From Exile to Fire
Week of Sunday December 6 - Advent 2
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ ...
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit holy spirit and fire.
All the actors are listed: Tiberias, Pontius Pilate, and Herod and the other regional rulers, the high-priests Annas and Caiaphas, and John son of Zechariah. John is not called "the Baptist." Instead, he too, is named by his power.
… he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17)
The realms of these actors are also listed: Emperor Tiberias, High Priest Annas, and Herod of Galilee, and so on. John is the Son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Zechariah and Elizabeth "were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." (Luke 1:6) The wilderness is the place where God meets Israel anew. In the wilderness, Elijah hears the "still, small voice."
John went into "all the region around the Jordan." In the place where Israel entered the Promised Land, where Naaman of Jordan was made clean of leprosy-- healed-- by washing in the Jordan, (2 Kings 5) John proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sin.
The artificial division of the lectionary leaves out the last actor; the crowds who come out full of expectation, questioning in their hearts, asking "What then should we do." There is an unasked, but obvious question: to whom do you belong— to which power? The careful listing of the high priests between John and the others asks a profound question about their loyalties.
To understand John's baptism as Luke intends, is to read "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" in light of "the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah."
Our literary style quotes words we need to support our argument. The quotation should hold all the information our reader needs. They should not need to go back to the text we quote.
But in the time of Luke, it was assumed that you would know the context of the quotation and, quite possibly, know the surrounding text by heart! So where Luke quotes those few verses from Isaiah, we would be more likely to write something like, "If you want to understand what I am talking about here, go and read Isaiah Chapter 40 in its context— there isn't room to quote it all here."
Isaiah 40-55 is a well-recognised self-contained section within Isaiah, which reflects upon Israel's return from exile in Babylon— it may even be reading the signs of the time and making a prediction! It calls the Persian Emperor Cyrus, who allowed some of the exiles to return home, God's Anointed One; also known as, Messiah! (Isaiah 45:1)
By quoting from Isaiah, Luke mixes together the ideas of return from exile, the coming Messiah, and the forgiveness of sins, in the crucible of the wilderness and the Jordan.
The Jordan is where the people enter the Promised Land, and where the people decide whom they will serve. This quotation from Joshua happens at Shechem, but summarises what is involved in crossing the Jordan and having possession of the land:
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14-15 )
Do you see that John has linked the forgiveness of sins with the people regaining the land?
The quotation which follows is from Malina and Rohrbau's Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, in the sections on Debt and the Forgiveness of Sins (Matt 6:12,14)
… a concentration of land in the hands of large landholders who foreclosed on peasant land put up as security for coin (money) loans. Late in the first century the numbers of peasants fleeing because of hopeless indebtedness grew so large that it required imperial efforts to keep tenants on land being left unworked - a situation that developed because, once in debt, few peasants could escape it without the help of a substantial patron….
In an honor-shame society, sin is a breach of interpersonal relations. In the Gospels the closest analogy to the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12; see Luke 11:4), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It made persons poor …, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one's place in the community. Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. Forgiveness by others meant restoration to the community. Given the anti-introspective attitude of Mediterranean people, "conscience" was not so much an interior voice of accusation as an external one-what the neighbors said, hence blame from friends, neighbors, or authorities…. Consider Jesus' concern with what people thought of him (Matt. 16:13 par.). Note Paul's similar concern about what people thought of him and what outsiders thought of Christian groups. An accusation had the power to [shame (my inclusion) and] destroy, while forgiveness had the power to restore.
Something similar to Aboriginal folk's connection to the land— and what we have done to their society— is happening here. The whole society is built around the land. The land, its stories, and who 'owns' it, shapes the community. To be without land is to be without place. The land is the place in which the community mores or conscience is grounded. The loss of land threatens the very existence of the people. In the time of John, Jesus and Luke, displacement from the land was causing so great a disruption of community that it even threatened the Empire— even tyrants can only rule with some kind of consent of the people.
We Europeans seem to have a much different relationship with the land, but the Australian dream of home ownership reflects our past ties to land, and our need for a place which is ours. And we live in the same disrupted community. Like Israel, we are in exile in our own land, ruled by powers who are not "children of Abraham" but "snake bastards." (Luke 3:7 – Malina and Rohrbau) Homeless people live under the verandas of one congregation I serve. It is the only place left to them.
In my time in Pitjantjara country, young people began to speak of some others as having "no shame." It described those who did not care to submit to the community conscience which held the society together. Despite our cultural differences, it is enlightening (and sobering) to look at ourselves and ask whether we have shame. In the terms of John and Jesus, is not the desire of the rich to lower the wages they pay, "without shame?" Is not my buying sweat shop clothes "without shame?"
John's baptism is specifically called a baptism of repentance. He will make it clear next week that the fruits of repentance involve a fundamental restoration of community structures and the (re)inclusion of people within the community.
So far, I have spoken of forgiveness by others. Where does God fit in the picture? The quotation of Isaiah, and all of Luke so far, makes it obvious that the gospel of the kingdom itself, of which John is a part, is an act of God.
Malina and Rohrbau say "forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God."
John's baptism implied a restoration from exile as gift from God. It cries out that God acts for us, not against us. God is not to be feared. The emperor and the kings and priests take away, but God gives. God restores. We are freed from fear of loss at the hands of the God who, in the old stories, sent us into Exile.
What do I make of this today?
The conscience of the small community which raised me was merciless in its lopping of tall poppies. The community conscience was in many ways arbitrary, driven by a sort of anarchical, sub-acute scapegoating. It was often pitiless; intolerant of, and terrified by, difference. As someone who did not fit in, I could see some of this even as a child. I was afraid. With wiser eyes, I now see that those whom I feared were also afraid. To move to a distant city which, by comparison, was a dis-integrated community, was a mercy and a relief, and no exile. God help us if John's baptism is just about getting back to the good old days. I am not overstating this: the fundamentalism in which I once lived often degenerates to a subversion of the gospel which gives divine warrant to the good old days, or some other mythical past.
Here in the city, there is enough dis-integration to greatly reduce the fear of shaming. People openly do things that would have been unconscionable in my small country town, and which led to public shaming and ostracism. (All this leaves aside other unconscionable behaviour like domestic violence, which was tacitly accepted.) But fear still rules, visible in the high fences, CCTV, and ubiquitous street lighting. "… [T]he popular understanding that violence in this country has increased dramatically and consistently in recent years is unfounded," but we live in increased fear. We have become insular. A thoughtful observer cannot help asking if society is dangerously dis-integrating. At this point I could rework a comment above: the fundamentalism in which I once lived has some of its roots in a fear of losing even what's left of "the good old days."
A dis-integrating fearful society seems to have something in common with the times of John. Crowds still go out to the latest saviour figure, looking for what we could call "their place in the land." Sometimes it's an evangelist. Sometimes it's Reclaim Australia or some other Hansonite re-incarnation. It was Tony Abbott.
And then we come to God. Malina and Rohrbau wrote that divine forgiveness was freedom from "fear of loss at the hands of God." John said, "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:9) Joshua said at the renewal of the covenant, "If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." (Joshua 24:20)
This "fear of the Lord" seems laughable to secular folk. Yet we see it abused in churches where the fear of God is still used as a stick of control, or to extort. And pastoral conversations reveal deep fear of God's condemnation despite constant preaching of God's love.
Still other folk find the roots of our disintegration in a lack of "fear of the Lord."
What is the place of fear?
It can be a measure of our failure to live well. Scripture records our growing understanding of God. Across Scripture, "God's wrath" shifts from being a personal, and even vindictive, activity by God, to a being an impersonal consequence of our own poor living. "God's laws" are not arbitrary; that you may live long in the land (e.g., Deuteronomy 11:9) already had in it seeds recognising the consequential nature of justice and injustice. So too, the prophetic insistence upon justice over rote sacrifice. "God's laws" are ways of living which free us from bad consequence, and therefore, fear. They are ways of living which build people up. Fear tells us we are failing to live well in the land. We are living outside the parameters of the Creation, which will do us no good.
I am not suggesting that "God's wrath," and "God's laws" are only metaphors pointing us to some kind of impersonal principles by which we should live. Within the great mysteries we need to domesticate with the word God, so that we may even speak of them, lie forces we should properly fear. "No one shall see me and live." (Exodus 33:20)
But Luke himself points to a shift in our understanding of God, and our relationship with God. In Luke 7, Jesus says of John, "8I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Like Moses in Exodus 33, John has "stood in a cleft of the rock and seen the Lord's back." But there is more to come, a baptism in holy spirit and fire. (It does not say the Holy Spirit in the Greek text.)
Isaiah cried "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" He had seen the face of God, but the fire of the live coal carried by the angel enabled him to live.
God gives. God restores. In this God is not to be feared. But if I will not live within the parameters of the Creation; if I will not repent, and live well; if I will not allow myself to be cleansed, what then? This is the place for fear.
It leads me to the place where the axe is against the root of the trees, which is the reading for next week.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!