May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love the season of Advent because of its quietness and call to introspection, and the promise always of learning more, for the word itself means “to come,” or “that which is to come.” Yet it is difficult to preach during this season because Jesus rarely appears in any of the lessons except as a reference to another story, even in the gospels. Today we have a reference to Jesus in Isaiah, when the author says, somewhat vaguely, because it is a prophecy, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” I have some tree stumps on my property in Wisconsin, and new shoots come out of those stumps every year, never strong enough to become a new tree, but Isaiah speaks of just such a shoot that will bring overwhelming new possibilities for all of creation: harmony between creatures who are mortal or edible enemies, and the possibility of peace when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
So there we have a reference of the one who is to come, whom we believe is Jesus the Christ, for that is what we have named this promised saving being, or savior. We usually spell the word with an “ior,” but when the British who speak our mother tongue speak of Jesus himself, not just anyone who might save someone from something, they spell the word “Saviour.” That spelling sets Jesus apart, makes him unique, identifies him as a man, a being, a particular person who is far above and beyond even the most gifted of human beings.
I am particularly moved by the psalm this week, Psalm 72, which refers to the hope of Israel always to have a king and ruler who will be there for the good of, the support of, the protection of, and the teaching of the whole of the people of Israel.
The psalmist asks for justice for the king and righteousness for his son. It is not that the king needs justice for himself, he needs to mete out justice to all of his subjects. And his son needs righteousness, not for his own sake of being morally correct and justifiable, but for the sake of the people he will one day rule, that he may be a person of peace and hope and trust.
Have you ever noticed that Hebrew psalms never speak in terms of selfishness, of self-aggrandizement, in reference to what is best for ME with no thought of the needs and values of someone less fortunate than that ME.
Be forewarned, what I am about to say next may seem troubling and partisan to some of you. I have to note that this week, news reports said that America has reached the lowest level of unemployment in decades. There is something worth celebrating there. This was also true in the mid 1990s when every income level/group (how do we say that) was at its most prosperous and with the strong belief that this would continue), our government decided to cut welfare and food benefits. When this country did that during the mid-90s, with no need to do so, I feared that we were selling our soul as a nation that had strongly held to our Jewish-Christian heritage, believing deeply in God’s preference for the poor, as evident throughout Jewish and Christian scriptures. So this week we heard this is about to happen again. We are on the verge of making the poor suffer again. We have done a super tax cut for people with a high level of income, which may be fine, but do we have to pay for it by cutting the poor out of the little we provide for them to survive. I realize I am becoming political here, but there are some injustices, given Judeo-Christian history and spirituality, that I, as someone who has committed my life to God’s promises to the poor and the Church’s commitment to the good of the whole, I cannot be silent in moments like this. It is often necessary to cut corners and save money in times of great economic crisis.
It is an altogether different matter to do so when the common good will not be lessened or diminished by caring for the poor and disenfranchised. It is not caring for the poor that will tax our democracy beyond its limits. And it certainly reveals more faith in the power of money than in our Lord and God.
This is what John the Baptist is railing about when the Pharisees and Sadducees come to him for baptism. He is downright nasty, calling them a brood of vipers, a snake being the lowest of the low as we remember the creation story. He is furious that they are counting on their heritage to save them, the fact that they descend from a wealthy or sophisticated or learned family. But they are not living justly, not pursuing or living in righteousness, and their hypocrisy is too much for him to stomach. These are the folks whom Jesus will later describe as wearing long tassels on their prayer shawls, claiming the best seats in the synagogue, and expecting everyone to pay deference to them. Of course, the others who were coming for baptism were sinners, too, but John finds them easier to love. Our hearts go out to someone who is truly repentant after doing a wicked thing, but we grind our teeth in anger when the wickedness is coupled with hypocrisy.
What John says to the whole crowd is the important thing here: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. . . .”
John is certainly aware of our need to clean ourselves up from time to time, on the inside as well as the outside, which is why he makes the comment about baptizing with water. But he also glimpses something about the one who has been promised as a savior for Israel, that he will bring something more: a spirit of energy and power and grace, enough to set them on fire with love for all of the rest of their lives and move them further to set those around them on fire, too.
There is a lesson from Isaiah (6:1-8) that we often read at ordinations. It is a vision of the throne room of heaven with God musing as he sits upon the throne. Seraphim are flying around, and hosannas and hallelujahs are being sung. And God muses about sending someone out to save his people. “Whom shall I send; who will go for me.” And Isaiah stands there and blurts out: “Here I am Lord, send me.” And one of the seraphim takes a set of tongs and brings him a white hot coal and touches it to his lips. It is a searing moment in every way. It is indelible, never to be forgotten or removed.
I remember the first time I was asked to preach on it at an ordination. The more I read through and prayed over that lesson and what it meant to me to be a priest, in good times and difficult times, both with and without courage, except as God gave it to me, and the image I came up with is that when we are ordained we are called to kiss the fire. Just as we go down into the waters of death with Christ in baptism, so do we kiss the fires of life in ordination. The waters can drown us, the fires may burn us to a crisp. I think I scared the hell out of some of those ordinands that day. But, from what many said, I think they got it, too. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek