Sunday, December 05, 2010
The Nearness of Heaven: A Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
Who or what draws us? By which I mean, for what or for whom would you stand in line, or go through security, or pay an exorbitant amount of money to get the tickets? In my family, we have been known to go out of our way for theater. Far out of our way. Three hour drives, for example. For my mom, it was Frank Sinatra. She first stood in line for him when she was in her twenties, and I joined her in one of those lines when she was in her sixties. Performers like Lady Gaga regularly attract sellout crowds at astonishing prices.
Of course, we go out of our way to experience things other than entertainment. About a month ago I drove almost two hours and went through pretty tight security to see former President Bill Clinton speak at Colgate University. My son got on a bus in Manhattan that same weekend to be one of about 215,000 to attend Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore the Sanity in Washington, DC, just a couple of months after about 100,000 other Americans attended Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor. Who or what draws us?
John the Baptist, the man at the center of today’s gospel lesson, draws people. He draws crowds. He draws all types of people—young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. Pharisees and Sadducees are among those he draws, and that means he draws people from across the religious spectrum, from those considered most tradition-bound to those pushing the boundaries of progressivism. He draws them all, and we have to wonder why. What is it about this man who suddenly appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of tough love that has crowds flocking to him? What is it about John, about whom Matthew makes an astonishing claim—that five hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah was referring to John when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” What is it about this man who dresses strangely, wearing animal pelts, and who survives on a diet of insects and wild honey? What is it about this man who urges people to be baptized, because, he promises, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”?
John offers people a “baptism of repentance.” John takes us back to the most ancient understanding of baptism, from a Greek word that means, “dipping.” For John, baptism is about one thing and one thing only. People come to him in the wilderness, and he dips them into the water, and when they emerge, they are cleansed. They are free. They have a fresh start. And John wants them to have a fresh start, because the nearness of heaven demands their full attention.
When John says, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he is using a euphemism. When he says heaven, he means God. It was not permitted in Judaism to use the name of God casually, or to even write it down in its entirety. Across the street from the place I went to seminary is Jewish Theological Seminary. In the seminary there is a room dedicated to the permanent—eternal—storage of pieces of paper that have the name of God written on them, but which are no longer being used. Such paper cannot be destroyed, recycled, or otherwise re-purposed. The name of God must be preserved. John uses a euphemism to indicate God. He uses the word “heaven.”
At this point in the gospel, John knows that something, someone extraordinary is coming, but it isn’t until Jesus presents himself for baptism that John knows precisely who and how. Only when he lets John dip him in the water does John come to realize that the presence of God is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. At this point, John simply knows that something amazing is on its way, that God’s presence will be made manifest among people in a wholly new way. And John’s judgment is that the best possible way to be ready for this presence is to throw off the old, to be done with the sin and failure of the past. John invites everyone to come with a clean slate, a new lease on life.
I think this is the answer to my question. I think this is the draw. This is what has Pharisees and Sadducees elbowing each other to get a better place in line. This is what appeals to young and old, to rich and poor: the chance for a fresh start. What would you give? What would you endure? What would you pay? How long would you wait for a fresh start? A clean slate? A sense of being totally new?
No matter that it is still Advent in here, and will be for nearly three more weeks, out there you and I know it’s already Christmas. The lights are up, the carols have been playing since mid-November, the magazines telling us how to have that elusive “perfect” celebration have long been on the stands. I think one of the things that draws us in this season is that promise of the perfect Christmas. I think it represents a kind of fresh start for us, a day when old hurts are healed and we come together with loved ones in perfect peace and harmony.
Except, we don’t seem to believe we can come together in perfect peace and harmony unless we have managed to transform our homes into some kind of magazine-spread of glittering Christmas beauty. And so we do all kinds of things to make the holiday everything we think it should be. We cook and we clean, and we bake and we decorate, and we buy and we buy and we buy, because we have somehow become convinced that the amount of love in our hearts is directly translatable into dollars and cents. And we come to the day itself, and we find that the preparations have entirely drained us of all hope of feeling anything but exhaustion or numbness.
I think that none of the trappings are anywhere near the heart of what we really want. I think what we want is a fresh start—with our family, with our friends, with our church, with our co-workers. I think that’s why the image of the “white Christmas,” in which a fresh fall of snow blankets everything, is so powerful. We want a beginning that fresh, that pristine, that beautiful. We want hope.
Writer Barbara Kingsolver said, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside your hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.” John the Baptist reminds us of what it’s like to live in hope, the confident anticipation that heaven, God, is near. Living in hope means casting off what is weighing us down. Living in hope means accepting God’s gift of a fresh start each morning, sometimes each minute. Living in hope means opening ourselves to every opportunity to experience the nearness of heaven—starting now, around this table. Thanks be to God. Amen.