HE WENT INTO ALL THE REGION AROUND THE JORDAN, PROCLAIMING A BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
Advent places a special emphasis on the mission of John the Baptist. John was a prophet. He was obsessed with the truth. He lived a life of rigorous honesty and was killed for it. In the New Testament John prepares the way for the Christ by telling people there is a problem, there is work to be done. What would we do with John the Baptist? Would we ignore him, or say to him “go away, we like our lives just fine, we don’t want to change”. After all, there are major problems in our lives and many people would rather not hear about them…We have some very smart men and women telling us we are, AS A CULTURE, at an impasse. We need a miracle—only the impossible can help us now. Advent is about preparing for, longing for, the impossible…isn’t the coming of the Christ associated with symbols of the impossible? After all virgins can’t have babies—or can they?
Advent is not ultimately a time of preparation leading up to a celebration of something that happened in the historical record 2 thousand years ago. Christmas, although it symbolizes the birth of a kind of Independence, represents something much more profound than the fourth of July. The fourth of July commemorates a declaration of Independence on the historical or temporal plane of existence—Christmas is ultimately about freedom or independence at the very center or ground of our being. And just as it was with the American independence—the kind of freedom we are to prepare for during advent also requires radical change, and even deliverance from the control of a king. But this is not a king ruling us from some distant shore—this is a king we live with day in and day out. Last week I was in Wegmans and I just stood there in the middle of the crowded store listening, and watching. There were advertisements trying to seduce, there were celebrity magazines, there was a child screaming and jumping up and down because she wanted something---men and women with shopping carts so full they could feed 10 families. If consumption without need is a hallmark of addiction then wegmans and east-view mall are crack-houses. Consumerism is making us all junkies. And this time of year always reminds me of this—with its explosion of stuff, craving, and over-indulgence. Heck, just like heroin or cocaine addicts, we even rationalize these behaviors—I can splurge—after all it’s the holidays. In the words of one of the leading thinkers on the subject: “addiction is rising like the world’s oceans, and for many of the same reasons—there is a rising flood of addiction all over the world” and another says that she believes the vast majority of Americans bear the psychological marks of addiction. Why are we at an impasse, why do we need the impossible to happen? Why do we need a miracle? Because as any of the top-guns in the field of addiction would tell you—you simply cannot think your way out of an addiction—in fact the more you try to think you’re way out, the deeper in the hole you go—so once you’re really hooked—you’re in an impossible situation. You need an intervention. You better hope a power greater than your-self shows up. Christmas is meant to represent the appearance of a power greater than ourselves within creation that brings freedom, independence, and deliverance. AND Advent is the preparation for such an appearance. But our consumerist culture has turned this season into a celebration of materialism, dependence, self-centeredness, and addiction—and for those of you that read Richard Rohr, he reminds us that self-centeredness and addiction are synonyms for what the Bible calls sin. In Alcoholics Anonymous, members commemorate the day they quit drinking—they call it their “sobriety date”. This is, if you will a kind of Christmas for them—it’s the appearance in their lives of a power greater than themselves that is also the birth of a New Way of experiencing and living and Being in the World. This is essentially what Christmas symbolizes— and this is what we are to prepare for during Advent. It seems to me that during the Christmas season the modern American culture is like an alcoholic preparing for the celebration of her sobriety date by spending a month doing shots of Jack Daniels.
Embedded in our text this morning is important information about the spiritual practice OR PREPARATIONS of the first century Jews we call the first Christians and this clues us into the real meaning of this season…
As I said before, Advent gives a special emphasis to the mission of John the Baptist. In Luke 3:3 John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is a loaded line packed with a whole culture’s way of preparing the way of the Lord—or in other words their way of preparing for an immediate experience of a power beyond and greater than the self.
For first century apocalyptic Jews baptism was very different than it is for the modern church-goer. Baptism in Christianity is now a rite of initiation that often takes place once and often during infancy; but for ancient apocalyptic Jews like John and Jesus baptism was very different---it was a preparatory rite—a ritual that was meant to prepare them for a direct encounter with the divine. It was part of a whole series of rituals, part of an entire religious practice meant to cleanse and prepare one for a meeting with God. Such practices would go on for mystics like Jesus and John anywhere from 12 to 40 days. It is said that this was part of the way Jewish mystics would “still their hearts”. Stilling their hearts meant making peace within the deepest part of their being. And then they would be ready to receive a power greater than self. How do we facilitate such an experience of peace in our lives? How do we quiet ourselves down so that we can receive and commune with the divine? Do we even take religious practice seriously? Peace certainly does not come through craving and buying what a consumerist culture tries to sell us.
A baptism of repentance—the word we translate as repentance is the Greek word metanoia. This word means “going beyond or changing your mind” it refers to a transformation of consciousness. Anyone that has successfully dealt with an addiction will tell you it required a change of mind—what Bill W. called a profound personality change. It seems to me that our culture desperately needs a change of mind. One of the ways we know ancient Jews and Christians transformed consciousness was through the practice of deep forms of prayer—this is not verbal, petitionary prayer---this is the kind of prayer Jesus described as “going into your inner room”. Through such a practice one could change his or her mind. Modern brain science tells us that in fact, this kind of prayer does change minds—it actually changes the physical composition of the brain and it has been shown to improve all kinds of conditions from cocaine and alcohol addiction to anxiety disorders and depression. It can also facilitate spiritual experiences that include a sense that one has encountered God. It is good for the body and the soul. John offered a baptism of metanoia or changing one’s mind for the forgiveness of sins. How might changing one’s mind bring about the forgiveness of sins? Well if we look at the Greek word we translate as “forgiveness” we might get a better sense of what Luke is talking about. Aphesin means to release, as in the letting go of a prisoner or the release of someone from obligation or bondage. In deep forms of prayer one can experience the release or letting go of self and the sense that one is in the presence of God. This is surely the release or forgiveness of sins or self-centeredness Luke is talking about.
For ancient Jews these are a few of the practices that would have prepared the way of the Lord. What are we doing to change or go beyond our minds, to release ourselves from the addictive, consumerist culture on full display during this season? Do we take such practices seriously anymore? Are we doing THIS in preparation for Christmas? Or are we giving ourselves over to a market and dollar driven culture that encourages the opposite—the building up of self and self-centeredness?
Taking our spiritual growth and development seriously by actively engaging practices similar to those of John and Jesus is something we can do to “prepare the way of the Lord”. In this way we can transcend self-centeredness in a world that is turning all of us into addicts. If we prepare the way, maybe we can change our minds and be released from the bondage of self and experience the birth of a New Way of Being in the world. A very powerful consumerist culture says you don’t have much of a chance. But maybe the impossible will happen; maybe a virgin can have a baby. LET IT BE SO!