Author Dallas Willard mentions Harvard professor Robert Coles who wrote an essay about the lack of moral formation at the University. At Harvard, as with other Universities, one can theorize about ethics and morals, but that’s all. Coles says that Harvard does not function as a place of moral formation but of intellectual discourse. He then mentions a case of a young woman from a blue collar background who was picked on and harassed so much that she had to leave Harvard. In her exit interview Coles was shocked to hear stories of harassment and intimidation, one by one of the star ethics students who got high marks in ‘moral reasoning’ courses but who was constantly propositioning her inappropriately. What did Coles offer this young lady? Nothing. All he could do was shrug his shoulders. He had no answers.
Coles conclusion? Harvard has to learn to accept the lack of moral formation. Since Universities don’t tell people how to live or even what is right and wrong, there is nothing that can be done.
What a contrast to the first century prophet who wore a camel haired tunic and a leather belt. What a contrast to the man who lived in the desert and ate locusts and wild honey. What John the Baptist say about what is right and wrong?
A couple things about John. As we know he was a cousin to our Lord Jesus. He was born to a barren woman and was called by God to live his life in the wilderness. Matthew’s description of John’s clothes would immediately cause the reader to think of the prophet Elijah. 2 Kings describes Elijah as a ‘hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.’ Also, John’s strange diet would have reminded the Jews of Judas Maccabeus, one of the last of the faithful Kings of Israel who ate ‘what the wild animals ate’ so as not to eat anything unclean.
Last week we talked about the way of Herod–a way of responding to uncertainty and anxiety. The way of Herod is the way of power. Remember–when the going gets tough, the tough kill everyone else.
There was another group previous to the coming of Jesus called the ‘Essenes.’ They were a group of Jews who decided that Rome, Herod, the Jewish priesthood, and the Temple were all corrupt. They watched the high priesthood sold to the highest bidder and the Temple sacrificial system an opportunity for not worship but greed and moneymaking. They decided, to one degree or another, to abandon the whole enterprise. God would have to sort it all out. Therefore, they created a community of the end times, some who lived in villages and still participated somewhat in the life of Israel; and others, who in on the outskirts of the town of Qumran, just outside of the Red Sea, lived in celibacy and separation. Both Essenean communities (the protomonastic and the communal) required strict observance of Torah, a two year ‘catechizing’ into the community and a series of ritual observance-the most popular being the mikvah or the ritual bath. Their primary purpose was to pray, copy and study Scripture, and to wait. This is the community we read about in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and there is an interesting parallel between them and some of the earliest Christian communities. What were they waiting for? The coming of the messiah and the kingdom of heaven. Since they were associated with the desert, their teachers took as their primary text a section of Isaiah 40. They were a ‘voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way of for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
While there is no way to be certain, it is quite possible that John the Baptist was a part of or at least influenced by the Essenes. He too had a disdain for the way his people were ‘doing religion.’ For sure he was familiar with the way of the desert and the way of waiting and preparation, for that is what God called him to do. John was a bridge between the Old and New Testament prophets. He preached in the spirit and passion of Eijah.
John was a man who had nothing to lose. He was a man of conviction and clarity. His way was the way of the desert and he had been in preparation for over 25 years. He wasn’t afraid to offend kings or religious leaders. His message was simple, ‘repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ And he called people to be baptized. Baptism was a rite for Gentile converts as a sign of repentance and cleansing. But John treated Jewish people, and even the religious leaders, on the same terms as pagans. All must repent, all must prepare their hearts for the coming of the King.
So what is there in John’s message for us?
First, John says, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ The word ‘repent’ in the original language means literally to ‘change one’s mind.’ But there is more involved in that. More accurately, it means to change one’s orientation, or turn from one way of life to another. There is to acknowledge wrongdoing, and then as John says to ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ John was serious about repentance. So much so that he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘brood of vipers’ who believe that they are children of Abraham only by virtue of birth. John also refers to them as a tree ready to be cut down.
Calling them a ‘brood of vipers’ (meaning children of vipers) was quite a statement. One writer says this, ‘Ancients thought that some kind of vipers ate their way out of their mothers…It was bad enough to be called a viper, but to be called a viper’s child was even worse—killing one’s mother or father was the most hideous crime conceivable in antiquity.’
John was deadly serious about repentance, even to call his leaders on the carpet for their lack of repentance. To push the case even further, in the next chapter Jesus begins his preaching ministry. His message? ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’
It is never easy to hear, ‘Turn yourself around. Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ But in that message there is clarity. In that message there is truth and insight into what we instinctively know. We know the world is an upside-down place–and we know that we are an integral part of its brokenness. We are acutely aware of the wrongs we have done and the wrongs done to us. We must repent, take responsibility for our actions and turn ourselves in the right direction.
Since so much of sin is selfishness, the fruit of repentance takes us from ourselves to others and to God. There is a characteristic of sin that is consistent regardless of what that sin is. That characteristic is isolation. Whether it is as something as obvious as adultery or as subtle as lying these acts make you want to hide out, to go into the shadows. Sin is debilitating because it separates us from God, from others, and from what God intended us to be. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.”
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. Sin puts us in the shadows of our own brokenness. You’ve known or seen folks who are so addicted or broken or lost that they live in a perpetual state of hiding. Unable to face who they are or what they’ve become, they never learn to face who they are or what they’ve become.
On the other hand, repentance takes us from our isolation and our shadows into the light of Christ.
Repentance is also, though, something more subtle than feeling bad for doing bad things and walking away from them. Repentance in John’s thinking is also making preparation. This is how John saw his own life–his life was a paradigm of preparation. He was clearing away whatever hindered him from receiving Christ, and he was asking everyone who came to see him to do the same. John, in his locust eating and clothes of poverty was a living parable for all to see.
Is God asking us to be living parables? Who here feels called to be a prophet of the wilderness? I strongly believe there are some who are called to live a monastic or semi-monastic kind of life. The laxity in our own tradition is due to the lack of just those kind of folks. But most of us are called to live in community among our families and in our church. What can that look like?
My challenge last week was for us to do the Christmas thing differently. The way we do Christmas is often an obstacle to celebrating Christmas in the first place. It has become the greediest time of year. I know of one family in this church who has decided to put their money that they would have used for gifts towards a two thirds world ministry and to a couple of the ministries that we are now engaged in at Epiphany. This is a small step. Advent is a time of preparation, of repentance, of waiting.
Lastly, what was John asking his hearers to prepare for specifically? The kingdom of heaven. And what is that exactly? Briefly, it is what we talked about last week, a life that is characterized by purity of heart, mercy, peacemaking, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Those things that Jesus preached about. John himself, as we shall see next week, may have misunderstood what the kingdom should look like.
‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…’ for those who are prepared, the kingdom of heaven is like nothing our world can imagine. The coming of Jesus is a scary thing for those who could care less, but it is a wonderful thing for those who are prepared. When John talks about the ‘winnowing fork’ of the coming king and the ‘baptism in fire’ those are terms that can be intimidating, but are actually realities of healing. The winnowing fork was used for what, for the harvest. The fire of the Spirit is what? A transforming fire for those who would believe.
In John’s starkness and purity of life, there was still a message of hope. A message of healing.
There is still a harvest to be reaped. There are still people to be healed. There is still time to change and to be changed.
Where are you with the Jesus stuff?
I just, more than anything else, want you to know Jesus. I want you to know him as your Lord, but also as your dearest of friends. And I want you to know that he loves you and he will never, ever forsake you. He ‘did not come into the world to condemn the world’ but to give you life.
It’s easy to talk about Jesus and Advent and Christmas as if it is all some fairy tale or something ‘out there.’