The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

Bordering on the truth

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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.” ’

Note:
Bordertown is a thriving regional town just inside South Australia on the main highway to Victoria. Tolmer Park is named for the stopping place of armed gold escorts in the nineteenth century and remains a major stop for travellers today.

In a remarkable essay, Debie Thomas lists some Advent truths.  First of all, Advent is

The invitation to tell the truth.  Advent is a brutally candid season; it calls for honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation.  In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is," and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it.  We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment.  To name the seeming absence of God.  To draw the large, startling figures of the apocalypse.  Eschewing all forms of denial, polite piety, and cheap cheer, we are invited to allow the radical honesty of Scripture to make us honest, too. We’re asked to stop posturing and pretending.  To come to the end of ourselves.  To get real. Advent reminds us that we are not called to an escapist, denial-based piety.  We are called to dwell courageously in the truth.

A First Impression: Bordering on the truth

In the third year Trump was President, when Merkel was Chancellor of Germany, during the Prime Ministerships of Morrison and Turnbull, on the First Sunday in Advent, messages came from a border town.

20181209-hate 

The probable, ironic, truth is a minibus of migrant workers taking a break in Tolmer Park, on their way interstate to pick cherries for Christ-mas. The "Christians" posting the Facebook hate above, also posted hatred of LGBTIQ+ folk during the plebiscite. The truth is hate, grown in the fear which is a consequence of sin.

Sin is not some wicked, bad, dirty sexual thing, despite what some folk appeared to think during the last meeting of Synod, and may suggest again in January. Sin is the mundane reality in which all people live. Sin is our unfulfilled humanity. We are all sinners. We all fall short. Sin is our captivity. Sin is the burden which weighs upon the longings and fears of our hearts: When we long for love and fulfilment, and when we cling to our lover, this is our heart crying out under the burden of existence. It is our heart, and our deepest being, knowing we are exiled a long way from home, knowing we are separated by mountains and valleys from our creator, and feeling far distant from God across a wilderness of terror; a wilderness which our heart fears to enter because of what may happen to us there.

Yet it is in the wilderness, the place we most fear, the place of our sin, that we meet God. God is not to be found in heaven; God is here in the wilderness that we fear, and God always has been here. It is only wilderness to us, because we have not yet learned to see God within it.

If God is the three letter word we use to signify a transcendent Being who creates and sustains us— a present Being we can yet barely imagine and discern, then sin is the three letter word we use to signify the lost-and-falling-short kind of being which we know only too well.

It is an exile and separation too much to bear, so we project it onto the "homosexuals," and the Muslims, and anyone else who appears to be different, and who we think cannot retaliate.  Anyone who has observed the cautious watchfulness of Muslim folk in public places in Australia, knows that no Muslim in their right mind would go doorknocking in a strange town! We lie about them to cover the lie of our own lives, and the pain of our lostness. We lie to pretend we are not in the wilderness.

Luke does not merely locate John the baptiser in a specific time and place in history as he begins Chapter Three. He locates John's place apart from the powers that be. He deliberately lists the powers in their hierarchy: The Emperor Caesar, the governors and rulers, and finally, the high priests. It is clear from this list that the high priests are under the control of Caesar. The high priests are ruled by the structures of our sinfulness, and do not stand apart from it.

In Luke's understanding, government is organised sin. What if followers of the Way show more than the respect due to any person, should a politician visit, and instead, lionise Prime Ministers and their pretenders, during worship services, rather than speaking truth to power? It would mean we enter more deeply into our sinfulness rather than moving out of it. When we excuse the barbarity of our leaders in Nauru and other places, because they are one of us; ie, "Christian," we place ourselves under Caesar; we subject our worship to sinfulness.

Repentance— standing apart from and turning away from, and worship, are for our good. James Alison says,

the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don't we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship. We will allow our hearts to be formed by the desires of the contradictory social other that is around us— [the sin], and that heart will eventually participate in its own heartbreak and self-destruction.  (Undergoing God pp 37)

Repentance is to move away from our heartbreak. It is to cease to lust for the favour of politicans and Prime Ministers who make protestations to faith. Using Alison's distinctions, repentance is to give up the worship of power and begin the Worship of God.

By contrast to the organised sinfulness which Luke lists, it is upon John, Son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, that the word of God comes. The way John is named Son of Zechariah is an instruction to re-read, and to remember, Chapter One of Luke, where "Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit."

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins. 
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us, 
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The wilderness is a recalling of the place where Israel was formed by God. So, too, are the words "all the region around the Jordan," for the Jordan is the place of entry into the Promised Land. In John's baptism, people were washed clean in a re-entry to the land; those who turned away and entered Israel from their present exile did not "cross over on dry ground"; the river did not cease to flow, but washed over and around them. (Joshua 3:17)

People went to the temple for the forgiveness of sins. John Petty says of John's baptism,

This was not what we today would consider a "Christian baptism."  John's baptism was a ritual cleansing which was quite common in Judaism as well as other Mediterranean religions.  Anything that might defile the Temple needed to be removed before one could enter, hence the need for cleansing.  The wealthy of Jerusalem had their own private baths for this purpose.

He also outlines "the word we generally translate as "forgiveness."" It

is aphesis, which means "release," "deliverance," "remission," "setting free."  The word was used both to describe the cancellation of debt and the release of prisoners.  Debt and prison were high on the list of peoples' concerns in the time of Jesus.  Aphesis brings release from these, and any other, forms of bondage.  It means "fresh start."

Forgiveness of sins is bound up in cultural structures we still struggle to understand. There is a considerable distance between the personal individual sinfulness I confessed, as I knelt at my bedside and committed myself to follow Jesus, and what is being envisaged in Luke. I learned from an early age that my sinfulness was a deeply disgusting and malign inner state, something appalling and hateful to God. Of course it was a deeply disgusting and malign inner state appalling and hateful to the people teaching me, who were horrified, first of all, at themselves, and projecting that horror onto me so that they could bear themselves.  And I followed them in my own projections onto others; this is the way of sinfulness, and it is immediately obvious that it is a corporate issue. We seek to pin sin upon individuals, but sin is the way the group survives itself.

Malina and Rohrbaugh seek to understand sinfulness as it might be understood in John's time. Despite our "hyper-individualism" I think we are far more corporate, far more bound by the group, than we pretend. What follows is still "very close to home."

In the Gospels the closest analogy to the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Luke 11:4; cf. Matt. 6:12), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It was the result of being poor (C), Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 6:20-26), that is, being unable to defend one's 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, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. "Conscience" was not so much an interior voice of accusation as an external one- blame from friends, neighbors, or authorities (Luke 6:6; John 5:45; 8:10; see especially 1 Cor. 4:4). Thus public accusation had the power to destroy, whereas forgiveness had the power to restore. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Reading Scenarios: Luke 3:1-20)

Do you see that the public accusation in Bordertown had the power to destroy? Do you see that it is driven by fear of somehow crossing the border into wilderness, that place which

was considered a place of chaos and disorder [and] was also the dwelling place of negative demons... (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Ibid)

Public accusation is a proactive defence; that is, an aggression which seeks to head off being driven into the wilderness apart from God. It pretends that we are in the place of God's favour, that we are right with God, that here, we are good.  Yet it can never escape the deeper, semi-conscious knowledge that all our civility is merely a wild border town only a short distance from the hostile other which we call wilderness— and which is us; the knowledge that within us and among us there is something which is a wilderness not yet opened to God. Public accusation gives the lie to the surface peace and prosperity of Bordertown, and all towns; it betrays our wilderness as a people, our fear of the life and place in which we find ourselves.

There can be no forgiveness in the sense of being restored and set free, until we acknowledge the corporate nature of our being. We are only individuals because we are part of the group; humans do not and cannot exist alone. Even solitary Crusoe existed only because of his previous formation by the group, and slowly began to "die inside" once isolated. Crusoes can begin to lose their language.

The truth of our captivity to the group is demonstrated by the mention of "sin in the camp," in the last Synod. This fear was projected by the speaker onto "some" First People members of the Uniting Church, but is really the fear of a much wider part of the church. The very fact that we mention "sin in the camp" means we know we need to be freed as a part of the group, not merely as individuals.  

And most of all we need freedom from using sin as a weapon. In the image above, the Muslims become the scapegoat we can drive out into the wilderness. They are the ones, along with LGBTIQ+ people, who we offer up to salve our own conscience, to cover our own knowledge that we are in a border town which is actually already in the wilderness, and unable to see God clearly. Behind the calls to prayer are the never quite cold torches of the mob.

Do you see that what Luke and John do, is to approach repentance by consciously entering the wilderness where God is, and by walking away from the political power structures of humanity which are sin. God comes to Zechariah in the temple, but John walks away from it. Even Jesus, going to the heart of sin, will walk away from the temple and die in a wilderness, for it is there we find the God who raises us up.

Rev Gwyn Williams once told me of getting lost as a young soldier outside Cairo, just after World War Two, and finding workmen busily sweeping an isolated road. Their supervisor told him that King Farouk was to pass by later that day. Petty says that

When a ruler visited a city, the people were to repair the road of approach and decorate it to herald that ruler.  In the case of Isaiah, the ruler is God, and the landscape is to be radically and utterly transformed--low places filled, high places made low, the crooked made straight, the rough made smooth.

What if the landscape is us? What if our repentance is to let the geography of our souls to be levelled and made straight? If there were not ravines of hostility between us, and we did not live in border towns holding off the infidel— those we designate as unfaithful, would not that be a great freedom? Would not that be
  the tender mercy of our God,
     breaking  upon us, 
   and giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
     and a real guiding of our feet into the way of peace?

Andrew Prior (2018)
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!

Also on One Man's Web
From Exile to Fire (2016)
The Morning Papers (2012)
Manifesto (2010)

Kathy Donley 04-12-2018
Great piece, Andrew. I particularly like the third paragraph, the one that begins "Sin is not some wicked, bad, dirty sexual thing. . . " I preached on Jeremiah 33 yesterday which brought to my mind some of the theological lessons learned in the captivity of exile. Your line "sin is our captivity" is spot on.

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