SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Haller BSG
When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”+
As it comes round every year, we’re back to “Rejoice Sunday” again, regular as clockwork. And this year we really do get to hear some readings that sound like something to rejoice about! That reading from Isaiah is full of wonderful promises to Jerusalem — wonderful promises... You know, I can’t help but think, with all of the rhetoric of the not-so-long-ago presidential campaign echoing in my ears, how much this could sound like the exaggerated promises of a politician, if you wanted to hear them in that way: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage.
Look at the promises Isaiah relates — everybody will live to be over a hundred years old, and reap the rewards of their labor. They shall not plant and another reap; even the nature of wild animals shall be changed in God’s peaceable kingdom; the wolves and lambs will eat from the same trough, and lions will learn to do with hay.
Surely such promises only could come true in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. No earthly politician would dare to promise such peace and prosperity, such a complete reversal of things as we know it. I mean, what kind of politician would dare to say, “My friends, I’m going to make everyone wealthy!” Well, some might...
Even so, the promises seem very high, when we look at the economic situation of our world, the state of war and terrorism. It is so very easy to see how far we are from the promised new Jerusalem of which Isaiah speaks. And it would be tempting to turn to follow a prophet or politician who promised us everything, assured us that straw can be spun into gold, and that wealth will somehow miraculously trickle down — not from God, but from the wealthy, so that everyone will have their share. How tempting to think that universal health care will somehow just happen, that there will no longer be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who doesn’t live out a lifetime.
Those are the kinds of promises people want to hear, the kinds of promises they look for in a politician — or a prophet. And many will give in to the demand, and tell the people just what they want to hear.
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But not John the Baptist. John was different. The people wanted to fit him into their box. They were looking for the Messiah, and they wanted John to be the one. But John knew his limitations. He knew who he was, and who he wasn’t and what his task was: to prepare. He was sent by God to challenge the people, to shake them from complacency, and begin the process of reestablishing a just and humane society. He made no impossible demands, and he made no impossible promises: he just told people with a closet and pantry full of food and clothes that they should share with those who had none. He assured the people he was not the Messiah, but was the one sent with a message to prepare, and call the people to live, so far as they could, righteous and generous lives, for the good of all.
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I am old enough to remember another John, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though I was in grade school the year he was elected, and in junior high the day he was assassinated. I still can see the face of Mr Stakem, my civics teacher, poking his head through the doorway into algebra class. I sat right along the wall, so all I could see was his head sticking into the room, and saying, “Mr Elliott, I’m sorry, but I have something very important to tell the class. The President has just been shot.” And then disappearing. And a half-hour later the announcement came over the PA system that the President was dead, and we were all sent home. Quite a day...
So I remember John Kennedy; and even as a youngster, I could see he was different from the other president I’d consciously known; though being very young I really didn’t know him very well — Dwight Eisenhower, known as “Ike.” Ike was an old man with a bald head, often in the hospital because of his heart problems; but John Kennedy was a young man with a full head of hair, strong and handsome and athletic. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower looked like folks from my neighborhood, like my great-aunts and uncles; but John and Jackie Kennedy looked like movie stars.
John Kennedy spoke differently, too. And I don’t just mean his accent — after all, though I grew up in Baltimore my Mom was Boston Irish, so I was used to hearing the sounds of “why doncha go pahk the cah.”
It wasn’t his accent, but his words themselves, not just how he spoke but what he said. As young as I was, I could hear the challenge and hope in his voice, together with his realism — not empty promises, but a call to responsibility. How powerful that challenge was: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His voice echoed with others of his generation, the voices of Martin Luther King Jr and John’s brother Bobby. These were prophetic voices, like John the Baptist, not saying,
“I’m going to do it all for you” or “Don’t worry about anything, it will all take care of itself” or “If we just help the rich to stay rich some of the crumbs will fall from the table and everybody will get what they need.” No, these were voices that said, “I’m not your savior, but I’m here to challenge you to do the right thing. I’m here to tell you to get your act together and work with me to build a just society. I’m here to shake things up, and unworthy as I am, to challenge you to do all in your power to make the world a place prepared for God’s coming kingdom — to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. I may not get there with you, but I have a dream today...”
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I don’t need to tell you that I heard a similar voice speak out in the campaign leading up to the election, and I’ve heard that same voice since. It is the voice of the man our nation chose, by a significant margin, to be our next President. He too could have offered the easy promises of wealth to the rich trickling down to us below; of health care provided universally but without cost. But he has taken a page from John’s book — John the Baptist and John Kennedy — to be straight with us, to challenge us, and call us to stand up to the challenge. It isn’t about him. It is not he upon whom we’ve pinned our hopes — except the hope that he will inspire us to do our best, not to ask what he can do for us, but what we can do for each other, working together, helping to turn our hopes into action to make this land, this world, a better place.
He is challenging us to “make straight the paths” of this land so that the poor and weak do not stumble. He is calling us to sacrifice and contribute to the good of all so that a fair and equitable health care system can be instituted, so that, God willing, no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live a lifetime. He is calling us to a world in which one does not plant while another harvests the crops, to a world in which the worker is compensated fairly, without regard to age or gender or race, and in which the laborers receive the fair return of their labor. He is calling us to a world in which those with much will indeed be challenged to share what they have — as John the Baptist did when he said that the one with two coats should share with the one who has none, and the one with plenty of food should do the same: and that’s not socialism; that’s the Gospel!
Barack Obama is no more the Messiah than was John the Baptist — but both of them call us to our better selves, to responsibility and willingness to bear each others’ burdens, so that all might benefit. We live in difficult times no less than did John the Baptist, times of war and want, of poverty and need, and of greed and selfishness. We cannot by our own efforts bring about the kingdom of God — but we can make straight his paths. We can prepare the way. We can all be men and women like John.
I give thanks to God, and pray for his continued blessing, upon our new President, who we hope at last can succeed in calling us to this high — and I dare say it — holy — endeavor. Let us work together with him, with our congress, with our fellows throughout the world, brothers and sisters, to hasten the day when justice, freedom, and peace, shall be the watchwords of our nation and our world. Let us make straight our Lord Messiah’s path, and rejoice at his coming, even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+