So, if we take a moment, and ask a few questions, do a little deep breathing exercise, and engage our faith and trust, we might just get to where the Mayans and John are trying to take us. Turns out the modern hype of the Dec 21 prediction, that the sky is falling this Friday, is all a misinterpretation. Indigenous Mayan’s are ‘not happy’ with how their culture has been portrayed around the world, and commercialized locally. The 5,000 year old prediction has everything to do about the ending of an era, and, the new and hopeful beginning of another. But that’s something very different than an apocalyptic end of the world!
And, the fiscal cliff is slowly but surely being debunked too. There is no cliff, in the sense of abruptly falling off the edge like Wiley Coyote. Yes, the economy would probably turn more recessionary again, because of the austere measures that would be triggered, but not right away, all at once – it’s more like a fiscal curb or slope. And, turns out, the “crisis mode” that law makers want us to buy, has been completely made up by a bi-partisan decision of their own making: Unable to do the work we elected them to do, they ‘kicked the can down the road’ two years ago. The real crisis we have right now, if you think about it, is the high unemployment, and lack of jobs, that is tearing apart the lives of young people, families, and the middle class, and would, if it were addressed instead, help to reignite the economy. This is a crisis and a tragedy we’ve been living in, actually, since before the current Great Recession, and has only deepened as Politicians and their positions have polarized. If law makers were not so beholden to special interests that finance their re-election campaigns, and were more attentive to voters, well, I’d bet – crisis averted!
I believe this is directly related to our life together as a faith community and cannot be separated. Crisis, is a faith issue. But prophets, like John the Baptist, did not go out and manufacture crises. They were often blamed for it – and thus the term, “bearer of bad news” – but prophets were actually, courageous truth-tellers. They offered a warning of an impending crisis, but also a promise. The promise was usually good news, like we hear from the prophet Zephaniah in our 1st Reading. All the doom and gloom in Zephaniah’s first 2 chapters – the warning, that Israel must pay for its wandering, sinful and unethical behavior, is omitted. On this third Sunday of Advent, we traditionally turn to the joy and hope of the season – and lift up the good news of God’s promise. And so we hear from Zephaniah that there will be removal from disaster and judgments, the Lord will rejoice over the people with loud singing, you will be freed from your oppressors, the outcast will be saved, and you will be brought home. So too, John is not just fire and brimstone, but makes a promise that a savior is coming with more power than he, who will bring us a baptism of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost fire.
Crises loom. They come and go in every age. And prophets offered a way out. They remind us of who is charge, and that this God covenants with us, that if we remain faithful and true to God’s agreement, that is where abundant life will be found. Prophets call us back to this covenant agreement, and tell us the bold truth that no one wants to hear, that breaking the covenant has consequences, that it’s really a failure of our own doing, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What do we have to do then, all the people ask John, in order to avert the fiscal cliff? ‘Share your food and clothing with a neighbor in need,’ says John. But the tax collectors, surely they can’t be saved? Like banks too big to fail and politicians who enable them, they were the perfect example in Jesus’ day of cheating people out of their money. But even they come to John at the Jordan River to be baptized: “What should we do,” they ask? And John replies, ‘Stop stealing from your neighbors.’ And finally, to the soldiers, their oppressors, John says: No more using your power to blind side and take advantage of the citizens. John is specific: No hoarding, no skimming, no extortion. Do this, and you will bear fruits worthy of repentance.
If there is no Mayan end of the world in five days, and no fiscal cliff in 15 days, what is our real crisis? We might be tempted to say, it’s the horrendous shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut this past Friday, an emergency so grave and hurtful it is hard to know what to say, a senseless tragedy that fills us with powerlessness, anger and tears. But this kind of violence is not the root of our crisis, today, or in any age, but more likely a symptom. Not that this excuses the horrific incident, and the very real pain for the families and friends most directly involved. But today we can only sit with them in their grief, and surround them with our prayers.
The crises that prophets unveil, on the other hand, reveal root causes and a hopeful existential choice that empowers us, that gives us a community opportunity that is not a feeling of powerlessness, but its opposite. Like the Mayan calendar ending, that marks a whole new age about to begin, which is a warning but also a hopeful new day on the horizon, the crisis and promise of the prophets and John the Baptist, reveal the liminal space that God has opened up to us – the realm and kingdom of God that is coming, and indeed, is dawning upon us, right now, and always.
Crisis is coming, warns John, and he gave his life warning us of it – just as most all the prophets before him did. But as a truth-teller, he also opened the way for the gift of Jesus to come. John knew that no matter how righteous we feel and how reticent we are to enter the liminal space, no matter how much we think it’s the other guy, and how convenient it is to want to blame the messenger instead of repenting of our own stuff and turning around in a new direction, toward God, yet, Love prevails, and God will win the day. So my favorite passage from today’s gospel is this, “do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’; -the father of our faith- for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Where does that leave us, as the people of God?
It places us, I think, in an existential crisis, exposed to the truth of our age, that we cannot hide anymore behind a righteousness of doctrine that indeed, understands and confesses the faith, but without actually living out our love of neighbor. We need both – faith in word and faith in deed – whether that means, sharing our coat and meals, or dealing honestly with all those we live and work with. God doesn’t need our wonderful words and good intentions, but forms and reforms the faith community – raising up new heirs to Abraham in surprising and new ways – from those whose deeds match up with their words.
We always have a warning and a promise set before us – a brazen truth, and an Advent hope, a light that is coming out of darkness, the gift of the dual ministry of John and Jesus, cousins and iconic partners. Crisis is a faith issue, and a spiritual opportunity, directly related to our life together as a faith community. When we come together to hear God’s Word and respond in deed, we find renewed hope and joy, a gift of grace we can’t wait to open.