Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Wonder

17 December 2006
Advent 3C * Luke 3:7-18
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

I Wonder

Advent and Christmas are times of wonder. And so I find myself wondering.

I wonder what we know about Luke’s first audience – who it was first heard and read this gospel – where they found themselves – what their circumstances were – and how that would help us to understand the strange, even alien, world and language of John the Baptizer?

I wonder what we would think if we were to remember that when this gospel was written, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed by the Roman Empire in the year 70ce? An empire still referred to by Jesus’ Jewish community as “The Rule of Arrogance.” The Rule of Arrogance – has a familiar ring to it. Jesus’ people, God’s people Israel, believed God had made the world good and plentiful and abundant, and that it was the Rule of Arrogance that had turned the world upside down and made it a world of greed and hoarding and scarcity. They yearned and prayed for God to turn things right-side-up again.

People like John called people to repentance as a means to counter the Rule of Arrogance – as a kind of alternative lifestyle over and against the Rule of Arrogance. Those like John who advocated such acts of defiance against the empire were routinely rounded up and crucified we are told. Yet, how could a people not react in some sort of protest against the very empire that had destroyed the very center of the universe? In fact, the people of Jesus’ community had mounted an armed revolt or rebellion which had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple when Rome crushed the revolt.

I wonder if we can understand that the Temple was believed to be the still, center point of all creation? That the Holy of Holies, the quiet, dark, still place behind the veil of the Temple was where God, blessed be his name, touched the earth with a finger and held it still? That the world outside could rage and roar with chaos, but Jews knew that the Temple was the safest and most Jewish place in all of creation? That here is where God’s promises to turn the world right-side-up again did dwell in safety? That by later legend it was the place where God had sent an angel to grab Abraham’s hand to stop him from killing his son Isaac?

I once was in one of the ancient cities of the Decapolis – the ten Gentile cities in Israel – and saw the remains of a Dionysian Temple that had been destroyed by an earthquake. This cultic home of a powerful God with its once towering marble columns looked like so many matchsticks scattered on the ground. I tried to imagine the impact on the ancient psyche to see it instantly reduced to ruins.

The people listening to Luke had seen Jerusalem burned to the ground. They could smell the smoke and destruction. They had seen the flames. They had seen the rubble of the center of creation – the place believed to keep Jews safe throughout centuries of external turmoil.

Now here is John talking about “fire.” Fire is a powerful metaphor, a violent metaphor. There is no fire that is not dangerous. But against the background of the year 70ce, words about fire become something they had never been before. They now become associated with the Rule of Arrogance itself. I wonder how John’s words sounded to those who had fled the terror that was Jerusalem destroyed?

And yet, they come to John. As the city empties out into the surrounding region, the people go to John. They are like snakes coming out from hiding, says John. Well, who would not be hiding from the carnage of the Rule of Arrogance? So rather than a charge of vitriol, John’s snake metaphor captures the cautious public gathering of Jews after the carnage, after the danger has passed. There is no city in which to gather, only wilderness and ruin.

So now the plaintive cry of the people coming out to John in the wilderness – the wilderness where their ancestors had been forged from a rag-tag bunch of runaway slaves into a people, God’s own beloved people – begins to make sense: “What should we do?”

What should we do? In difficult, dangerous and chaotic times this is always the question, “What should we do?” What can we do to prepare for God to keep the old promises, for God to turn the world right-side-up?

Amidst all the fire-laden, snake-bitten rhetoric, John’s direct and simple answers are almost overlooked: people ought to share food and clothing; people ought not to defraud one another; people ought not collaborate with the Rule of Arrogance (tax collectors and soldiers); do not use your power to injure. How simple, how powerful.

When asked if he was sent by God to keep the old promises and turn the world right-side-up, John says, “No – another is coming – winnowing fork in his hand…” This is good news - so good that Herod correctly hears it as bad news for the Rule of Arrogance. He puts John in Jail, for when God keeps the old promises and turns the world right-side-up, it will not be comfortable for the people in power. Herod is correct.

Advent and Christmas are times of wonder. And so I find myself wondering.

I wonder if we truly understand this Gospel at all? The people listening to John hear this all as “good news.” I can’t help but wonder if we will too?


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