Pre-Natal Politics

Posted by secondchurch on December - 14 - 2018

Pre-Natal Politics
Luke 3:1-6
Carla J. Bailey
December 9, 2018

Clergy who regularly deliver children’s sermons on Sunday mornings can all tell of one time or another when, with the microphone on and all the adults paying close attention, a moment with the children goes completely awry.  Usually, this is when the unexpected happens or when a child’s particular kind of logic carries the story to a perplexing place.  Some years ago I experienced such a moment.  I was telling the children about Mary and Elizabeth, mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist.  One of the children was way ahead of me on their genealogy.  They were cousins, she said, John and Jesus – cousins.  Well no, not exactly cousins, said I, though maybe they were distantly related.  No, not distantly related, she informed me – they were cousins.  Not recognizing the precarious moment, deeper I went.  The Bible tells us that Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, were kinswomen.  My Bible, she said, says they were cousins.  By this time I had forgotten the point I had intended to make, so I lamely agreed – yep, right indeed, they were cousins, and that was the end of the children’s moment that day.

That little peanut is a young adult now, so I feel safe in telling you – no, they were not cousins.  In fact, there is scant evidence, if any, that John and Jesus were related at all, except in that very distant way that the third generation of fourth cousins six times removed might be considered related.  They knew each other, of course.  And they each had loyal followers.  John was the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, but John chose to live away from the urban, priestly circles of his father to survive, instead, in the wilderness.  He seemed, to those who followed him, very much like a Messiah, a purist, a non-conformist who had abandoned the seductions of the city for a rigorously disciplined, sacrificially religious life.  John’s disciples thought he was living the way God expected they should also live, and so John’s followers concluded that John was the Messiah for whom the Jews waited.  But Jesus, well, you pretty much already know about Jesus, who he was, who he became.

Their birth stories, which we read this time of year, suggest that John and Jesus were closely related and that, while still in his mother’s womb, John recognized that the fetal Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  Story-tellers Luke and Matthew wanted to establish a relationship early on that would resolve the later contentious questions about these two Messiah candidates, how they connected to one another in adulthood, their impact on one another, the interweaving of their life stories.  John the Baptist was head of a significant movement.  He was charismatic, strong, and compelling.  He had many, many followers, quite possibly Jesus among them.  John preached that baptism was the ritual way to repent of sin and the sin from which the Jews needed to repent, according to John, was the abandonment of the ancient prophecies – the ancient truths about God and God’s will.  To the gospel writers who, remember, wrote their stories long after Jesus lived and died, it mattered that John and Jesus were not in competition for the loyalty of the Jews.  At the same time, Luke and Matthew needed to acknowledge the Baptist movement, still very much alive when they were writing their story of Jesus’ life.

So, John the Baptist is portrayed as one who clearly also awaited the Messiah.  John’s birth had miraculous literary elements not unlike Jesus’ – a pronouncement of the pregnancy to parents who were surprised at the news, strange occurrences during the pregnancy, and striking miraculous events when the child was born.  And, according to Luke, John preached that the Messiah had in fact come, that the Messiah was in fact Jesus, and that he, John the Baptist, was not only not the Messiah, he was not even a worthy contender.

Isn’t it interesting then, that Luke made such a point of declaring where and when the Word of God was actually delivered to John?  The reign of this emperor, the governorship of that one, rulers here and there, all describe the power and authority that come with high office.  And Luke went even further to describe those with religious status and position as well.  High priests Annas and Caiaphas were in position.  At that time, when heads of state could easily be identified and religious leaders enjoyed tremendous status and visibility, when governments defined the parameters of religion and the seats of power were all occupied by powerful priests and governors, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.  If written today, Luke’s words would sound something like this: At the end of the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey were Massachusetts Senators, and Joseph Kennedy represented the 4th congressional district, and Charlie Baker was governor and Ruthanne Fuller was mayor, and Francis was the Bishop of Rome and Seán Patrick O’Malley was the Archbishop of Boston, and the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer was the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Donald Remick was the Transitional Interim Conference Minister of the Massachusetts Conference, the Word of God came to John in the woods.

What does it mean to us that God’s Word came to John in the wilderness, that the prophetic Word of God comes to those who are on the outer edges of power, who live far away from the action, so to speak, who are not in the center of things?  What does it mean that Mary’s song, in the hearing of her kinswoman Elizabeth, while both were still pregnant, paid tribute to God who has “scattered the proud… brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly… filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…” (Luke 1:51-53)  What does it mean that the power of that one who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), will be to transform the lives of the poor, the sinners, the disenfranchised and diseased, the outcasts, the laborers, the immigrants, the uninsured, those trying to live on minimum wage, the opioid addicted?  What does it mean that the One to whom, as Christian disciples, we give our loyalty and our love, came to life in a barn far, far away from power and might and wealth and government?  And what does it mean that the story of these two prophets, John and Jesus, intertwine from before they were born all the way through to their violent executions?

Each year when we encounter some parts of John the Baptist’s story, I wonder about the twists and turns the gospel writers took to be sure that Jesus’ followers came out on top.  I can imagine it going a different way, actually.  For John’s followers, baptism was the most important way to demonstrate the desire to be cleansed of sin and wrong-doing.  For John himself, choosing to live far away from the seats of power and corruption was essential for faithful living.  Living simply, off the grid, so to speak, eating locusts and wild honey, or only what one grows in one’s own garden, wearing clothing made from skins and camels’ hair for warmth, washing with ritual enthusiasm in the River Jordan – aren’t these lifestyle choices just as faithful to the will of God as – well, fishing in the Sea of Galilee to highlight the economic exploitation of the first century’s fishing industry, or healing people who were considered to be deviants, or heading directly into Jerusalem – the belly of the beast, and antagonizing both your own religious leaders and the ruling, oppressive government?  They were two very different ways to live out trust in God, to demonstrate discipleship, to live as devout and committed leaders in their faith.

We live in fiercely competitive times.  It’s the water in which we swim. We tend to define our goals in black or white ways – we either win or we lose, you’re either for us or you’re against us, if I give you any, that means less for me, there’s no such thing as second place – it’s either first place or you’re a loser, if I’m not getting ahead, I’m falling behind, it’s either kill or be killed, and on and on.  Compromise, what once was understood to be the goal of good governing, is nearly dead.  Bipartisan? Practically a curse word these days. Relinquish? Yield? Surrender for the greater good? We may say we admire those actions when we see them, but, as a culture, we reward aggressive competition much more.

But here we are with these stories about Jesus and John – two Jews who loved God and wanted only to help their people return to the ways of faithful discipleship.  Did they see their respective paths as being in competition one with the other?  We can’t actually know, so we listen to the stories the Gospel writers told about them.  When their mothers saw one another, while they were still in utero, they danced in their mothers’ wombs.  When they were adults, one of them went in to the wilderness to guide his followers away from the chaos and squalor found in the seats of power.  The other went into the wilderness alone to prepare to confront the chaos and squalor found at the seats of power.  One urged his followers into the waters to be cleansed of the past.  The other went into the water and emerged beneath the sign of a dove. John yielded to Jesus’ authority, proclaimed him to be the one true Messiah.  Jesus, upon hearing that John had been murdered for speaking truth to power, went away to grieve and returned to comfort the five thousand men, not to mention the women and children who were with them, waiting on a hillside, by feeding them from the five meager loaves and two fish the disciples had with them.

It occurs to me, that as we are thinking about John and Jesus on this Second Sunday of Advent, whether they were cousins or not, at the very least, can we not learn from John about yielding authority, position, opinion, even power to something we recognize as better, closer to the heart of God, more true and honorable and just? Can we not learn how to bow down? Humble ourselves? Give way, even prepare the way?  Sometimes the most important things we learn about how to be better disciples of Jesus are taught not by Jesus, but by those who saw in him their Messiah.  Amen.


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