There’s a poster I’ve encountered over the years that asks the question: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The poster implies that being a Christian is more about what we do and who we are than what we believe. While theology and belief are important, we need to walk the talk, and not just talk the talk.
Advent is a time of challenge in which we compare our lives with God’s vision for us. Today’s scriptures were written during times of national uncertainty and hopelessness. The world of Isaiah and the world of the John the Baptist could be compared to today’s Palestine, Syria, Yemen, or Hong Kong. Everyday people found themselves at the mercy of powers larger than themselves. Assyria, Babylon, and Rome, each in its turn overwhelmed Israel, occupying its land, exiling its leaders, and oppressing its people.
During such times, people cry out for a revolution and a conquering hero who will drive out the occupying forces and set things right once more.
In times of oppression, however, people need more than bread, they need hope. They need visions of a new world and new possibilities for their lives. These visions need to be aspirational and take us beyond our current world, and they also need to be realistic, rooted in the realities that we currently face. In a difficult time, when the future is at stake and leaders have lost their reason, Isaiah and John the Baptist charge their listeners to prepare for the new order by reorienting their lives around God’s vision of what life can be, not depending on someone else to set them free.
The prophet Isaiah, 700 years before John the Baptist, visualizes a new age:
the wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the snake…
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Imagine hearing those words in the darkness of national defeat. No more tears, no more fighting, laughter in the streets, and celebrations every day. These are the dreams of a Syrian refugee child, the Kurdish mother, the innercity child hearing the sound of bullets piercing the night, an Appalachian coal minor’s daughter seeing her father die of black lung disease, the child in a borderland detention campe. They are our dreams. Dreams that challenge us to act as if they are true, to become people who would fit into God’s new order.
We need hope in future to get through today’s suffering. But hope is not the possession of the passive. It is a pick and shovel virtue, as Kate tells me, a get up off your feet and get to work to be worthy of God’s future and to be a partner in creating the future we hope for.
John’s call to repentance seems harsh. No one wins friends by calling their audience a brood of vipers. Yet, the call to repentance is an invitation to hope that tells us you can change, you can grow, you can let go of the past, and awaken to a glorious future, regardless of your external situation or past mistakes.
People came from all around to see this plain-spoken, simple living prophet. His message not only piqued their curiosity but responded to something deep down, that middle of the night experience of frustration, weariness, and mortality. John’s outdoor church was filled with good people, regular Temple goers, financially generous, and moral enough in their behaviors. They were people like us. But there are times that people like us are looking for something more; a deeper faith; a lively experience of God; freedom from the past; liberation from unhealthy habits.
John’s tough love called them to put up or shut up. In the spirit of the film “Jerry McGuire,” John shouted “show me the money.” That is, “show me that you really love God, show me that you care for the poor and the stranger. God wants your life, a life of joyful sacrifice.”
John touched a nerve. The Trappist monk and spiritual guide Thomas Merton titled a book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. As uncomfortable as it feels, we all need to experience a guilty conscience from time to time. A sense of our fallibility reminds us that we can do better and that we are not as good as we think we are and others aren’t as bad as we assume. It reminds us that we are often complicit in the evils we deplore and that we need to simplify our lives – to let go of the clutter – so God’s light can shine in. It’s not about guilt or shame but taking stock of our lives – being mindful of God’s calling to something more and better than we can imagine and take the next steps to real change. God loves us, unconditionally, and completely. With God the past is not prologue, but the opportunity to say “yes” to a new life, to love more knowing that God loves us fully and passionately and that love never ends.
One of my favorite movie scenes is the from the final scene of “Saving Private Ryan.” As Private Ryan, now in his seventies walks with his family at a military cemetery in France. He comes to the tombstone of Capt. John Miller, the officer who died saving his life. His wife joins him and he asks, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Tell me I’ve been a good man.” He knew others died so that he could go home, and raise a family of children and grandchildren. And, he knew that his life was purchased at a cost of others’ lives.
God loves us, and you can’t lose that love. God has saved us, and you can’t lose that either. But, don’t take it for granted. Let your life speak – live each moment, seek justice, love beauty, care for the earth, give joy to children, welcome the stranger, and rejoice with this glorious day. Make God’s grace real in your daily life. Bear fruits of repentance, of this wild precious beautiful life.