A New Day
In Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge whose only concern is making money, is confronted by the ghost of his partner Marley:
Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.
"Mercy!" he said. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"
"Man of the worldly mind!" replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?"
"I do," said Scrooge. "I must..."
Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.
"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"
Scrooge trembled more and more. ďOr would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? ..."
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge...
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "[Humankind] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Marleyís Ghost has come to warn Scrooge that he is in danger of Godís judgment. If he does not repent he will be condemned to wonder the earth among all of the suffering, but without the ability to relieve that suffering.
The role of the ghost of Marley is the role that John the Baptist plays in our Gospel. John has gone through the countryside and villages to warn the people that they must repent or face Godís wrath. He has used his own lifestyle to magnify his message. He lived in the wilderness and lived off the sparse land, eating locusts and wild honey, and dressing in camelís hair. In the wilderness he finds Godís message. Marley had to die before he could hear Godís message Ö but nonetheless God sent him, like God sent John the Baptist, as a prophet of repentance and doom.
John, though, unlike Marley did not confine himself to one person. Matthew tells us ďallĒ the people of Jerusalem, Judea, and the region along the Jordan came to listen to him and be baptized by him. But he was no comforter. When the Sadducees and the Pharisees come to check on him, he refers to them as a brood of vipers and warns them to repent in no uncertain terms.
He then alerts the people that the Messiah is coming. His vision of the Messiah is someone greater than himself and that will separate the grain from the chaff and the chaff will be burned.
And even Herod Antipas is not spared Johnís holy wrath. Herod had visited his brother in Rome and seduced his wife. When he returned, he divorced his own wife and married his sister-in-law. John protests this immoral act in a very public manner by condemning Herod outside his window. Herod has John arrested and he is now in prison.
Johnís ministry was that of a forerunner. He was to lay the groundwork for Jesus. He was the voice in the desert of the old ways of oppression, crying out for freedom. Even he is not sure what the Messiah will finally do. He knows the Messiah will demand people share what they have and be honest, but his vision of the Messiah is a reflection of his own world: the Messiah will be a harsh judge. So beware! Repent! Or you will face the fire!
Johnís anger is the anger of frustration that uses fear as its tool of repentance. It is the old way of master over servant, man over woman, and rich over poor.
In our reading from Matthew today, John is in prison. Johnís own disciples were visiting him in prison. He asked them to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah or was another to come? Johnís disciples go to Jesus and ask.† His reply is to go and tell John what they have seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the ill cured and the deaf hear.
Though Jesus preaches judgment, his preaching is always played out as bringing people into Godís fold. As John was stern, Jesus was embracing. As John starved, Jesus feasted. Unlike John who preached only repentance, Jesus preached and acted a new life style. John only provided the motivation, the motivation to be right with God. Jesus showed how you did that and how doing that is a better way to live.
In A Christmas Carol, if only the ghost of Marley had come to Scrooge, he would have been given only that motivation to get his life in order. Who knows what Scrooge might have done after that terrifying night? Maybe he would have given to the poor. Maybe he would have been nice to his clerk, Bob Cratchett? Maybe he would have been more honest in his dealings? But all of this would have been done out of fear of wondering the earth eternally.
I suspect that in time, Scrooge would have done enough in his opinion and maybe revert back to his self-centeredness. Fear does not hold or convince people for long. If they do not change the way they live and the way they envision the world, what ever change that fear might wrought will be short lived.
But Marley wasnít the only ghost that night. There were three more. And each one of these was the image of Christ. Through these ghosts he is shown how far he has separated himself from God and from humanity.
He sees how his greed has cheated him of a love he cannot recover. He learns that his clerk has a very ill child and yet maintains an optimistic view of the world. He discovers his lost love now serves the poor and the ill. And he is shown that if he does not reform, he will die lonely, forgotten, and uncared for.
At the end, his fear of becoming a wondering ghost is displaced by his desire and joy in repenting and reforming himself. No longer will he live in fear of his own poverty and of his damnation. Now his life has meaning: to use his abilities to make life better for those around him Ö and rejoin humanity and God.
Jesus ministry is very much like this. And his ministry was a ministry for a new age, while Johnís ministry was for the old age of fear.† John was a creature of the world. Jesus was a guide from the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells us in the last verse of our reading, that John was the greatest of the old age. Yet he would be the least in the new age of the Kingdom of God.
John only saw the ills and brokenness of the world. Jesus saw them as a stepping stones of healing and wholeness into the Kingdom of God. John was a pessimist. Jesus was an optimist.
And today, the old way, the old age remains with us. But the Kingdom of God, the new age still is with us too.† In the wilderness of this age, the Kingdom will break through just as Isaiah proclaimed:
The desert and the wilderness will bear fruit, and people who despair and have so little, will have abundance. The weak will be given back their health.† Those who are frightened will be reassured and will no longer fear. And we who have no eyes to see nor ears to hear the cries of the suffering, will at last see and hear, so that others will have what they need.
The hopelessness, disappointment, and harshness of this age will pass away and a new age of optimism, compassion and civility will emerge. Those who prey on others shall be transformed into helpers. The way to prosperity will no longer be blockaded and open only to the able and to the rich. The way will be wide open for one and all.
This is the vision of Isaiah. This is the vision that Jesus shaped into the Kingdom of God. Jesusí birth, crucifixion and resurrection are the promise that this vision is just not a poem, but a reality that is emerging among us.
We should not seek out the Kingdom of God out of fear. It is not a refuge from our sins or our bigotries. It is a place where these are simply unheard of, where there is no will to practice them. It is not a place we go hide.
The Kingdom of God is a not a place or a time. It is a state, a way of living, a way of behaving, a way of thinking and a way of being. The Kingdom of God emerges in this old age by our following Jesus into the Kingdom. Each and every day we must intentionally live as if the Kingdom was already here. And by doing so, it is in fact here.
In the November edition of Christian Century, Cheryl Walenta described her encounter with Smokey. Smokey was a fellow you attended her church in NYC. She didnít know how he got to church. He didnít talk very much. His clothes were shabby and sometimes he would wear a tie around his head. He carried a walking stick that he would tap on the pews in time with the music.
In her encounter she was sitting by Smokey. He didnít smell so good. She could see ground-in dirt on his hands. He wiped his nose with his hands.
She looked down at her own well-washed hands and wondered if she could get up the nerve to shake his hand during the passing of the peace. During the service he gets up and wanders around, settling in the front close by the pastor.
When the time came to pass the peace, Cheryl shook the hands of everyone around her. But Smokey was nowhere to be seen. By luck Ö or Godís grace Ö she was spared shaking Smokeyís hand.
But as she went back to her seat, there was Smokey who grabs her hand.† In the past he had a handshake ritual: He would grab her hand and pull it toward him. Then he would push her hand away, and then he would twist her arm up and down until each one of them snaps their fingers.
But on this day, Smokey lifts their grasped hands above his head, and twirls himself underneath.† She laughed, realizing that Smokeyís handshake was the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God Ö just for moment. This strange man wanted to dance with her, because he wanted to rejoice in the Spirit of that worship service Ö innocently and purely. She realized that the same hand that was covered in dirt was also covered in the glory of God.
Think about it Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö