Advent: Week Two (C); December 9, 2018
Bar 5:1-9 Ps 126 Phil 1:4-6,8-11 Lk 3:1-6
Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison
After encountering the signs and wonders of the coming of Immanuel, Luke is going to call the community to a deeper level of conversion and surrender and he does this through the transitional figure of John the Baptist. John represents the earnest and heroic stage of the God journey. John the Baptist is a necessary beginning to conversion: it’s important to remember that before we can embrace the Good News of Immanuel that we come to terms with John’s gospel of repentance. Repentance is the first necessary step of entering the Kingdom. Indeed, before we can proclaim the Good News, we have to renounce the Bad News of the dominant system of our culture and go into the desert.
What would that look like for you? It may mean that you no longer identify yourself as an inmate. That’s your condition, but it’s not who you are. It means critically examining the illusions of prison culture and say, “While I am in prison, I’m not of it. I’m following another path.” And, finally, it means going into the wilderness where you will be purified and transformed. By doing that, we will have a deeper insight into what Jesus will be doing in bringing about the salvation of the world.
Brothers, continual conversion is scary because it is difficult to let go, to surrender, to empty ourselves of our God-substitutes. Whether we’re inside our outside prison walls, we cling to these false idols because they give us temporary relief, but in the end, they do not fulfill their promises because they’re empty: they can’t give us Life; they can’t love us the way we yearn. So, John the Baptist remind us that the Gospel is not so much about religion, but conversion—metanoia.
Even though we acknowledge that our God-substitutes lead us to no where, that far country, that empty space of the Prodigal Son, we’re still afraid to let go of them. Why’s that? We create boundaries between ourselves and God and others to protect ourselves. Soon, those boundaries become barricades. Why? We circumscribe our ego with boundaries where we can be secure, where we can be in control. When we think of leaving that interior prison, we become afraid. We then find ourselves in a small world hedged in by our own fears. These fears become vigilant, sleepless guards on the walls of prisons we have made for ourselves. That’s the worse prison to be in.
But, then we hear today’s Gospel. Luke says that , “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (v. 2b. To whom? Where? He didn’t come to the high and mighty, he didn’t come to the rulers of the world who were oppressing the people. No, the Word of the Lord came to the outsider, who was outside the political and religious system. The Word came to John in the desert.
Throughout Scripture, the Word of God does not come to the powerful (Caesar, governors, kings), even the high priest, but to an unknown prophet out in the wilderness. In all ages the Word of God comes to the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, which represents the alternative consciousness which is receptive to the Word of God. John stands in opposition to the rich, powerful, and the elite, which stands for the dominant consciousness. John the Baptist is a metaphor for the poor and the prophetic witness. John’s job is to call forth that alternative consciousness, which is always the role of the prophet. And, he’s speaking to you today. Listen: to him speak to you today: quoting the words from the prophet Isaiah, he says:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert;
Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways smooth,
and all flesh shall se the salvation of God” (vs. 4-6)
What’s he saying? He’s saying that his job is to prepare for the mighty coming of the Lord. My job is to build the highway that will facilitate his arrival. A change is coming; a revolution is on its way. A disaster, the destruction of the political and religious establishment is going to happen. So, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He’s speaking in the same language and cadence of Baruch long ago we heard in the first reading.
Luke is saying in effect, I know you’ve gone through oppression; I’ve just named your oppressors. But, believe me, God is going to act and so prepare yourself. What is the manner of preparation? We hear that it is a baptism of repentance. Baptism, an immersion in water which would have reminded every 1st century Jew of the Exodus, when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, leaving the ways of slavery behind. God would humble the powers of their time as he once humbled Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as he once humbled Babylon. This is a subversive, revolutionary message. And, if God can humble them, he can do so with the negative forces that dwell within this prison.
What then? We hear repentance. John calls for a baptism of the repentance for sins. The word used here is metanoia—going beyond the mind you have. How central this is, which was central to Jesus own preaching. Our minds are so conditioned by the fallen world. How our expectations are shaped and stunted by what has gone before. But, John is challenging us to embrace the alternative consciousness, which will become the Kingdom of God. ‘Repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ is everything in the Gospel: it’s the beginning, middle, and end. Unless we’re willing to go beyond the mind we currently have, we won’t be able to embrace transformation that the Lord Jesus offers us. But, it’s so hard to accept repentance for the forgiveness of sins with all the betrayals, disloyalties, untruths, rejections that we carry on our shoulders. These become particularly burdensome as we get older.
Moreover, it’s harder to forgive yourself. To forgive the dark and shadowy part of yourself; to forgive that part of myself that does not live the way that I want. To forgive that part of myself that I don’t particularly like. It’s hard to forgive the bad things we’ve done in the past.
But, we have to. Scott Peck in the beginning of his book, People of the Lie, quotes the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux: “If you can serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.” That not what we want to do: we don’t’ want to be displeasing to ourselves. We don’t want to accept our imperfection; we don’t want to admit to our guilt—that we haven’t lived the Gospel. John announced the forgiveness of sin, of compassion towards the Self and all Reality: You can only forgive Reality when you can forgive the Self.
Brothers, we need to accept the challenge of John the Baptist to embrace repentance. The Old Order is going to be conquered by the Good News of Jesus. You can see what Luke is saying, what John is saying, that the world of the dominant consciousness of oppression–symbolized by Tiberius and Pilate, the world of Herod’s sons, the world of Annas and Caiaphas—that world is coming to an end. What Luke and John are saying is that is time for a new mind, a new set of eyes, a new kind of expectation.
God is about to act. Wake up! God is about to act; be ready! God is about to act; stop living according to the old ways of oppression and violence. God is about to act; so make way the path for him. God is about to act; so pass through the Red Sea of baptism.
We listen to Baruch today; we listen to John today. We hear the exact same message: GET READY!