God’s dream in one hand, a shovel in the other

by susan on December 5, 2016

Words for the Journey – – Sunday, December 4th

john-the-baptistIn those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

– Matthew 3:1-12, NRSV

It’s a shame we only spend a couple of Sundays a year exploring the life & message of John the Baptist.  It’s surprising considering he was the forerunner to Jesus, the man who baptized Jesus & the one who seemed (unlike Jesus’ own disciples) to really ‘get’ the kingdom of God.

It’s no wonder we avoid him, though. He represents something we do our best to rationalize or romanticize. He represents a radical call to repentance.

zechariah-and-elizabethIn order to understand what made his life & ministry so significant, we need to know a few things about him. The gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born to the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. They were both very old, had not been able to have children and desperately wanted – no, they needed a child. When Zechariah was visited by an angel and told Elizabeth would conceive, it was nothing short of a miracle.

John’s birth was so miraculous, in fact, that Zechariah, who had been unable to speak since the angel’s visit,  suddenly began to bust out in song, to praise God & to prophecy about all the great things his son would be & become.

That’s how Luke introduces John the Baptist. The gospel of Matthew introduces him in a very different way. He first appears abruptly – in the wilderness.

The son who was once a dream come true for his parents has grown up & left home & not for a successful ministerial career or to start a family of his own. He seems to have rejected that way of life in favor of something much riskier & much more rebellious.

He will not be found prophesying in the temple like his dad because he has departed for the wilderness. Dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild locusts, John is in the desert preaching to anyone who will listen.

judean-wildernessThe Judean wilderness was known for its rugged terrain. It was also known for its abundance of hiding places for bandits, rebels and zealots. It was not empty of people though – in fact during Passover, it was well-traveled.

That might explain why so many common people showed up there. Instead of going directly to the temple to sacrifice for their sins, they went off the beaten path to hear John’s radical message, they veered away from established religion to confess their sins & to be baptized into a new, revolutionary way of living.

It was revolutionary because it demanded a total shift in thinking, relating & living. It required repentance, which meant a change in direction.

This change in direction away from the temple & into the wilderness probably ruffled some religious feathers. This might explain why concerned religious leaders started showing up in the wilderness, too.  Umm…hello? Did you forget where you need to be?   Or, perhaps they were genuinely hungering for John’s radical teaching.

Either way, John is quick to attack these custodians of the faith.  He wants nothing to do with their religious gate-keeping or their privileged positions. Even though they show up seeking baptism, he knows they don’t get what he’s saying, and he calls them out:

“You brood of vipers…bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

The kingdom of God will not come through people claiming special privilege or pretending to be something they’re not.  It will not happen through a quick prayer, a one time confession or a momentary high.

It will resemble Isaiah’s vision, and look  more like…the filling of valleys and the leveling of mountains, more like the construction of a straight path through a rugged & windy wilderness, & more like changed hearts, reformed minds & un-earthed lives.

Now, I’ve never done any highway repair work, but I do live in Jacksonville, so I’m very familiar with road work. I see the huge piles of dirt that have to be moved from one location to another. I see the heavy machinery and the people power. I also know it takes a very long time.

Cutting a path is slow, grinding work that wil require a lifetime of digging deep, rearranging & getting rid of anything that does not help to bring about God’s kingdom of justice & peace.  

That was John’s radical & revolutionary message. He was calling all who would hear into a radical life of repentance. He calls us, too.

He calls us to hold God’s dream in one hand and a shovel in the other. He demands that we are prepared to unearth whatever in us and around us leaves no room for the kingdom to take root.

This was no abstract sermon preached by John. John, like the prophets before him, preached what he lived & ultimately it would cost him his life.

When I think about prophets today, people like Shane Claiborne come to mind.  His radical conversion continues to happen, but it got started in a very wilderness-like way, as described in The Irresistible Revolution (the following paraphrased story & quotations are from this book) A college student who self identified as a “Jesus freak”, Shane & his friends heard about a homeless community being evicted from the vacant St. Edward’s cathedral  in downtown Philadelphia, so they did what any of us would do (okay, maybe not). They left their comfortable campus & went into the city to pay them a visit.


When they arrived, they were met with immediate welcome. The families living in the cathedral shared their hopes & struggles. They also alerted Shane & his friends to the urgency of the looming eviction.

When they returned back to campus, they went back “disturbed, aching and aware of the ticking of the clock.”  They  “wrestled, prayed, and started conspiring”.

Early the next morning, they ran through campus putting up signs that said, “Jesus is getting kicked out of church in North Philly”. That night, they held a meeting and were shocked when over a hundred people packed out the little dorm lounge. The next day, dozens of them returned to fill the cathedral & to join in the struggle with these families. “If they come for you, they’ll have to take us too” they declared.

The eviction was only 48 hours away and by now word had spread about the actions of these students – media, clergy and others wanting to stand in solidarity came out.

At around the 47th hour, anticipating the arrival of city officials, they prepared a “Last Supper”, with all of the families and friends gathered around the table on the old marble altar to sing, to pray and to break bread together, with lots of tears.

Shane says, he “will never forget when the officials came to evict the families. The representatives from the archdiocese who owned the abandoned church building pulled up to the curb, saw the crowd and crawled back into the care without uttering a word. The 48 hours came and went and nothing happened.

This ended up being the beginning of a long-term revolutionary restoration project that would change everyone. It would even change the direction of Shane’s life. He says it was in St. Ed’s that he was born again…again.   

Joining God’s revolution means allowing our lives to constantly be reformed.

It’s not just people like Shane who are living this radical reshaping. This week in various gatherings, I heard about changes that are happening to prepare the way – in our Advent group, one person announced he was stepping away from social media to nurture more peace, another person shared that she needed to submit to God instead of being pulled into cynicism & despair. Over coffee, another friend shared that she was working on becoming less judgmental in order to improve her relationships.

We need John the Baptist and we need his radical message to remind us that we are called to hold God’s dream in one hand and a shovel in the other – ready to unearth whatever in us and around us threatens God’s already & still coming kingdom.

Previous post:

Next post: