if they rose to that challenge they would indeed receive help, that the Kingdom of Heaven was drawing close to them. That is the choice we still have, the preparation we can still make. For one who came after John is the very embodiment of the salvation that is love. We need to make ready, because every idea, every belief, every law that denies this truth will be purified and transformed in the fire of his coming. His whole purpose is to wake us up, showing us that we are never without hope, never without freedom, and never without responsibility, because we are never without the power to love. Prepare to meet the one who beholds you in love, who is love, whose face is radiant with the contemplation of the eternally and perfectly beloved. He came as John said. He is still coming. He is coming for you.