A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 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 asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 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. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
****************************************************** This is week 2 of our Advent Series on Compassion. Last week we spent a good deal of time talking about what compassion is, and how we can best cultivate it in our lives. We learned about the seeds of compassion- non-judgementalism, non-violence, forgiveness, and mindfulness- and how each one of these seeds come with their own special challenges. We've been socialized to be quite the opposite of these things- and it seems that the seeds we've watered, as a modern people, are those of judgment, and violence- we've honed the art of holding a grudge and mindfulness? come on- who has time to stop and smell the roses? (Rocking chair) Yet we talked about a three fold approach to becoming a more compassionate people- awareness, attitude, and action. If we look at the life of Jesus, we can see that he modeled these things for us in every aspect of his ministry. And so we begin today with awareness. As we discussed last week, and I showed you the manger at the center of the art display, awareness means living in the knowledge that we carry the Christ within us... we care for that Spirit- we give honor to that spirit- we allow the Christ in us to direct our thoughts and our attention. and we recognize that the Christ dwells not just in us, but in all people, in all living things, in all of creation. The Christ is the Spirit that was with God and was God since the beginning- the Christ embodied, revealed, and reflected in the life of Jesus- in us and in all.
The passage I just read to you from the gospel of Matthew, we meet John the Baptist- Jesus's slightly older cousin- who has become quite the character in his 30 years. I love musing about how it happened that John ended up like looking like grizzly Adams- living in the woods, dressed in animal skins and eating bugs. Remember his family, Jesus' family- they were part of the Patriarchal line- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the House of David- right down the line to John and Jesus... in fact Matthew spends the first half of his gospel detailing exactly how that lineage played out- so what was it? Teenage rebellion gone wrong? He's described, as my father would have called him, a hippie freak... yeah man, I live in the woods- its awesome- yeah, locusts are awesome- anti-establishment, man- peace, love, joy...
You know, nothing included In scripture was put there as an aside- the Gospel writers wanted us to see John as unconventional. John had found a way to see, be, and relate to God that was outside the traditional religious structure. (outside the established order) John gives us a picture, perhaps in caricature, of what it's like to live a life of awareness- the first approach to practicing compassion- and though he is often portrayed as wild and even angry- he was so vital to setting the stage for the ministry of Jesus that all 4 gospel writers included him, and Jesus says of him, 'among those born of women, John is the greatest of all.'
So perhaps it was more than teenage rebellion that caused John to choose a life in the wilderness. Awareness, as it grows in us, sometimes causes us to make choices that seem ridiculous to the world. Again, John grew up as part of the religious elite- he would have been privy to the inner workings of all things religious, for good of for bad. He learned the rules early, he was educated in the scriptures, learned the 647 rules of the torah, learned the rituals of cleansing, of reconciliation, the exclusion that followed from breaking the rules, from eatings with, sitting with, talking with, touching the wrong people or things... And John saw the suffering caused by people living within that framework. Living in awareness of the Christ in him directed him toward the suffering of others- that something about some people having and others not having was off, according to God's plan. That some were included but some were pushed to the margins, that some had power and some did not, that the ills of poverty and hunger were within the means of society to cure, yet the number of impoverished continued to grow-
And so John walked away from his privileged high society life, and took up a life of poverty himself. His awareness of suffering led him to live in solidarity with with those who had nothing- his very appearance and diet reflective of God's provision for humankind... His awareness of the suffering of others led him to look deeper, to see and understand the systems that sustained inequality, powers that perpetuated separateness from one another, and from God... and John found them living right in his own backyard. HIs family, his church- his own birthright- all were contributing to other's suffering, and caused him, in awareness, to begin to work toward a better way.
Perhaps it is because he grew up with jesus. Maybe they came to awareness together. Maybe John was one of the influencers in jesus's life, who knows? Maybe that's why Jesus called him the greatest of all. I do know this- that John didn't just call out the people who were oppressing others. He put himself out there to serve them- to point them toward a God who could heal them- he recognized the suffering this kind of system was doing even to the elite- how it kept them also in a prison of rules and offered to free them- every day, the scripture says, every day, he came to the water in the hopes of baptizing them!!!
The Pharisees and Sadducees at the river that day were invited into the water... Is this blowing your mind? Because when we talk about calling out powerful people, and seeing them change, we often see humiliation- we see someone shaming them into doing the right thing- we see disgrace, we hope for groveling- we yearn for "wow, you were right..."