ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 6, 2015
THE GREAT LEVELLING
Malachi 3: 1 – 4; Luke 3: 1 – 6
Do you recall as a kid, coming across a large hill with your friends and racing to the top? The first one up would declare, “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!” Everyone, of course, wanted to be king. In Ireland I got a glimpse into the real world of kings and rascals. The castles had throne rooms, banquet halls, living and sleeping chambers, chapels, stables, kitchens and places for servants to sleep. Up on the parapets the king or lord could view the peasants of the countryside living in their one room shacks – not exactly a life of ease but compared to the fate of the “dirty rascal” it was luxurious. The “dirty rascal” could be put to death or incarcerated on the whim of the lord. Death was preferable. Dungeons were holes in the ground about 20 feet deep, many were under a corner tower so they were narrow, wet and inescapable. Since the culprit would be pushed from the top, the chance of breaking a limb was high. The muck under your feet was both table (if you got food) and toilet. It was shared with the remains of the rascals before you. Imagine the scent. On top of all this it was pitch black. No one wanted to be the rascal. The King was all powerful. One could be tossed in the dungeon for high treason or for stealing a crust of bread or for nothing. Kings were often bullies. The abuse of power was and is the prerogative of the mighty.
From school bullies to Boko Harem abuse of power permeates life. Throughout the world people, often children, suffer at the hands of those with power. From domestic violence, to exploitation in the work place, slavery, human trafficking, tyranny, and oppression those with the upper hand dominate. Drug lords and arms dealers get rich on human degradation. Dictators take lives on a whim. The rich increase their wealth on the backs of the poor. Even churches can be cesspools of politics. When ideologies and religions clash, violence often erupts. War is waged and people suffer in an attempt to right these wrongs. Bloodshed often seems to be the only way to freedom and dignity. As a species, peace eludes us. The person with the hardest heart and the biggest bat wins. Rather than honouring God as our King, we declare ourselves to be kings and gods. Someone else is the dirty rascal.
After the exile to Babylon, many Jews returned to their homeland under Persian rule and rebuilt the Temple. Yet it wasn’t long before they turned from God. Money hungry priests cut corners sacrificing blemished beasts and offering tainted blood. The people refused to pay the Temple tax. The justice system was corrupt. The men divorced their Jewish wives to marry the daughters of their Persian overlords. They doubted God’s faithfulness and justice. They despised God’s love and holiness. They believed it was pointless to serve God. Rather than remaining “dirty rascals” they cozied up to those with power. So the prophet Malachi was sent to proclaim a messenger was coming to usher in the Messiah. The messenger was to boil down and stomp, to refine and purify God’s people until they repented, returning to God in holiness. This promise was fulfilled 400 years later when “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness” (Luke 3: 2).
The wilderness seems an odd place for God to hang out. John hears God’s word, not in the halls of power, but in a remote place of hardship. My mother-in-law lives in the Sonoran desert of Yuma, Arizona. In cowboy movies this desert causes tough men to faint in the scorching heat of day and freeze in the cold of night. One could easily get lost. Paths are easily swept away by wind. When the wind is strong, the desert sand blows everywhere. It’s like sand paper on skin and it can fill your eyes and nose in seconds. After a sand storm the grit is on the deck, the windows, the patio set, the car, the plants and sometimes the cat. Deserts are dangerous, unpredictable places. They regard no person. In literature, the desert is often used as a metaphor for the experience of desolation and suffering. It’s a place where our human limitations are evident. So this was where John went to encounter God and to receive God’s word. The gospel begins with God meeting us in our places of deepest need and vulnerability. We encounter God not in the palaces of the victorious but in our most brutal experiences. For this reason, the desert is holy ground for us, just as it was for Moses.
Deserts are also empty. We’re told that John was a voice crying in the wilderness. An odd thing to do. When one cries out in the desert there’s no one to hear. No one but God. John’s message is both a word from God and a prayer to God. It’s a plea to God and a declaration to humanity. John asked God to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He declared “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3: 4 – 6) John spoke of creating a straight path for the coming Christ. A path can be made straight in two ways. A crooked path winding back and forth can be made to go in a direct line. A path can also need straightening because it goes up and down over hills and through valleys. To make this kind of path straight means levelling it out until it is flat and smooth. Part of the wonder of Christ’s coming is that in our uneven world, where the powerful abuse the weak, exploitation abounds and bloodshed seems to be the only solution, God creates a new way forward. God levels the playing field. In God’s kingdom no one but Christ is king of the castle. No longer are the powerful, the rich, the educated, the sophisticated, the healthy, the famous or the pious above the rest. They are brought low. God is not impressed with the ways of the world which are valued by most. God is no more welcoming of these people than he is of any others. God looks beyond our outer identity and sphere of influence. The vulnerable, the poor, the illiterate, the simple, the weak, the insignificant and the “dirty rascals” actually hold a special place in God’s heart. Those whom we might leave outside God’s kingdom are welcomed and lifted up. God doesn’t judge books by their covers. God looks beyond all appearances into our hearts and minds and when he does he sees that we are all alike in our need for salvation. No one is better than another. No one has the right to lord it over or exploit others. We’re all “dirty rascals”. Even we here today are dirty rascals. It’s this levelling that makes peace and justice possible. We cease to vie for power and find a new way forward when we all declare, “I’m the dirty rascal”.
Although John was God’s willing instrument in “preparing the way of the Lord”, getting humanity ready for the Messiah is the work of the Holy Spirit. While John cries out God’s message, he’s not the one who straightens the path. In the desert, it’s the wind that shifts and moves the sand, straightening a winding way or levelling a hill, creating a new way forward. It’s the Spirit, the wind of God, which blows in desolate places to re-organize the spiritual landscape. The Spirit breathed in John to call people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (vs. 3) I don’t know about you but I don’t like to repent. Repenting means I have to look at the shameful parts of myself. I prefer to ignore my sin and present my better qualities to the world. I don’t want God to see my sin either. I fear God’s judgement. I ache at the ways I disappoint my heavenly Abba and that’s uncomfortable. Yet as Malachi said God wants his people to be pure and clean in their spirits. Often when we think of examining ourselves to confess our sin, we think of the 10 Commandments. How do I treat God? How do I treat my neighbor? I can skim over that – I haven’t killed anyone lately. But as Jesus said there’s more to it than that. To be more specific I’m going to suggest some sins from which you may need to repent and I ask you to examine yourself as I do. Do you need to repent of suspicions, resentments and grudges? Do you lack of forgiveness – for others and yourself? Do you need to repent of self-pity or self-absorption? Do you lack faithfulness to Christ or to your spouse, family, Christian community or your employer? Is your worship and reverence for God not all it ought to be? Are you hard-hearted and judgmental, never giving people a break or showing compassion? Do you gossip or lie? Love and service go hand in hand – are you able to serve? Are you proud? Do you want what others have? Are you lacking in humour? Without humour we become rigid, cold, judgmental and unwelcoming. Laughter is a sign of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Do you lack hope or gratitude or grace?
For those who chose to repent and be baptized God offers forgiveness. God is ready to pardon all dirty rascals – even those who deceive themselves by thinking they’re kings. World peace begins with the inner peace of each person. Inner peace comes through repentance. As we come to Christ’s table we come as equals on level ground. We come in humility. In Christ, God offers us and our world a fresh start and a new way forward. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and rascals, the Prince of Peace is coming again so “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”