Every Advent, we get excited about the birth of Jesus, of God with us. We decorate our houses and drink egg nog and sing along to our favourite Christmas carols. And, if my Facebook feed is any indication, many of us here start putting up our Christmas trees in the middle of November already. Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?
And then I take a look at the Scriptures that churches are using around the world for the second Sunday of Advent, and I get stuck with this guy!
John the Baptist. Wearing camel’s hair and eating grasshoppers, 30 years after Jesus was born. And using words like vipers, fire, chopping down trees, winnowing fork, burn, unquenchable fire.
Come on! Where’s the manger and the angels and the shepherds? There is no brood of vipers in my kid’s Fisher Price Little People nativity scene (although that would be kind of neat).
We’ll talk about hell and fire in January, so we won’t go there right now. But I think that there are two things going on here in this Matthew text that have nothing to do with hell and fire and everything to do with little baby Jesus coming in a few weeks.
First, the dark part. The cutting down and burning and winnowing fork and the fire.
These words were directed to the Pharisees and Sadducees. The gospel writer made sure that we knew that. Why?
Well, the Sadducees were the ruling elite. They were the wealthy. They held the power. In contemporary language, this was the 1%. They were the local government that worked with the Roman Empire. They were more concerned about power and politics than religion.
The Pharisees were mostly middle class religious leaders. They were the priests. They knew the people. They were quite righteous and holy. They knew the Torah. They knew the rules as to who was in and who was out. And they had some public support from the middle class because they did their best to maintain a decent lifestyle for many people. In contemporary language, these were the leaders who used their power to maintain status quo.
And John the Baptist cuts them both down and throws them into the fire.
Okay. In order to understand what’s going on here with the Pharisees and Sadducees, let’s talk about something else that we all understand. Cancer. And how we talk about cancer. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming…).
We all know that we are mortal and that we will all die someday, but when we, or someone we know is diagnosed with cancer, it hits us like a ton of bricks. And we all have loved ones who have passed away because of cancer, and it hurts. But we also all know people who have been diagnosed with cancer, and through a variety of treatments, the cancer is in now remission.
Talking about cancer and remission and death is hard for most of us, and often, the language we use sounds something like this.
“I’m going to beat this. I’m strong. I’m going to fight this.”
Richard Nixon, after a failed war in Vietnam, declared a War on Cancer, and now we do our best to defeat it.
I get why we do this. We dig deep down into ourselves and find the resources to face life with cancer. None of us want to die, so we do everything we can to live. Creating an enemy is also a remarkable technique to rally the troops towards a common goal. And this can be a good thing.
The only problem with this language is that also creates losers.
When someone dies because of their cancer, we use language that sounds something like this.
“They fought to the very end, but they lost the battle. Cancer won. It was just too strong.”
Now, the person who died is a loser, and cancer is the winner.
We all know this isn’t true. We all know that people whose cancer is in remission aren’t stronger than people whose cancer is spreading. We all know that the person who passes away wasn’t weak or didn’t try hard enough or is a loser. We’re mortal. We die. And some of us get diagnosed with cancer and live, and others of us get cancer and don’t.
But the language we use creates a system of winners and losers. And often the losers never stand a chance of winning. They have no control over the outcome.
It’s not about winning and losing against cancer or any other illness. It’s about living life with an illness. It’s about living to the best we can, regardless of whether our bodies are working or not. It’s about facing all the highs and lows that life gives us and our responses to those highs and lows that matter.
I think we all know this, but the language of winners and losers isn’t helpful.
But I think the narrative of winning and losing doesn’t only apply to cancer. I think it applies to almost everything in our culture.
It obviously applies to sport teams, where we can make Roughrider jokes or Blue Bomber jokes based on what the other team is doing. Yay! We won! Awww, man, we lost. I mean, like really, we let meaningless events that we have no control over affect our mood so much that some of us turn off our TVs in disgust when our team loses.
It applies to our political systems. This whole democracy thing is based on winners and losers. If our person wins, then yay! And if our person loses, then boo. And for most of our Western Democracies, it’s all about winning. We hear about wedge issues, inserting poison pills into legislation, attack ads, coalition, political spin… Every single one of our political parties is in it to win. And that means that we’re also creating a lot of losers.
Business is like this too. Our capitalist system works for most of us, but not all of us. Without even going into the massive wealth disparity between the rich and the poor, the best example of our system creating winners and losers is the board game Monopoly. How do you win in Monopoly? Make everybody else bankrupt. You make them sell their hotels, and then you make them mortgage their properties, and then buy those properties at a steep discount so you can expand your own empire. When you look at it like this, it’s quite a terrible game for our children, but it’s a fairly strong indicator of how our economic system works.
Eat or be eaten, right? Because this is the way the system works.
Awfully dark and depressing, isn’t it? This world we live in puts everybody into two categories: Winners and Losers.
And isn’t one of our greatest fears that we’ll be in the wrong category? That we’ll be on the wrong side? That we’ll be losers?
Most of us will use all of our power and privilege and wealth and relationships to not be on the wrong side. We’ll use all our hearts and soul and strength and minds to not be a loser.
Who does that sound like? Well meaning people, both religious and political, who are trying to maintain their lifestyles. It could be the Saducees and the Pharisees. It could be us.
I don’t think that for most of us, the lives we lead are inherently bad. Just like the Pharisee and Sadducees, we’re all doing our best to get by in this world. I actually think many of us are hanging on by a thread, but admitting it means that we might be putting ourselves in the wrong category.
One of the questions we have to ask is: Does the way we live our lives put people in the wrong category.
In our efforts to be winners, do we create losers?
Let’s try a couple of examples.
Are our hockey teams and piano lessons and dance classes accessible to all? What about high school sports and music trips? In our efforts to be the best and go to the best places, and put our kids in the best summer sports camps, are we leaving some kids behind?
In our endless pursuit of recreation, be it through more stuff for our houses, more snowmobiles or vacation homes, how are we present to those who can’t participate in these? If we are constantly planning our next adventure or vacation, how do we live with those of us who are scraping by? Do we even know each others names?
In our churches, are we willing to make sacrifices to ensure that nobody is left out? The easy part of that is subsidizing expensive church trips. The harder part is getting to know, respect and love the people around us who may be richer than us, poorer than us, vote differently than us, read their Bibles different than us, or not read their Bibles at all.
In our efforts to be successful, do we create categories?
I think that’s why John the Baptist chopped down the Pharisees and Sadducees and put them on the burn pile. They were using their power and privilege to maintain the status quo that came at the expense of others. In their effort to be winners, they created losers. The common folk, the marginalized, the oppressed, those without a lot of money, those without a lot of internal strength, the outsiders, the people without status… The Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t using their power and privilege for the least of these, and because of that, they received the harshest words.
Sometimes, I like to look at the Pharisees and Sadducees as them, the others, people who really missed the point. And other times, I look at the Pharisees and Sadducees as me, as us, as people who can very easily miss the point.
Kind of dark, eh?
It’s always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so enter light.
John the Baptist has different words for the crowds. The 99%. The rest of the people who aren’t part of the ruling elite or religious leaders or maintaining the status quo.
“Prepare the way for the Lord, and make straight the paths for him.”
The Lord is coming, and he is coming in a way different than the way of the world.
John is quoting Isaiah 40, which begins with the words:
“Comfort, comfort my people.”
In Isaiah 11, in a foretelling of Jesus, we read about who this new type of leader will be:
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth…
I think we have a negative view of the word judge, like someone with a gavel sending someone to jail. I think, though, that we can look at this like: “I have decided that you have gotten the short straw in life, and I’m going to make that right.”
He’s a king, a leader, but not one that creates categories of winners and losers. He’s a king like we read about in Psalm 72.
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.
The Lord is coming to be with the crowds, the marginalized, the oppressed, the weak, those without money, those who are outsiders, those without power and privilege, those who have been told they are worthless or useless. God is on their side.
This is the good news of the birth of Jesus. This is the story of a God who enters our world in the unlikeliest of places. In every age it bypasses the rich and powerful and it goes straight to those who need it. It bypasses kings and religious and political leaders, it probably bypasses me, many of us, this place, and goes straight to an unwed teenager in backwoods Bethlehem. It’s about powerlessness, and the all powerful God saying: Do not be afraid. I am with you.
I’m going to end with a video by Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr, but before I do, I want to preemptively address one question.
Maybe one of us is thinking: That’s some nice thoughts and all, about winners and losers and power and privilege, but that’s not how the world works. Maybe you and Mel and Audrey get to drink coffee all day and sing Kumbaya, but for me, it’s a dog eat dog world out there.
You’re right. You are. I’m not going to pretend that navigating power and privilege is easy, and I fully admit that those of you who live and work in a fiercely competitive world might sometimes have to do some fancy stick handling. I get that. And I’m not going to give you any easy answers.
But I will share with you the wise words of Puddleglum. Puddleglum is a character from the children’s books the Chronicles of Narnia, and Jim Wallis writes the following.
In the book the Silver Chair, two children are on a mission to rescue a prince from a wicked witch, who has entrapped him in an underground kingdom with her powers. They enlist Puddleglum, an unspectacular Narnian creature of humourous characteristics from a swamp.
When they free the prince, the witch returns and uses her power against them. They are all wilting under her magic dust and enchanted words, which deny everything but her own kingdom. The wicked queen says there is no Narnia, no Aslan, but only her world of power. At that moment she stands for all the rulers of this world, who say that their power is the only reality and who deny the existence of any other claim or promise that could challenge them.
In the story, the one to stand up to the witch is not the valiant prince or the heroic children but the uncharismatic swamp creature, Puddleglum. With his bare foot he stamps out the fire that is releasing the evil incense of her enchantments. Then, limping up to her in pain, he says this:
“One word, Ma’am… All you’ve been saying is quite right… So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I am going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to be as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’