Last week we read from the story of John the Baptist, a radical firebrand who burst into life around Jerusalem and confronted people with his prophetic words and dire warnings. John’s rhetoric was filled with violent images, as such firebrands usually are. Death, destruction and violent endings are the currency of such apocalyptic warnings. John spoke of the One who is coming and whose axe is laid at the foot of the tree. He will come baptising with Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hands and he will separate wheat from chaff and send this chaff into eternal fires. It’s heady and full-on stuff that conjures all manner of scenes. I wonder what the people expected of Jesus? John, only harder, harsher, bigger, louder – perhaps one of those big professional wrestlers with tattoos, wild hair and looking the modern-day warrior, who come out breathing fire, threatening all and sundry?
So, Jesus wanders onto the scene and seems rather calm, gentle and moves around amongst the ordinary, struggling people giving hope and comfort, proclaiming love and compassion, along with justice. His words have a sharp edge at times and there are moments of anger and he doesn’t shrink from telling people how it is, but he isn’t John!
More than that, there is no violence! No violence at all!
This week we are still with John, but he is in a very different place – a prison cell held by the brutal, fearful, angry king whom John has challenged on moral grounds. John’s firebrand rhetoric has dried up, replaced with questions, doubt and confusion. ‘Are you the one?’ John asks. Are you really the one that I expected from God, the one whose path I prepared? You don’t seem terribly strong and powerful. You aren’t bringing in God’s transformation of the world in any noticeable manner – certainly nothing that equates with my expectation! John’s violent introduction fades as Jesus picks up the agenda of a peaceful Reign that bears little resemblance to John’s violent images.
When John sends his followers to Jesus, asking if he is the one or should we await another, Jesus replies: “… tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
There is a complete lack of axes, fire, winnowing fork… anything violent. The Reign of God, as lived and expressed in the life of Jesus is about healing, peace, reaching out to the suffering, the lowly, the poor and those who need hope. He incarnates in his being the deep and rich love of God that draws all things into the Divine heart. It is for this love that we all yearn, and this is the hope that creates the faint light in the deepest darkness of human life.
John’s vision of God ripping through human history with violence to take down evil and bring about justice does not match the reality of Jesus – it isn’t God’s way. It isn’t the way of love and it will not bring peace! John was right and wrong. His message of one who comes to expose within the human heart the false notions of greed, privilege, power abuse, exclusion and injustice is true. His assertion that Jesus will inaugurate God’s Reign through violence is wrong. It is the logical way humans have always thought – redemptive violence believes that peace can come through violence and warfare. Power and control can force peace into being through threat and overwhelming strength. That we can make other people abide by our ways, our belief systems and our status quo by strength, might, power and violence, dominates the political, corporate and even religious leadership of our world. It is wrong. It is evil and it institutionalises violence and injustice.
Regardless of whether the implication of John’s message was correct, his life embraces the way of suffering that will be Jesus’ own way. The difference is that Jesus willingly embraced the via dolorosa (Way of suffering) as the path that would challenge and confront the world with love over violence and bring the true transformation of human hearts and minds. John was led into this way because he embraced the call of God. In our story today, he is confronting his own suffering, the injustice he feels and experiences in his being and is on the margins of mystery that deepens through doubt and questions. Jesus asks the people in this story what they really thought they were going to hear in John’s harsh message. Did they want someone with ‘soft robes’ (one of the privileged leaders who wore such soft robes representing power, wealth and privilege) who would give them a nice message and maintain a privileged status quo? John’s message challenged the heart of things – if we want life in the richest way then it won’t be what we expect, and we may have to open ourselves to a level of discomfort. If we want Christmas then we have to look more deeply than a nice story with baby and manger, lovely carols, tinsel and lights covering our world and empty words that fade with the heat and fatigue of the season.
If we want Christmas, then we must be prepared for our comfortable world to be shaken or shattered. The comfortable privilege of most Westerners is an unreal expectation that is simply unsustainable and is at the heart of the catastrophe confronting the world as it overheats and changes in ways we want to ignore and pretend aren’t real – but cannot.
If we want Christmas then the greed, materialism and acquisitive lifestyles we have readily embraced as normal must be radically simplified – for our own sake and that of the world. If we want Christmas then our exclusive, entitled attitudes towards other people must change because the way of God, who is the essential reality beyond everything, is inclusive, gracious and loving. We have to change how we respond to the international crisis of refugees – people who have no home to go to; people who have no security or comfort; people who have nothing but what they carry. These are desperate human beings who have had the misfortune to be born in a place and time when horror and oppression reigns and violence breaks their lives open. Our privileged and entitled corporations exploit poor nations – their resources and labour – to bring us cheap goods, and the poor of the world suffer. Indigenous people across the globe have been trampled and abused and their culture and wisdom lost. Those who remain become lost and alienated people caught between what was and what is, belonging to neither.
Christmas comes each year on the back of John the Baptist preparing the way, and we offer a sideways glance but prefer a world of lights and tinsel, well-wishes and nice things that never challenge our comfort or security. It rolls on through and our deepest being yearns for the real truth at its heart, but we remain caught in a status quo that is hard to give up. So, John rots in his prison cell wondering what has happened to justice and hope – as do the poor and impoverished of our world. Christmas promises so much but fails to deliver what we think we want because it dares to challenge our lives and status quo.