New clothes

9 December 2012
Second Sunday of Advent
Advent 2C (RCL)
Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

With the second Sunday of Advent, we move away from looking toward the future coming of Christ (the end of the season after Pentecost focuses on the coming Kingdom, and the first Sunday of Advent focuses on the advent of the Son of Man at the end of history), and begin to anticipate our celebration of the first arrival of the Christ. We look at the figure of John the Baptist and his announcement of the coming one. We hear a prophetic announcement of the return of God’s people to Jerusalem.

Luke portrays John the Baptist as the last of the line of prophets empowered by the Spirit. When the Spirit descends upon Jesus, the age of the prophets is over (Luke records John’s imprisonment by Herod before he records Jesus’ baptism — a neat trick). Interestingly, Luke mixes Roman historiography with the call of a prophet. The call always involves a time, a place, a name, parentage and the device, “The Word of the Lord came to” (for example, “The vision which Isaiah, son of Amoz, had concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah”). For the time, Luke uses the reign of Tiberius, the procuratorship of Pilate, the tetrachy of the four listed, and then has the word of God come to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He combines the two formulae seamlessly.

Then, Luke (mis-)quotes Isaiah 40:3-5. Isaiah has, “The voice of one crying, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord in the wilderness.'” Luke moves the voice to the wilderness, rather than the way through the wilderness. Isaiah’s logion concerns the return of the Exiles to Jerusalem. God will make their way through the wilderness straight and level this time, rather that tortuous as when they came from Egypt. But this citation is important to understanding John’s message.

We are told that John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We usually understand that as a baptism which washes away our individual sins. However, for John, this baptism is about re-constituting the people of God, bringing the people of God back from Exile. Specifically, John baptizes in the Jordan, the river the people of Israel crossed on their way into the promised land. This baptism in the Jordan makes anyone who undergoes it a member in the returning people of God.

Of course, John’s baptism was politically dangerous, since it implied that the regime currently in place in Jerusalem (mentioned in Luke’s historiographic introduction from Tiberius, right down to the Annas and Caiaphas) are not part of the returning people. No wonder Herod saw the need to remove John’s head. But next week, we will learn that John was willing to baptize all comers — even Roman soldiers, and then instruct them on how they ought to live in this new configuration as the new Israel.

Interestingly, most early Christians as well as the Qumran community saw baptism as a passing through the Red Sea into the new people (see for instance 1 Corinthians 10:1-13), that is, as part of the paschal mystery. Of course, Christians also saw it as a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. John saw it as constituting a new people in the promised land, and welcoming all comers (at least as portrayed by Luke).

Sin, in this instance, would be whatever separated people from the restored community God had in mind in bringing the people back to Judea. There is a venerable prophetic tradition (the servant songs of Isaiah for instance) which saw the restoration of Jerusalem as involving the inclusion of all the nations in God’s people, not by conquest but by making God’s house a house of prayer for all the nations (hospitality). Baruch echoes this prophetic tradition. Sin, according to Paul, consists of the distinctions we make “in the flesh” between one and another: male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free, and we could add our own list. The Law was intended to overcome those distinctions, but we, weakened by the flesh, put it to other uses, precisely drawing the line between inside/outside.

John is preaching a baptism of re-thinking for the putting away of those divisions, and including all who will go through the waters of the Jordan in the new people. Put on your new clothes, Jerusalem and rejoice, for God is bringing God’s people back to you, from east and west.

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