The Third Sunday of AdventIsaiah 12:1-6
Early in the morning, they had kissed tenderly, tasting each other’s coffee—his with a hint of non-dairy creamer and hers, black as the recent night, sweet with dreams. And now they’re back in the kitchen, hips softly touching, enjoying each other’s company in the silent fondness of long time lovers. Over dinner, they trade tales of their adventures in cubicle-land: his tyrannical boss and her clueless co-workers. They laugh, eyes meeting and then darting away. She feels like she will burst.
“Honey?” she asks, searching for the words.
“Yes?” he’s looking at her beaming face. He knows it before she says it.
Pregnant. A word that’s, well, pregnant with possibilities, with the very future of humanity in short two syllables. It’s why we say “She’s expecting.” Expecting what, exactly? Expecting a baby, to be sure, but more than a baby: a hope, a yearning, a dream that this will be the child that will change everything. Everything will change for the new parents, that’s for sure. And maybe, just maybe, that child will grow up to change everything for everyone else too.
When prophets come, the world becomes pregnant. The yearning of a people longing for a new future are seeded with hope and the womb of their land swells with new life. It was that way when the strange man came with his strange message. The people had lived for so long in a land barren of hope that they had nearly forgotten how to hope. When he called out to them, it stopped them in their tracks. They knew what he was going to say, because their hearts shouted in silent syncopation with his words: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The people of South Africa felt the baby of freedom growing in their womb, nurtured by Nelson Mandela’s prophetic struggle. And finally, after nearly thirty years, they gave birth together to a new South Africa, a baby which would change the world.
He was not perfect, this prophet of royal blood, who came proclaiming the end of apartheid. But prophets never are. They are inevitably at the margins of the social order, and their lives are full of contradictions and disappointments. They are notoriously hard to get along with and hard to follow. Their words are painful, because they challenge us to change, to repent, to do something new with our lives. But as painful as it is to hear the prophets’ messages, as filled with bad news as their proclamations seem, they are really gospel: good news for those who respond.
It was certainly that way for the people on the shores of the Jordan, in today’s third Advent Gospel. Their prophet was as strange as any in history: the son of a priest, who disdained the traditional religious life. He probably had spent several years in the desert community of Qumran, studying at the feet of counter-cultural rabbis who believed that Messiah was coming any day, and would end the ancient order of priesthood, temple and sacrifice. When Messiah came, the Roman oppressors would be swept away and there would be a new order where they would all shout aloud and sing for joy.
But John was a prophet and he heard the voice of God. He could not stay forever in the desert caves, waiting on a Messiah. He knew that the old priestly order was as oppressive in its own way as the Roman occupation army. He knew Messiah was coming, and he was pretty sure he knew who Messiah was. So he grabbed an old camel-hair robe, a leather pouch of sun-dried locusts and set off for the winding green Jordan valley.
Sloshing through the rocky bed of the river, he called out to the people who fished or fed or washed on the banks. He told them they needed to be baptized, he told them they needed to repent. He told that them that there was fire coming, and that the trees were about to be felled upon their heads.
And they looked up from their lunch, or their wash or their fine-leather scabbard. His eyes were aflame and his feet bare in the stream. His voice bounced along the river like a thousand skipping stones.
“Get baptized! Before it’s too late!”
Baptism was something that proselytes did, when they left the old dead gods of stone and became converts to the faith of Abraham. Proselytes, yes, they needed baptism, to wash away any residue of Cybele or Isis or Bacchus. But, Jewish people? They were children of Abraham, heirs of two millennia of monotheism, and this wild-eyed madman was calling them to be baptized. Still, they came closer, drawn to him, almost drunk with his words.
“Sons of snakes! Don’t just stand there! Get down here in the holy water! I’ll wash you and make you clean. Don’t give me any of that ‘children of Abraham’ garbage. God could make children of Abraham from these stones.” He picked up a handful of river rocks and let them trickle back into the water. “Don’t you see? Can’t you feel it? Messiah is coming? The one who baptizes with fire and Holy Spirit—and you are not ready.”
So they came, the tax collectors and the soldiers, the women who sold their bodies in the shadows, and his words became strangely tender. “Share what you have with others. Be kind, be honest, live like children of the light.” One by one he plunged them into the muddy stream, and one by one, they stood up, dripping and pregnant.
“The people were expectant,” Luke writes a generation later, “thinking he might be Messiah.”
Alas, no. He was only the forerunning prophet, proclaiming repentance, opening up the way of the way of the One who would come with winnowing fork and fire. But they could feel the hope, and for the first time in their lives, they began to believe that there really was something to those old prophecies, that their awful oppression might be coming to an end. They began to hope again. They became a new people.
That’s the message of Advent. This is not the season when we prepare for the coming of a little baby in a manger, as pretty as the nativity tales may be. This is the season when we prepare for the coming of the winnower, who will separate us from our enslavement to hopelessness and careless, selfish living. It’s the time we dare to be baptized in the mud, while we cherish the growing sense of new life within and all around us. It’s the time for us to rejoice.
To get to the rejoicing however, we must go through the muddy waters of repentance. And repentance is insistent on our seeing ourselves as in need of repentance. It’s not a faint feeling of having done something foolish or left something undone, like a coffee pot plugged in, or a load of clothes mildewing in the washer. It’s coming to terms with the fact that we have not shared our coat with someone who has none; or our food with the hungry. We’ve collected more than our due, and we’re never satisfied with our wages.
It bothers us only vaguely that Africa is dying or that the Middle East burns. We feel only a slight unease that one billion people are unable to read a book or sign their names. We hardly notice that 25 million people have died of HIV/AIDS. Like the people on Jordan’s bank, we hear the siren song of the prophet, and mutter, “What should we do?”
And the prophet roars back, “Repent! Change things. Do something. Get baptized.”
At General Convention earlier this year, our church proclaimed its support for Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, ending HIV/AIDS and malaria, ensuring environmental sustainability and creating global partnerships for development. Those goals are not simply the mystical dreams of a bug-eating crazy guy in a camel-hair coat. They are attainable benchmarks that can be achieved in less than a generation. But they will take a firm commitment on the part of those with two coats to repent and start sharing. Committing a mere seven-tenths of a percent of our wealth to the MDG program will give birth to a new world. We have the goals, we have the resources, we have the tools, such as Episcopal Relief and Development. We everything we need. We lack only one thing. Repentance.
Repentance means turning around, living differently, in tune with the hope that the prophet calls to being in our womb. It means taking seriously the notion that Messiah is coming and has empowered us to bring his realm to reality. We can do something. And that’s good news to the people.