A Kick Ass Messiah or Jesus??? – a sermon for the second Sunday in Advent

kickass-jesusThis sermon is an adaptation and expansion of a sermon preached way back when by one of my favourite preachers: Glynn Cardy. Glynn’s work continues to inspire me!!! We both source our favourite New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk. My adaptation is also inspired by John Shelby Spong. It is always a pleasure to work with such great material!!! The Gospel Reading was Matthew 3:1-12. You can listen to the sermonhere

Yesterday, some of us enjoyed ourselves at a carol sing. I had a marvelous time as together with all sorts of people, from various backgrounds we sang our way through most of our favourite Christmas carols and we sounded wonderful. As you might expect, all the music printed for us, so that everyone could participate. It made no difference whether you were a practiced virtuoso or an untalented wanna-be like me, our voices blended as the powerful singers among us carried the weaker singers along. The collection of carols to choose from was extensive and most of our requests were happily accommodated. That is until somebody yelled out a request for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The Music was not available. But the lack of preparedness didn’t daunt this group of merry carolers.  A  few copies of Handel’s Messiah that lay hidden near the piano, were found, and before too long we were off, singing the Chorus from memory.

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth (Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah)

And He shall reign forever and ever

And He shall reign forever and ever (And He shall reign forever and ever)

And He shall reign forever and ever (And He shall reign forever and ever)

And he shall reign forever and ever (And He shall reign forever and ever)

King of kings (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)

And lord of lords (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)

King of kings (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)

And lord of lords (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)

King of kings (Forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah)

And lord of lords

King of kings and lord of lords

Yesterday, we sounded like a choir of angels and all but a few of us were singing from memory. From memory. Silent night, or Away in a Manger, these are carols that most of us can sing from memory. But the Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, now that’s impressive, George Frederic himself would have been impressed. Handel’s Messiah conjures up images of a Messiah that I suspect the character that we know as John the Baptist would have loved.

Handel’s Messiah, like the Messiah that John the Baptist longed for, is a real kick ass Messiah. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, forever and ever, and ever, and ever. Handel’s Messiah is the kind of Messiah that underdogs, the oppressed, and the down-trodden have longed for since the beginning of time, forever and ever and ever, give us a kick ass Messiah to go into battle and defeat our enemies. Give us the Lord God omnipotent.

Omnipotent, of all the omnis, omnipotent is by far, over and above the favorite of huddled masses everywhere. You can have your omniscience and omnipresence! But give us omnipotence! What good is omniscience or omnipresence when you’re being downtrodden. All knowing, ever-present are all well and good, but we’ll take the all-powerful messiah, thank-you very much. Given the choice between wisdom and presence and we’ll take power and might when it comes to a Messiah. Give us a savoir who can kick the what’s it out of our enemies and we’ll sing more hallelujah’s than any oppressor can shake a stick at. Good old John the Baptist he knew a messiah when he saw one.

Come to think of it, good old John the Baptist now there’s a man who knew what it meant to be oppressed. Downtrodden, don’t even get the Baptist started. He could tell you about being downtrodden and condemn a brood of vipers while he was at it. That Baptist, he had it all sussed. He had it all figured out. He knew who to blame. Those vipers, those Pharisees and Sadducees sold the people out! They’ll get theirs when the Messiah comes. The Messiah will turn it all upside-down and shake up those high and mighty mucky mucks who are living it up in the Capital, selling the people out. When the Messiah comes, he’s gonna kick some ass. No stone will be left unturned. The Messiah is going to make Jerusalem great again! Mark my words.

The Messiah, our Saviour is so great, not even his P.R. guy, good old John the Baptist is fit to tie his shoelaces. Our saviour is coming with a weapon to lay waste to all those who aren’t bearing fruit; you know the ones I’m talking about, anybody who’s not pulling their weight, will be cut down and thrown aside. The Messiah is going to sort us all out, he’s gonna separate the wheat from the chaff and they’re gonna get burned they are! Mark my words.  You people just wait, when the Messiah gets here you’ll be longing for a few bars of Comfort Ye, because every valley is gonna be lifted, and the crooked made straight. KING OF KINGS. LORD OF LORDS. And he shall reign for ever and ever and ever, and ever!!! Halleluiah! I said, Halleluiah!

I don’t know about you, but this year, of all years, John the Baptist’s vision of the Messiah sounds a bit too familiar. Why is it whenever we begin to feel put-upon, or hard done by or just a little bit afraid we cry out for a saviour? Why is it whenever our fears begin to get the better of us, is there always someone waiting in the wings to play to our fears? Why is it that we always seem to want the kind of Messiah that looks just like John the Baptist version of a saviour? Why is it that this kind of Messiah never actually saves anyone, but the very people who have been manipulating our fears from the beginning of time?

I for one have long since grown tired of John the Baptist’s incessant rantings. If I had my druthers, John the Baptist would be banished to the wilderness where he belongs. But I don’t have my druthers, and every year at Advent John the Baptist stumbles onto the stage to yell at us about his idea of a Messiah and almost every year, I fall for it. If I’m honest, I too would really rather have a kick ass messiah. A kick ass messiah is so much easier to deal with than Jesus. You see every Advent, John the Baptist’s ravings are given the spotlight. It is as if we forget about Jesus, you know Jesus the Christ, the non-violent, resister, who stood up against oppression and injustice and managed to get himself killed, Jesus the kind of Messiah who didn’t solve all our problems, Jesus the kind of Messiah who calls us to follow a way of being in the world that is so dangerous that it could get you killed, Jesus the kind of Messiah who cringes at our fascination with his fanatical cousin.

Years ago, a colleague of mine in New Zealand, a preacher I greatly respect by the name of Glynn Cardy, put into words what many progressive thinkers feel about John the Baptist. Glynn insists that:  John the Baptist believed that an avenging warrior messiah would come from the clouds with blade and fire to smite the Romans and establish the kingdom of God. Jesus did not share that belief.

Jesus didn’t believe in swords and fire and descending saviours. Jesus believed and proclaimed that God dwelt among us already if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear. But in the first century after Jesus death, the fledgling church rekindled the message of John the Baptist and developed an end-time theology that insisted that Jesus would “come again”, descending in power and might to rule the world. In favour of empire, the church made a very conscious decision to elevate John the Baptist’s vision of God at the expense of Jesus’ vision. And so, John’s avenging God, wielding an axe and threatening with a winning fork, looms large as believers continue to fear being tossed into the fire that will burn them in the torments of a hell of John’s creation. John’s slashing and burning God, takes no prisoners in his quest to ensure that we divide the world into good and bad. Under threat of the flames we had better choose because the Saviour is coming. And we had better choose quickly and we hand better choose the good over the bad.

But then how would you expect oppressed people like the first century Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine to react to overwhelming cultural, political and military domination? One way is simply to fight and to lose, to fight and to lose, and to fight and to lose again. And that’s precisely what happened over and over again as so many perished in an endless cycle of violence. Each insurrection in Palestine was led by a rabble-rouser who claimed to be a messiah, who blended the religious, cultural and political hopes of the oppressed. As for those who saw the futility of uprising, well they got by with a little apocalyptic dreaming; announcing that in the end the Romans would get there’s.

Like the prophets before them, who had endured the endless cycles of oppression from a succession of empires, they simply announced that the end was near for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly make mincemeat of the invaders. These prophets became the heros of one revolutionary movement after another. John the Baptist was this kind of prophet. John’s references to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not just references to water and the desert. They are dog whistles designed to conjure up images of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by force the Promised land. John and others of his ilk were proposing just such a conquest or re-conquering of Israel. John’s strategy was a little different from the other apocalyptic prophets. He was forming a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of end-time expectations, a network of ticking time bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. These individuals were to wait until the shining avenger arrived, and then they would join his army.

Herod Antipas killed John because he was a military threat. Sure, Herod was paranoid and left a trail of blood that is almost incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities, but just because Herod was paranoid doesn’t mean that there weren’t legions out to get him. John’s head on a silver platter was an absolute necessity if Herod’s Roman puppeteers were going to be able to keep the masses in their places.

Jesus was a disciple of John. He joined John’s movement, but later Jesus left John’s movement, taking with him some of John’s followers. But the Christian tradition was uncomfortable with this fact from the very beginning. The idea that in Jesus’ day John and his ideas were more popular and more powerful than Jesus’ ideas was difficult to swallow. Jesus followers found it difficult to deal with the fact that for a time John was actually Jesus’ master. The notion that Jesus, by partaking of John’s baptism for the remission of sins implied that Jesus had something to repent of.

Scholars have long believed, and pastors have long been taught that the Gospel writers rewrote the script in an effort to make John’s prophesies point to Jesus and portray Jesus baptism by John as an anointing by God rather than a disciple submitting to a master. But it simply doesn’t ring true. Any Sunday School graduate can read John’s prophesies and see the disconnect with Jesus’ teaching. But Advent is the time of the year when the church serves up John the Baptist, with a dollop of Isaiah on the side, and proclaims that the time is near and we should all get ready because the king is about to arrive. Herod may have served John up on a silver platter, but the church chooses to serve John up on a platter trimmed with holly, ivy and a big dollop of Isaiah.

The valleys and the hill that Isaiah insisted would be filled and brought low fit right in to John’s hopes and dreams of creating an empire that would be more than a match for Rome, with its imperial road works the likes of which the world had never seen. When Rome conquered, they immediately set about establishing roadwork’s that made it appear that the valleys had been lifted and the mountains made low.  Transportation gave the Romans the edge, especially when all roads lead back to Rome. John artfully twisted Isaiah’s words to paint a picture of an avenging messiah. But whoever John was prophesying abut it certainly wasn’t Jesus. John’s portrait is full of war, kings, conquest and revenge. John’s vision for the future is a far cry from the visions served up on Christmas day. For even the Gospel writers as uneasy as they were about the popularity of John, couldn’t help but serve up the vision of a baby, born illegitimate in a barn as a counterpoint to Roman legends about Caesar’s grand imperial birth. In stark contrast to John’s vision and the stuff of Roman legends, Jesus was a peasant, with no royal robes or crown. No army, angelic or otherwise waited in the wings to avenge the atrocities of occupation. As the Apostle Paul insists, Jesus came in the form of a slave. That reality was difficult for the emerging church with its own quest for power to swallow. Realizing that Jesus didn’t fit John’s expectations, or the desires of the newborn church, a second coming theology was developed.

The writers of Mark and Matthew were influenced by the fear  and politics of the 60’s that culminated when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70. Amid the turmoil they encouraged their fellow disciples with the hope that Jesus would literally come again. But this time he wouldn’t come as a suffering slave but as a conquering king; a hero who would save them from their oppressors. They still longed for the physical kingdom of Israel to be restored and for the disciples to be seated at King Jesus’ right or left controlling admission and favours.

Second coming theology is alive and well today. Taken literally the coming again in glorious majesty sentiments are pious platitudes, that are more reflective of John’s theology at the expense of Jesus’ teaching. Taken metaphorically, as well-known Advent hymns do, to refer to the triumph of Jesus’ vision they fail to use Jesus vision of a non-hierarchal realm where Love and justice are the way to peace. I believe that the excesses of our Christian history would have been less likely if John would have been relegated to the realm of dusty history books rather than elevated in Scripture and song. The world would be a much different place if we had been encouraged to forget John’s theology. John baptized in the wilderness, inviting people to repent and prepare themselves for the Coming One whom they would join in battle to slaughter their foreign overlords. Jesus did not follow where John led. Jesus did not want to wait for a future kingdom but announced the existence of God’s domain that is present here and now. God’s dominion for Jesus was already among us. It was also something to be celebrated because it embraced everyone—Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female, even Greek and Roman…Religious practices like circumcision, eating kosher and even Sabbath observance were extraneous and unimportant to the reality of abundant life. Everyone already had equal and immediate access to God anywhere anytime. The brokerage system, that insisted that the people go through priests and temples to get admission to and favours from God, was declared obsolete by Jesus’ teachings.

This Jesus had nothing to say about himself, other than he had no permanent address, and no respect on his home patch. Jesus did not ask his followers to convert the world or establish a church. Jesus didn’t even call people to repent, nor did he practice baptism. Jesus did not teach that the world was going to end in the near future. For Jesus God’s domain was not a royal or political kingdom like the Israelites had under David and Solomon. God’s domain was not an apocalyptic creation with an external saviour. God’s domain was not something at the end of time when bad people would be punished, the good rewarded and the saviour would rule. Jesus taught that God’s domain was a set of relationships; relationship between people, and relationships with God; God who is everywhere present and knowable. These relationships were political, social and spiritual.

The word kingdom doesn’t even begin to capture Jesus’ vision of God’s domain. Jesus vision was of a domain filled with nuisances and nobodies, a place of reversals and surprises, a domain of peace; peace achieved not through violence, but peace established through love and justice. Jesus may not have directly criticized John the Baptist or the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. Jesus did develop and embody an alternate reality.

The parable of the Good Samaritian is just one example. Not only does Jesus portray priests and Levites in a bad light he elevates to fame a despised half-breed, a social and religious other, the Samaritan. For the marginalized, those who identify with the man in the ditch, help does come. That’s the kind of miracle Jesus proclaimed, the miracle of relationship where one person helps another. That the miracle comes from such a surprising source, not from a heavenly saviour but from a flesh and blood human outcast, now there’s the vision of a new reality. This is the domain of God. There is no super saviour descending with a sword, there is only the tainted Samaritan. There is only you and I reaching out with grace and humility, being the LOVE that is God in the world. There are no streets of gold and subsidiary thrones for male apostles, there is only unexpected help for those in the ditch of life. There is no burning of bad guys, wailing and gnashing of teeth, while the good guys feast in paradise.  There is only the risky grace of breaking bread and breaking the boundaries of class, race, gender, sexuality and power.

This is God’s domain if only we could open our eyes to see it in our hearts, priorities, and wallets, so that we could live it. But like my ancestors before me, I too still long for the saviour who will lift every valley, and make the world a kinder and gentler place. Like my ancestors before me, I need to open my eyes and unblock my ears to see and hear Jesus vision of peace; a world in which love and justice triumph over judgment and revenge. Where power is shared rather than horded. Where we will finally celebrate the reality that there is enough for all. Where fear does not fan the flames of eye for an eye justice, but were grace warms our souls and encourages us to reach out beyond our fear to love the loveless. So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for us to repent of clinging to John the Baptist so that we can open our arms to embrace the Christ child who waits to be born in us. Can I Get an Halleluiah? Amen!




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