Two Visions of Hope

Posted: December 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 11: 2-11

Two Visions of Hope

Here we are at Advent 3…  We are really getting into serious Christmas stuff now. It is almost here. It is hoped for and sure to come. It will arrive and it is ‘Almost’. John the ‘dipper’ or the Baptizer is featured yet again. Despite our nearness to Christmas festivity expectations, realized today’s theme seems to be still about Hope. It might be in particular; where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling?

Yet again on the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ does it? But again, we are invited to explore this just a little more. We might start again with John. Who was John the Baptizer? Well; Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s – very early 30s. He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so, living in the desert wilderness. He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause. Some might say ‘obsessed’. Others have even hinted ‘jealous’. Of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus. So contemporary or pre-runner?

Storytellers and poets on the other hand, give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture. Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus: “John wore a garment made of camel-hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts with wild honey.”

Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was: “…a map of a man…  Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175).

Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings – the latter by Pro Hart – has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say: “That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God… “A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride, ‘God, it’s good to be a father! Yes!  It’s great to have a son!’  (Hart & Habel 1990:18).

So, contemporary of Jesus or prophet, and introducer of Jesus?

Well, we might hear Rabbi David Blumenthal, here. In an article published in Cross Currents Magazine e/edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.  Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (David Blumenthal, 2010). 

So! If he is right there, is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!). Their efforts seemed to be designed to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Were they contemporary’s or competitive individuals? As we said last week, from all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’ – the so-called insider. This suggests that while similar, John’s preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style. Jesus’ style was based in the premis that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider. The unchosen perhaps.

Here we have two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that are still around today so we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew
has John asking the question of Jesus:  Who the heck are you – really?

Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm. We remember here that just like today not everyone believed the same, be it about God or Messiah, or who Jesus was.

One way, Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… And remember there is a subtle yet fundamental issue here in looking back It was less about looking back at an historical factual history and more a looking back at the stories as metaphor of immense value in discovering who one was today. So in remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful here: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways.”  (P&F Web site, 2007) It’s not about repeating history or the stories of the past and more about making them real for today, the now.

These telling and hopeful words from John Cobb: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate ‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, then, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.

Maybe this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about! As Charles Taylor the Quebec-an Philosopher says; the idea of separating politics, religion and nature is a new phenomenon of modernity. In Jesus time that idea did not exist so advent is not just a religious story, it is political and economic at the same time.

So, returning to out advent we have to say that it is good to light Advent candles each year. It, is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols. But there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent as well. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! And a longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, to become concrete – real – in our lives.

This restlessness may be captured in a bloke called John the Baptizer, or ‘dipper’. He comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. And the people – read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’. Look out. You are heading toward a dead end. Be afraid because it/s coming. And their political situation was such they needed a word of hope. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line as consolidation and amalgamation was becoming the only sensible way forward. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But this, is not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? And rightly so perhaps. But it is the political context of the first Christmas story, and while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, or approaches to generate hope both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.

In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.

Strangely isn’t it that what we don’t often hear in the church is that ‘there is no sin’. In fact most of us are familiar with church have heard a lot about sin. And more so those of us who are members of the conservative church.

When we think hard about this, we have to consider that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, Who at the time was at First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007)

It is good to light Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year.
But remember, there is also a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Be aware of the assumptions within one’s own world, one’s own culture, within one’s own belief. Be alert so as to see the complexities, the influences and the alternatives. Be open to the new, the surprising, the challenging and the different. With these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become more likely and certain, can become real, in our lives. Live life with a confidence in the minds ability to be aware, live the alertness that comes from asking the hard questions and explore the adventure of human life that is promise beyond probability and within the possible. This is an Advent born out of two visions of hope. Amen.

Notes:
Hart, P. & N. Habel. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House, 1990.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

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