“Welcome One Another”
This Seasons of Advent and Christmas are brimming with prophetic words of hope for the world. Last Sunday, we heard from Isaiah about the days to come when many peoples will come to the mountain of God. After hearing God’s instruction, they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.
Today the Prophet encourages us that a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse – a ruler on whom God’s Spirit will rest, and he will bring all the people together and they will live in peace.
Next Sunday’s prophetic text will include all of Creation rejoicing because God is coming to bring healing and wholeness and life to all. There will be singing and joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee away!
After that we’ll hear about the young woman who is with child. She will bear a son, and name him Immanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
And on Christmas Eve, we will read the Prophet’s glorious announcement: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
But we are not at Christmas Eve yet. We are still in Advent – a time both of hope and expectation for Christ’s coming to us, and a time for us to prepare ourselves for his coming, to do the hard work of repentance and turning our lives towards God’s purposes once again.
On the Second Sunday of Advent we always hear from John the Baptist. In those days before Jesus began his ministry, John was out in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Much like Isaiah, John was a prophet, and he brought a message of good news and hope because the troubled world and its struggling people were about to be visited by God in human form. Those who were oppressed were going to be raised up. Those who were sick were going to be healed. Those who were excluded were going to find a place at the table. I can only imagine the excitement among the people who recognized Isaiah’s visions finally being fulfilled in their time. They were ready for God’s judgement and the promised future of safety and peace.
The text says that, “The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
But it’s not just the marginalized people who respond to John’s ministry in the wilderness. Even the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the religious leaders and elites of society) show up to listen to him.
Now, I could easily imagine that some of the leaders might have come out to see what all the fuss was about. Who was this so-called prophet who was attracting crowds outside the city? Was he dangerous? Was he stirring up an uprising of some sort?
Or was he really somehow the Prophet Elijah returned to Earth? People noticed the clothing of camel’s hair that he chose to wear, and the leather belt around his waist. They said that all he ate was locusts and wild honey, and that he must be Elijah come back.
Although the Pharisees and Sadduccees are portrayed as the “bad guys” in the Gospel stories, they were just the religious leaders of that time and place. They obviously get their priorities a bit mixed up, but I think we can assume that most of them loved God and wanted to serve and honour God with their lives.
And they do show up with everyone else in the wilderness. They don’t hang back, just observing the spectacle, but we read that many of them were also “coming for baptism.”
Now, it’s clear in the text that confession of sin is a part of the process when being baptized by John. That’s probably part of the reason why John objects a little later when Jesus asks to be baptized. How could the anointed one of God need to be baptized? What would Jesus have to confess?
But John seems to receive most of the people for baptism without a lot of worry about their confessions. It’s only when the Pharisees and Sadducees join the line that he gets upset and rather vocal about it: “You brood of vipers!” John shouts. “Who warmed you to flee from the wrath to come?”
He’s not just calling them snakes, an animal clearly associated with sin and disobedience. But he’s comparing them to a brood of vipers – a bunch of baby poisonous snakes, the offspring of poisonous snakes that came before them, and presumably the future parents of more poisonous snakes who will follow.
It’s not just that these are particular religious leaders who have made mistakes, been selfish, or failed in their responsibilities as God’s representatives in the world. But they are part of a system of religion that has been poisoned or corrupted.
They’ve gotten to a point where they believe that their people have a special IN with God, based on nationality, culture, status, or belonging to a particular group. John might have said, “No, you don’t have a uniquely special connection with God. Look at all these people here! They’re just as precious to God as anyone of your status or background.”
While many of those who came for baptism would have received the message about God’s coming judgement as good news, John was telling the religious leaders that they should hear it as bad news. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees;” he warned them, “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Much of the time, when we think about baptism and confessing our sins, we’re thinking about something very personal. I have been baptized and I belong to God as God’s child. I make mistakes, so I confess my sins. God graciously forgives me, and I pray for the Spirit’s help in doing better.
Week by week, I confess my impatience, my pride, my selfishness, my judgementalism, and more. I remember that God loves me despite all the ways I mess up every day, and trust that as God’s beloved child there’s enough goodness and love and generosity in my heart to be a part of the good things God is doing in the world.
But that systemic, institutionalized sin is more difficult to name and to address. And as a religious leader, I’m deeply aware of my responsibility to participate in that more difficult and critical repentance.
At this time in history, the Churches (including The Presbyterian Church in Canada) are in the midst of a season of repentance.
Back in 1994, we confessed our participation in the Canadian Residential School System. We acknowledged that the stated policy of the Government of Canada was to assimilate Indigenous peoples to the dominant culture, and that we co-operated in this policy. We confessed that we agreed to take children from their own homes and place them in residential schools where they were deprived of their traditional ways in favour of Euro-Canadian customs. We stated that we regret that their lives have been deeply scarred by the effects of the mission and ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.
And although we made that confession nearly 30 years ago, we are still working on the repentance – on the turning in a new direction towards healing, reconciliation, and right relations with Indigenous neighbours.
Earlier this year, we made another confession as a denomination. Before God and one another, we confessed our sins to God and to LGBTQI people. We acknowledged that the church has wounded many through its practices of exclusion and hurtful treatment. We have ostracized and excluded LGBTQI people from full life within the body of Christ. We have often turned the courts of the church into places where those who are not straight or cisgender are attacked, shunned and belittled.
And as if that wasn’t enough systemic sin to acknowledge and turn away from, the 2022 General Assembly also approved continued work on rooting out racism in the church. A Special Committee established in 2021 continues to gather stories of experiences of racism in the church, and has the Assembly’s blessing to design an act and statement of apology from the Church to non-Euro Canadian settler communities and people in our midst who have been harmed.
Sometimes it does feel like we’re standing out beside the river Jordan, and the Prophet is calling us out: “You brood of vipers!” No, you didn’t start the sinful systems, but you kept them going through your indifference, your apathy, or because you were benefiting from the ways things were. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve written and published official confessions whether long ago or last week. The point is how you live according to them, how you repent, turn in a new direction, and start doing things differently. Your repentance needs to bear fruit.
That’s why we’ve got to work with Indigenous communities to repair the damage done, to support work towards real healing and restoration. It’ll take at least as many generations for healing as it did for perpetrating the harm.
That’s why we’ve got to build a church that becomes a safe place for members of the Rainbow Community. We’ve got to make the welcome explicit and unconditional, even when it means learning new language that is gender-inclusive and welcoming the perspectives of people with different experiences of family and community.
That’s why we’ve got to listen to the diverse voices in our church, and pay attention to the fact that many have not been welcomed, respected, and valued as full members of our congregations and courts of the church.
The earliest Christian communities struggled with similar issues as they figured out how to be together as one body of Christ that included both Jews and Gentiles. And the Apostle Paul exhorted them to “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Indeed, even John the Baptist welcomed everyone who came out to him in the wilderness to be baptized, confessing their sins. Those who represented the institutionalized religion had to take on a little more responsibility. It wasn’t good enough for them to work on their personal piety, but they had to change the way the systems worked to raise some up to power and prestige, while keeping others low and marginal.
But I imagine that even after the warning, John did baptize those Pharisees and Sadducees. That is, if they still wanted to go through with it. And he told them and all the people who gathered that one was coming after him who would baptize them all with the Holy Spirit and fire: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
That’s Jesus who is coming to gather all the grain into his granary, to gather all the people into his realm of peace and joy and love. Jesus is the farmer who does not throw away and burn some of the grain, rejecting us because of our personal or our collective sins and failings. But Jesus deliberately uses the winnowing-fork to separate the wheat from the chaff, and burns away the sins that separate us from God and one another.
That’s the hope that we hear in all the prophetic messages of Advent – that God is coming, and God has the power to help us, and heal us, and gather us together in peace across all our differences and diversities. As a church, we are in a season of repentance and it’s hard. But I think it’s exactly where we are supposed to be – standing at the river with all our neighbours, listening, learning, and turning, and preparing ourselves and our church because Christ is coming.