Don’t you love it when you actually get to see annoying people get their just desserts?
Some while back a friend and I were waiting for the light to turn on Broad Ripple Avenue, back when there was still a left lane and a right lane. We were in the right lane. And when the light turned green and we were about to go on, the car to our left shot out ahead and made a right turn right in front of us, full of twentysomethings whooping with glee and making a few obscene gestures in our direction. Yes, I was annoyed. But what they didn’t notice was that there was a police car also waiting at the intersection, and they were pulled over before they had gone half a block. They were white, so I didn’t worry about them facing anything worse than a ticket, and my annoyance turned immediately to mirth. And my friend remarked, “Sometimes God is swift.”
Sometimes God is swift. In Jesus’ day lots of his people were hoping and praying for God to be that kind of “swift.” That’s why John the Baptizer was so popular. He promised everybody a soon-to-arrive powerful figure who will give everybody their comeuppance. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Everybody gets their just desserts. How satisfying, at least if you’re among the wheat. After all this time, God is about to be swift.
But then Jesus showed up and followed an upside-down script.
First of all, instead of taking over John’s ministry and baptizing John, he gave himself into John’s hands—over John’s objections, we’re told elsewhere—submitted to John’s baptism of repentance, and then rose into the life of God’s Beloved. What a way to mess up John’s baptismal liturgy!
But that’s only a foreshadowing of the way Jesus messed with everybody’s expectations. In concentrated form, this story of Jesus’ baptism is also the story of Jesus’ whole life. Yes, like John, he called everybody to repent, to turn their lives around, because something stupendous was about to happen. Yes, like John, he was quick to point out that our actions do have consequences. He painted some vivid, even fiery, pictures himself. But once he started preaching, his message and actions began to take on a distinctly different tone.
We can see a hint of that shift in his first sermon. Luke tells us that when he preached in his hometown, he chose a passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2a, Luke’s translation).
It’s a beautiful passage. And we’ll hear it again in a few weeks. But what’s important to notice today, something I didn’t notice until somebody pointed it out recently, is not just what Jesus chose to read, but where he chose to stop reading. You see, Isaiah doesn’t stop with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If you keep reading, Isaiah says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus chose not to read that phrase about vengeance. Consequences? Yes. Vindictiveness? No. Jesus’ good news is not that I get to enjoy watching annoying drivers ticketed. It’s about something more disconcerting, something we glimpse in his baptism and then in the story of his whole life.
Instead of taking over the world, giving everybody their comeuppance, Jesus let this conflicted world overtake him. He gave himself into the world’s hands, suffered its worst, and then rose into the life of God’s Beloved. His whole life was a baptismal life.
And Jesus’ followers eventually realized that this is also the story of God’s whole life, in concentrated form. God’s whole life is a baptismal life. Instead of taking over the world, God is giving God’s very self into this conflicted world’s hands, utterly immersed in all its suffering, and yet rising to transform even this world’s worst into new opportunities for reconciliation, so that all of us—friends, family, strangers and even enemies—can share the life of God’s Beloved. That’s the life God has always lived and the life God is living with us now. Jesus made it a visible, tangible, human life, and that’s what his followers are summoned to do—keep making it visible, tangible, human.
So when we renew our baptismal vows today, we’re actually living out the life story of Jesus, even the life story of God, again in a concentrated, visible, tangible, human form. And when we go forth in the name of Christ, all of us are still sharing in the baptismal life of God’s Beloved whenever we stop trying to be in control and instead risk giving ourselves into one another’s hands. When we dare to do that, we make God’s life, and Jesus’ life, visible, tangible, human.
That’s what my theological ruminations tell me. But let’s be honest. At a visceral level my often unvoiced prayers still feel more like those of John the Baptizer. Don’t yours?
I still really want God, or some stand-in for God, to step in and take over our world. For months and months I’ve been so angry at people who refuse to recognize what I take to be well-attested facts. The willful ignorance, bigotry, and moral hypocrisy of whole populations, and their leaders, looks so evident to me that I become blind to my own knee-jerk biases. I really want some irresistible power to shut them up and at least put them all in timeout until they repent and grow up. Them, of course, not me.
That’s what John the Baptizer wanted. It didn’t happen. He even began to wonder if he had been mistaken about Jesus (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus told him not to worry about it, to let go of his expectations.
That comeuppance didn’t happen for John, and it’s not going to happen for us.
Like it or not, our only salvation comes from the only God there is, the God whose life Jesus embodies, the God who is not getting ready to take over the world like a benevolent or not so benevolent dictator, the God who is giving God’s very self into this conflicted world’s hands, suffering its worst, and yet rising to transform even this world’s worst into new opportunities for reconciliation.
So I don’t get to forcefully re-educate anybody, or to call upon anybody else to do that. If I want a better world, I need to let myself be immersed (baptized!) into the always-messy give-and-take of impassioned truth-telling among people who are more a part of me than I care to admit.
Following Jesus’ example, I need to let go of that apparently built-in human tendency to sort everybody into “wheat” and “chaff,” whether it’s sorting them into “decent” and “indecent” people, or whether it’s sorting them into “woke” and “bigoted” people. After all, until our last breath, none of us are totally “wheat” or “decent” or “woke,” because none of us have ever totally succeeded in loving God with our whole heart or in loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are all in the process of being baptized, immersed, as “chaff” and of being raised, germinating, as “wheat.” All of us.
In a few moments, our Presider will ask us a series of questions: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” In other words, will we see and treat ourselves, and even those we at the moment can’t help despising, as members of one another, as members of Christ, on the way to a dignity that none other than God insists on sharing with every human being?
And our scripted response is, “I will with God’s help.” And “with God’s help“ is crucial, because we are still very much on the way to that dignity awaiting all of us. And as we answer these questions, God’s help is what we are guaranteed, noticed or not. Our parish website reminds us, “We believe that something happens to us through our worship of God.” God happens to us. God shares God‘s baptismal life with our baptismal lives, drawing us away from our yearning for other’s comeuppance and toward God’s yearning for everyone’s reconciliation.
Trust that God is doing all that with you and me today. And in that way, God is indeed swift, not sometimes, but all the time. Amen.