Tuesday, June 2, 2009

12-9-2007: 2nd Advent (A)

Isaiah 11:1-10/Psalm 72/Romans 15:4-9/Matthew 3:1-12
Judging from his appearance and strident message, John the Baptist brings a bit of an edge to religion. If he were born a few centuries later and a little more to the south he might have been leading the crowd calling for the death of that British school marm who let her kids name their teddy bear Muhammad. Yet the Baptist is given a prominent place in Christianity. He rates a number of high-placed feasts and he dominates these weeks of Advent. But, truth be told, he belongs more to the Old than the New Testament; truth be told, he probably wouldn’t have sat through the lecture on the Beatitudes. And if he were around when Jesus convinced those other johns not to throw the first stone at the adulteress, this John would have already begun the pelting.

Religion seems to constantly shift between the extremes of divine justice and everlasting mercy, between judgment and forgiveness, the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. The Baptist represents one extreme of the pendulum; modern relativism, that anything-goes approach to life, the other; the truth -- somewhere in between.

Religion can take itself too seriously at times. It has the potential to become idolatrous, making itself into the divine when it is meant only to point us in that direction. Muslims running around the streets with machetes, ready to cut someone’s head off because a teddy bear was named Muhammad, is an obvious case in point. But members of the Westbrook Baptist Church in Iowa, parading at the funeral of a fallen soldier with signs saying God hates you, thank God for dead soldiers, thank God for 9/11, is an example of the same, the exact same, sentiment – just without the machetes (proving that fanatics, too, can be culturally conditioned). Perhaps a good dose of that feared modern relativism might be a healthy antidote to Muslim and Baptist alike. Catholics are not immune to the same danger - the antics of the bombastic William Donohue of the Catholic League come to mind here – but don’t quite measure up to the extreme absurdity of the above examples.

But perhaps John the Baptist serves an important purpose. His dour extremes help highlight the brighter Messianic promises which Jesus reminds us of in the gospel: the blind will see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. Jesus is echoing Isaiah, of course, who promises that and more: the wolf, Isaiah says, will be the guest of the lamb; the cow and the bear will be neighbors. And, we might hope: even teddy bears named Mohammad.

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