December 16, 2012 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
“I Will Bring You Home”
This morning we begin our third week of Advent, our season of expectation and longing and anticipation about the birth of Jesus, the birth of hope, peace, and ultimate salvation. Many people, myself included, have this as a favorite time of year. But we begin this next stage of Advent reeling with the fact of the massacre of first graders, their teachers, and administrators in Connecticut. It is the very opposite of all that we cherish about these weeks – we want hope, warmth, joy, expectation, fun. Like a smack to the face, we get murdered little children, slain in one of the places we have created for them to be safe, nurtured, to feel loved and to fall in love with learning. As our hearts go out to families that will never be the same, as we are inspired at the news of teachers whose wisdom kept other classes of children as safe and as calm as possible, as we learn of women who didn’t hide from the gunman but died trying to tackle him and save some children, as we read of the father of a child who was killed tell of his determination not to let the incident change him for the worse and his simple request that we do the same, we think of ourselves – as individuals, as a community, as a nation. We wonder who we are, we who are as members of a society in which such cruelty and brutality happens. What does it say of us? Is this who we are – cruel, brutal? How do we not be that? What does it say about us that our culture has violence as a major subject of entertainment? That we have no comprehensible policy on the acquisition of guns? Travesties like the massacre of children make us ask who we are, and they should. The least we can do at a time like this is to live with the discomfort of self-investigation, to live with the hard questions about who we are, what we value, what we believe, and how that makes us live.
These are Advent questions; this is the season of preparing ourselves unsparingly for the birth of the Messiah. We let John the Baptist command us to investigate our spirits, actions, lives. We let him call us a brood of vipers, and then we dare to reflect on whether he might be right. In Matthew’s gospel, John delivers this castigation to the upper-crust religious authorities. Too bad for them. In Luke’s gospel, he says it to “the crowds.” That’s you and me. I don’t think of myself as a hissing, attacking, fanged creature and I bet you also don’t regard yourself as such. John gets right down to defining what he means – beginning with all of us who are so sure that we get things right enough not to have to think about our beliefs or behavior any more. John is speaking in the moment to people who are certain that their religious and ethnic identity means that their bases are covered. Not so! He tells us the same – there is nothing inherited about you that makes you better, special. “Do not begin to say,” says John “don’t even start down that road of saying well, I’m from the right community. My people are a cut above.” It only boils down to what you believe and how that makes you act. Leave off clinging to how much better you really are, how right you are, however noble you are sure that your community’s experience leaves you. The point is what you believe and how you that makes you act. God can create true disciples out of stones, for Pete’s sake – inert chunks of mineral deposit. No one gets a free pass because they have the right connections. This isn’t a nightclub, an eating club, or a highly competitive job prospect.
“Who do you think you are?” he asks those of us in the crowd – are you entitled and special? A servant? Beloved? A child of God? It’s not about who you are, says John, but whose you are – whose you know yourself to be. It shouldn’t be your lineage that makes you who you are, but rather whose you know you are that shapes your identity and the choices you make about whom to be.
The crowds ask him, “So, what are we supposed to do?” John tells them simply to share and to be fair. If you’ve got more than you actually need, give your stuff away to people who don’t have enough. You cannot be a lover of God if you callously disregard the human needs of others. You have to be in right relationship with your neighbor as well as with God. People from various professions ask John how they’re supposed to behave, and he tells them never to exploit or manipulate others, never to use the power that their profession provides to them to wring extra perks for themselves and extort from the vulnerable. Tax collection is in the news today as well – who owes what? Who deserves what? How much should sick people pay? Should the poor get any help? Do they deserve it? Should corporations get any help? How much should we feed to the military? I think John would tell us to decide by using an ethic of genuine love of neighbor, reminding us that right relationship between people requires us to be generous with our stuff when others are in need. John the Baptist is a tough one – he preaches judgment all right, but he also preaches promise, redemption. He doesn’t leave people wallowing in a refreshed understanding of all that separates them from God, he tells them pointedly what right relationship with God requires, and reminds all of us in the crowd that the promises of God remain, and are worth it. He calls us a brood of vipers to get our attention; he hurls a bucket of cold water in our faces to shake us from our self-satisfaction. He uses some tough talk to tell us who we are as people, where we are, what we’re like, what our actions say of us, and it’s pretty uncomfortable. But he does it in order to elbow us onto a better path, one of restoration, salvation. It’s not so much elbowing, really, as a kick in the pants. John isn’t genteel. He calls them like he sees them. He looks us over, in the crowd, and he doesn’t spare us. This is good news for us.
It was John who baptized Jesus. Some in the crowd began to mistake John for the messiah they yearned for so deeply, but John told them no, that one was soon to come. But John had a great effect, I think, on Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had heard of what John was teaching and doing and he lined up with others in the crowd to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. Jesus “caught,” if you will, John’s fierce spirit of accountability and repentance, and John’s limitless belief in God’s ability and desire to restore and to save. I think that people in Christ’s day must have looked at Jesus and said, “John the Baptist got that one.”
Who and what would we be like if people said the same of us today? “John the Baptist got her, got him!” I hope if wouldn’t mean that we are people who simply go around calling others challenging names! I think it would indicate people who tell the truth, especially points of truth that others may not want to hear. I think it would be people with a gift for pointing out how the Gospel requires us to relate to others, especially in those most difficult ways – challenging arguments for entitlement to privilege in the face of human need, challenging arguments for inherited special status, challenging arguments for any status quo when it accommodates unfairness, discrimination, violence, massacres, challenging all the ideologies on earth that deny that one day God will be all in all. Personally, I’ve got a long way to go in developing the faith and the courage needed to challenge in this way, but I’m working on it. I would like to be someone of whom it is said, “John the Baptist got that one.”
John was of the lineage of Hebrew prophets – he intentionally dressed like the great ones of centuries earlier, and he spoke just as they did. He told people the truth about themselves, and he reminded them that, still, every one of God’s promises would be fulfilled. John was just like Zephaniah, who railed at the people for their manipulation, exploitation, callous disregard – none of this could be the actions of people who love God. He made horrific predictions of what their actions would end up earning them. And he prophesied restoration by God, the ultimate triumph of God’s mercy. “I will remove disaster from you,” he writes in God’s voice. “I will bring you home.”
In these days of shock, dismay, and sorrow, God will bring us home. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves, individually and as a society. And God goes with us throughout, saying, “I will bring you home.” I hope the loved ones of those who died in Connecticut hear God saying that over and over: “I will bring you home.” I hope that this Advent is a time when each of us makes great strides in living in such a way that others must say, “John the Baptist got that one.” We can have the courage and the audacity to do so if we can hear God say, “I will bring you home.” The road can be very difficult, but the promise of God is steadfast and is our destiny: “I will bring you home.”