Sunday, December 09, 2018

Advent 2, Year C (2018)

For the Psalm: Canticle Four (Benedictus Dominus Deus); Baruch 5: 1–9; Luke 3: 1–6
This is the homily given at St. John’s, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, by Fr. Gene Tucker on Sunday, December 9, 2018.
(Homily text:  Luke 3: 1–6)
“If you want to come to this diocese, your insides must match your outsides.” That statement came from the first bishop I served under. I’ve thought a lot about it ever since he first said it some years ago now.
Matching our insides to our outsides is the essential meaning of John the Baptist’s call to repentance, a theme (and a text) we hear every Second Sunday of Advent. (I think this Sunday could easily be known as “John the Baptist Sunday” because of our consistent focus on the Baptist’s ministry in each year of our three-year cycle of lectionary readings.)
Matching our insides to our outsides has to do with living an integrated life, a life in which God’s ability to see into the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds reminds us that no aspect of our life escapes His notice. Matching our insides to our outsides has to do with wholly living and holy living. It has to do with avoiding a condition known as hypocrisy (which, as the two Greek words from which we derive this word, means to have “low judgment”.)
Let’s turn our attention, then, to John the Baptist’s warning, and before John, to the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, from whom John’s call arises (chapter forty of Isaiah, beginning at verse three). We will trace this clarion call from Isaiah’s first warnings, which took place in the eighth century, BC, and then to God’s deliverance of His people from exile in Babylon, a time in which God prepared a way in the wilderness for God’s people to return to the land that God had promised them, and then to John the Baptist’s time.
Along the way, we’ll note some similarities between each of these timeframes.
We begin with Isaiah’s original warnings.
Isaiah warns God’s people to do two major things:  1.  Abandon the worship of pagan idols, and 2. To do right by the widow, the orphan and the poor. In Isaiah’s day, the Temple that King Solomon had erected some 200 years before still existed, and it was still the center of the people’s religious life, at least by all outward appearances. But Isaiah paints the picture that, once people had left the Temple’s precincts, they dabbled in all sorts of other kinds of worship of gods that are no gods, objects of their own making (as Isaiah) says, objects of silver and gold, gods that cannot hear and cannot speak. And, of course, they cheated the poor, the widow and the orphan.
There was an outward appearance of good and proper worship, but another reality was harbored within the hearts and minds of God’s people. The people’s insides didn’t match their outsides.
Fast forward into the time of the return from exile in Babylon, an event that took place in the year 538 BC. Let’s retrace this history just a bit: The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and Judea (known as the Southern Kingdom) in 586 BC. They carted off to Babylon many of the people (not all, mind you, but essentially the upper and ruling classes, plus others). God used this exile to purify His people and to rid them of their love affair with pagan gods and idols. It’s as if God said, “I’ve got to fix this fascination with idolatry.”  It worked.
And so, in 538 BC, King Cyrus of Persia (the Persians had conquered Babylon by this time) set the people free to return to their homeland. God’s people’s insides now matched their outsides as a result of God’s purifying act.
It is in this context that we read Isaiah’s words from chapter forty: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (I am quoting from the Authorized – King James – Version of the Bible).[1]
Now we come to John the Baptist and the time of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
As we compare Isaiah’s time in the eighth century BC with the time of the Baptist and of Jesus, we see similarities:  People’s insides didn’t match their outsides. There was a major disconnect between their outward observance of the Law of Moses and their faithful administration of the Law’s requirements in the ceremonies that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem, but there was still a fascination with idolatry, and there was neglect of the widow, the orphan and the poor.
This last statement requires some unpacking.
The idolatry against which John the Baptist rails isn’t the sort that involves worshiping an object of silver or gold. But it does involve making the Law of Moses into an idol. And it does involve elevating the Temple to the point of making it an object of worship for its own sake. Seen in its proper light, the Law and the Temple were established by God in order to point beyond themselves to the God that created them in the first place. Idolatry involves putting anything in the place of God’s proper place This is the sort of idolatry that John speaks against.
Oppression of the powerless (the biblical language for this is often cast as a disregard for the widow, the orphan and the poor) was also taking place. A common attitude among God’s people in John the Baptist’s day was that – if a person was a widow or an orphan or poor (or sick) – that person must’ve committed some grievous sin that resulted in their condition in life. Such people were to be avoided, so the common attitudes maintained.
Essentially, what we see portraying in the pages of holy Scripture is a disconnect between the inner disposition of people’s hearts and their outward behavior: Hypocrisy, in a word.
We shouldn’t find it the least bit unusual, then, to see the Baptist at work out in the desert, calling people to confess their sins and to undergo the ritual cleansing of baptism. People could have gone through a ritual bath (known as the Mikvah in Hebrew) before entering the Temple’s precincts, but it’s possible that taking that sort of a bath would have associations with simply going through the motions. Instead, John the Baptist chooses a venue that is completely removed from the sorts of things that are going on in Jerusalem.[2]
Matching our insides to our outsides is the goal of an integrated and holy life, a life lived in God’s favor and in God’s sight.
Matching our insides to our outsides begins with a confession of the ways in which we fall short of God’s holiness and righteousness. It involves “coming clean” with God, to admit those things that God already knows. We have to begin in such a place, and in no other.
Only then can God prepare a highway for us to return home.
Preparation is a key Advent theme. Preparation for the coming of the One who entered our human condition in humility, entering our human condition by emptying Himself of all the power and the place that He – the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – possessed before time and in eternity. He came in order to prepare the way for us to return home to God.
In order for the journey home to begin, we must get on the road, God’s road, the one that He prepared for us by sending His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us the way.
Then, and only then, will our insides match our outsides.

[1]   Many Bible scholars believe that chapters 40 – 55 of Isaiah are actually the work of another writer, perhaps one who was a member of something like an “Isaiah School” of writers, one who wrote at the time of the return from the exile in Babylon.
[2]   It’s worth remembering that John was the son of a Temple priest, Zechariah, which meant that John could have also served in the Temple. But he chooses not to, deciding instead to minister out in the desert.