Good News from the Margins

Dec 8, 2019 by

Sermon for Advent 2, by Paula Papky

Isaiah 11:1-10        Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19       Romans 15:4-13       Matthew 3:1-12

One of the shortest poems ever written popped into my head last week.  It’s by the American poet, Carl Sandberg and it’s called, simply, “Fog”.

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over the harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Compared to the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, wouldn’t it be good if Advent came on little cat feet?  It might curl around us offering comfort and peace; look over our lives, our church, our city; invite us to sit a while in the peace that can restore our spirits.  This is the peace spoken of in churches on this Second Sunday in Advent, Peace Sunday.

The famous peace of the Roman Empire, known as “Pax Romana”, was not this kind of peace.  It has been called by some, “Peace with Bloodshed.”  No Roman city existed that didn’t have a garrison on its doorstep, with soldiers ready to quell with violence any signs of unrest.  From time to time cities like Jerusalem (that City of Peace) erupted in riots and rebellions.  The result must have looked like scenes of Hong Kong on the nightly news recently, but with swords and axes instead of water cannons and tear gas and clubs.

The peace we speak of in Advent isn’t peace with bloodshed, but it’s not all like little cat feet either.  Matthew’s Gospel describes the way a coming, an advent, turned the world turned upside down.  Not just the world of Jesus and his early followers, but our world as well.  His Gospel stories offer us an alternative worldview and way of living.  And the remarkable thing is that the new ways of thinking and acting came from the margins of society.  It is from the margins that the good news of hope and peace and justice came in Jesus Christ; is still coming; and will come at the end of time.

One of those marginal voices calling out was John the Baptizer.  I mean, who could be more marginal than John?  Well, maybe the prophets before John were pretty marginal, too.  Hosea married a prostitute.  Isaiah walked around naked for three years.  Jeremiah never married and did not have children in a culture where family was terribly important.  Ezekiel ate a scroll.  Elijah hid out in a Wadi and God sent ravens to feed him morning and night.

Copying the prophet Elijah, John turns up in the wilderness dressed in animal skins, with a leather belt around his waist, his breath stinking of locusts and wild honey.  He was the original back-to-the-land guy.  In his day, no one who saw him could fail to the see the similarity between John and Elijah, one of Israel’s greatest prophets.  We think John preached in the wilderness that was east and a bit north of Jerusalem, somewhere near the River Jordan.  There would have had to be water because what he offered was baptism, that sign of washing away the old and rising from the water clean, ready to live a new life.

A new life…have you ever just wanted to turn back?  to turn around on the road you were on and go back to that place in your life where two roads diverged and you took one…but then you weren’t happy with the direction you were travelling?  If you were a nation like Israel heading toward destruction at the hands of Rome, you might be having second thoughts about your people’s direction.  John is among those who saw what lay ahead and wanted Israel to change direction.

Well, if that’s what you’re up to, a wholesale change in a nation’s direction, you aren’t going to shout your message from the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple.  You’re going to avoid a confrontation with the Jerusalem leaders if possible.  You’re going to preach and proclaim way out in the wilderness, on the very margins of Israel, out near the Jordan River.  It’s a dangerous place, the wilderness.  It’s full of wild animals and robbers and deviant people.

Yet, some people did hear that voice calling in the wilderness.  They made the journey in groups for safety.  Perhaps they were remembering their ancestors’ wilderness journey with Moses after they’d escaped from Egypt.  In those years the wilderness had been a place of testing and punishment and danger – and grace.  It had been a place of revelation and learning  to trust, to follow where God would led them.  Would it be that kind of place again?

John’s call is more than a call to repent, if to repent means only saying, “We’re sorry, God, for our unfaithfulness”, and then getting dunked.  To repent is, literally, to turn one’s life around.  To turn back on the road and go in a truer direction.  For John’s call is to say that the Empire of the Heavens, the Kingdom of God, has come near.  “God’s life-giving and just empire is at hand,” as one writer puts it.  And this road to the wilderness is the beginning of the road to the Empire of the Heavens.

That’s Matthew the Gospel writer in a nutshell, really:  the good news of Jesus is first heard and experienced on the margins, in a wildly inconvenient and dangerous place, with a man decidedly marginal.

To risk such a journey, even in groups, the people who came to John must have been longing for change, desperate for it, not just mildly interested.  Clearly, after hearing John preach, they trusted him.  They decided to change direction.  One by one they went into the water for baptism, dying to the old life and rising from water clean, ready to live a new life.

If the story ended there and the people went back to their homes – if they had homes – to lead a life of renewed faithfulness, well, that would a nice, neat finish.  But it doesn’t end there, for there were forces that did not want to change direction, ever.  These were the Jerusalem elites:  the rich, the Temple rulers, the priests and lawyers.  Their lifestyle depended upon keeping the 95% docile and obedient to their demands.  And Rome?  Did the Roman Empire make allowances for this Empire of God they’d heard whispers about?  Not on your life.  And they had legions of soldiers to back them up.  The situation was shaping up to be a clash of Empires, one based at the top of a walled city; the other out on the frontier, in a place marginal to the centre of power.

John wasn’t frightened off by a clash.  You’d almost think he relished it.  He wasn’t fooled, either, by that line of Pharisees and Sadducees drawing near.  When Matthew says they were “coming for baptism” he means they were coming against baptism by John, against this ceremony out in the wilderness rather than in the Temple in Jerusalem where they could control it.  They came in opposition to John.

Now John chooses his words carefully.  You might say he knows what buttons to push.  No doubt early listeners to this story would have smirked, even laughed outright.  John calls these rich and powerful men the “bastard brood of snakes!”  There wasn’t a worse epithet to fling at men who enjoyed the privilege of high status birth.  “You brood of snakes!”  John calls them in front of the whole crowd at the riverside.

He further denigrates their claims to honour for their high birth status by telling them God is coming with an axe to chop down those family trees they’re so proud of.  John makes dire threats against those whose lives don’t bear fruit, don’t give life in abundance.  You begin to understand that this new Empire of Heaven that it at hand is bad news as well as good news.  It is characterized by God’s wrath against injustice, as well as God’s delight in fairness and compassion.  It’s as if John is saying there’s no point in being baptized if they do not live as changed human beings.  Oppressors will get their come-uppance in “fire” and “axe” and “wrath.”

Well, some forty years after Jesus’ death, they did get their come-uppance.  The climax of the clash of empires came in 68 CE.  Rome had wearied of rebellions in the province of Judea and finally, after a long siege, succeeded in conquering Jerusalem, that seat of religious and political power.

It would be some fifty or so years after Jesus’ death that the writer we call Matthew (not the one who had travelled with Jesus) wrote this Gospel.  It was probably sometime in the eighties or even nineties that it was written.  And, again the good news comes to us from the margins.  After the Roman victory, Jerusalem’s people, Jewish and Christian alike, were spread out all over the Empire.  Over the generations, some ended up in Egypt, some in Greece, some in Spain.  Matthew the Gospel writer’s people wound up in Antioch in Syria, as a small minority of the population.

Antioch was a sizeable city, the third largest in the Roman Empire.  It teemed with religions brought to this trading hub.  In such a place, Matthew’s band of Jesus followers was indeed little, vulnerable, afraid of drawing attention to themselves.  Estimates vary but in a city of 150,000 to 200,000, there may have been as few as 20 Christians or as many as a few hundred.  Now that’s marginal!  And yet this Gospel, written for this group of people in Antioch, turns the world upside down.

The characteristic of the coming Empire of Heaven is that it draws people to the new centre which is Jesus, the Christ.  John speaks of him when he speaks of another baptism that will come.  He says the One coming will come with a winnowing fork, with justice, in his hand.  So, there’s that good news and bad news again.  His point is that his, John’s, baptism guarantees nothing; it must lead to a repentant way life.

There’s that R word again:  repent.  Turn around.  Reverse your steps.  But look again at the words John uses to comfort and console those who truly repent, who change lifestyle.  He says the One coming will, “gather his wheat into the storeroom.”  What could be more gentle?  The harvest of wheat is a metaphor for faithful disciples, those who hear John’s call and those who follow Jesus, hearing and obeying his teaching.  They will be gathered and kept safe, John tells the people.

A writer has said, “One of the effects of John’s ministry is to re-describe the centre and the margins.  Political, social, economic and religious power does not define the centre.”  On the margins are those “allied with Jesus, who is the new centre to God’s purpose.”  That’s the answer to the riddle in today’s call to worship:

On the margins find the centre

who will be your All in all.

MacNeill is a marginal community in some ways.  We are small and frequently overlooked.  Most of us are growing old – gracefully, but old nonetheless.  Sometimes we are stretched to our limits to carry out our mission.

But we’re also marginal in the sense that our concern is for those on the margins.  We care for and pray for those among our membership who are ill or housebound or lonely.  We provide food vouchers for those who need help and contribute to the Westdale churches’ monthly lunch.  We support retired Baptist ministers.  We reach out to children through our day care and we provide a space for young men to play floor hockey, for a yoga class, for the Strata choir.  People look to us for a place to gather.  Not all churches make a home for members of the LGBTQ community.  Some, even in our own denomination, seek to exclude these folks.  We can be proud to be marginal!

Perhaps the most obvious sign of our concern for those on the margins is our Outreach Board’s idea for a different kind of Advent calendar.  Each day you put into the bag a food item for someone who comes to Wesley Centre for help.  Glenys Magill designed and made the bags and they’re wonderful.  If you don’t yet have one, you can pick one up in the narthex or at coffee hour.  These food gifts will go to the Wesley food bank where they are sorely needed.

Being a marginal community puts us on the same road as those earliest churches dotted all over the Roman Empire.  It is not about our smallness.  It is about our faithfulness.  It’s about our clarity of purpose even as those around us engage in Midnight Madness.  And to maintain our focus on the One at the centre, we need to make space so that the Peace of Advent can come on little cat feet; so that we can notice those on the margins to whom we are sent to share that peace.

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