I have heard it said that preaching should bring comfort to the burdened while at the same time make those living at ease uncomfortable. John the Baptist checked both off the list from the reading in Matthew. God is not impressed with human power by whatever means it is gained. God announces what is about to happen not through human power but in human weakness. The birth of Jesus was announced first to shepherds (the witness of a shepherd wasn’t accepted back then). The news of Jesus’ resurrection was first announced by women (their words were considered nonsense according to Luke). The great prophets of old weren’t the ones echoing the words of the king. They were the false prophets. The great prophets were apparent nobodies who called the king to accountability. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness and he spoke a word to be heard by the burdened and the ones at ease alike.
The people from the surrounding region came to hear John’s message to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance means to turn around. The coming reign of God is to be embraced with lives that reject the current power structures in order to embrace God’s rule of justice and peace. The poor and enslaved gladly received the news of God’s judgment on their behalf. They were baptized as a way of preparing for the coming of God in their midst.
Religious leaders of the time, Pharisees and Sadducees, also came to hear John and to be baptized. He called them a bunch of snakes. They weren’t to put their confidence before God based on heritage, position or DNA. Instead, they were to show lives of repentance by seeking God’s justice and not power.
John was in the wilderness announcing the coming of one who will establish the rule of God. John baptized with water but this one of God will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This one will bring judgment where what is done for the kingdom is kept; what is useless is discarded and burned. This one whom John the Baptist announced is Jesus.
John the Baptist’s words are still double edged for our day. Jesus establishing the coming rule of God is good news for those enslaved and under oppression. Jesus establishing the coming rule of God is judgment for those in power who show no compassion or justice for the enslaved and oppressed. As the days draw closer to Christmas and welcoming of the Christ child, let us heed the words of John and show lives of repentance. Let the news of Christmas be good news for all people.
I think that if we were to create a list of what made a great political leader it would be long and also varied. The list might include: powerful speaker and motivator, just, ethical, forceful, merciful, etc. Making our own personal list might be helpful as we look at the reading from Luke. What unfolds is the crucifixion of Jesus. What is contrasted are the opposing views of what makes a true king. God’s view, as usual, doesn’t always align with our view of political leadership and power.
The current impeachment proceedings are a sad commentary on political leadership. How the testimonies are received is filtered largely by party partisanship. The goal of finding the truth is sidelined by winning. When all has been said and done, the winning side will boast that justice has won out. Really? Will this justice mean that future generations will inherit a less polluted and resource diminished earth? Will this justice provide for the poor to receive a little more or is the one percent going to continue taking more and more? Will the justice won start healing the division or will the fracturing only get worse as we enter into next year’s election winning?
Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Crucifixion was a degrading way to die. The victim was naked and publicly hung for all to see the spectacle. In Jesus’ case, a sign was posted that he was the king of the Jews – a way to mock the Jewish people. Luke describes the crowd as watching in silence while the leaders and soldiers mocked Jesus. If he was a king then he should come down off the cross and save himself. All appearances would say that Rome was the winner. However great political leadership, kingship, isn’t deciding who wins and loses. A true sign of kingship is giving life.
Among the many taunts a criminal, also crucified, asked that Jesus remember him in his kingdom. Jesus stated that on that day, the criminal would be with him in Paradise. Paradise was where the righteous were in God’s eternal presence. Rome judged the criminal worthy of death; Jesus declared the criminal worthy of Paradise. Jesus’ kingship brings life and with his resurrection God proved this to be true.
So the impeachment process continues. Eventually, one side will claim victory with justice served. Yet, will new life come to this land as a result or will the old divisions continue in the pursuit of political power. Jesus has showed us true political leadership. He shows that laying aside personal power for another to have life, in his example giving up his own life, is how kingship is exercised. Political service that ignores personal gain for the life of the country? Should we want anything less?