Saturday, December 12, 2015

John the Baptist and a 'Bonfire of the Vanities' ?

How do you turn the world around? John the Baptist this Sunday does call to mind images of radical change, not that I would want to see a bonfire of the vanities in the Octagon ... but 'Occupy' echoed the thought!

2015 Advent 3 Reflection
Readings: Luke 3: 7-18;

What made them do it?  I mean the crowd that streamed out of Jerusalem to make their way down to the Jordan and there be told off by the Baptist, that roughly dressed man from the desert.  Still they went: the great and the good; the despised tax collectors and the seen it all bully-boy soldiers; the women, wealthy and bored; the careful housewives; and the tired servants; the lawyers, the men of business, the scribes, the farmers and the sellers from their market-stalls.  All the world seemed to turn up at the Jordan and waited on his words.
It may be that it was something particular to that time and place, a crisis of some kind, a sense of anxiety, confusion and general unease – and into that moment came John with his dire warnings of calamity and judgement.  The man fitted to the moment perfectly; maybe that is how God works and the stories through the scriptures seem to say the same.

Botticelli's 'Bankers'
It may also be that, through the purpose of God, something similar threads through history to challenge and rebuke us for our folly and shallowness.  In 15th century Florence with its rich culture and art, it was the austere Dominican preacher Savonarola who invited the affluent citizens to turn away from illusion and burn their treasures in his ‘bonfire of the vanities’. In the 1980s the novelist Thomas Wolfe exposed the illusions of wealth and power in his novel with that name.  Even now, through the papal encyclical Laudato si and the COP21 talks in Paris at this moment, perhaps we catch a tremor of John’s call to repentance, the divine call to wake up, realise what is happening, repent and live differently before it is too late. 

The call to wake up and see the truth of our world and our circumstances runs all through scripture and John’s radical and unsparing message was in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. He warned against the assumption that being God’s chosen people somehow secured the Israelites from judgement.  He made them see themselves more clearly and without complacency.  He stripped away illusions and made them see how far they were from the society that God had called them to be.  No wonder then that they asked him what they should do.  They wanted guidance, if only because they needed to know where to start to change their lives and change their society.

That is what repentance is about: it is not about feeling guilty or sorry or shedding tears; but it is about deeds.  John’s medicine was potent and practical: don’t   grieve for the wasted years and blighted past: live fruitfully by living justly. John prescribes social justice – and how those who have are to share with those who don’t have.  For the powerful or influential he warns against greed: so, no profiteering, tax collectors are to take no more than their due; and no extortion, soldiers are not to abuse their power and be content with their wages.  

At the individual level this is about a change in the self: we put on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or ‘sin’ and John’s baptism symbolised the cleansing away of illusion and entering into reality.  The social impact of this conversion  …?  Well imagine - no profiteering, no extortion, no one homeless, food and clothing, the necessities of life for all in need.   One catches a glimpse of a different world; we sense a brighter light; we hear a distant heavenly music – we start to catch a sense of what the Kingdom of God may mean.

Which brings us back to this place, our place, our city … the ‘kingdom’ that is our nation.  We have just had a vote for what may prove to be a new flag – and I find myself really questioning how important the concept is.  Will a flag change redefine who we are?  Will it create a clearer identity?  Will it make for a more just and compassionate society?

Or is the idea of a new flag a symptom of our ills? Is it a sign that we chase after illusions rather than face the reality of what we have become?   I mean that housing has become an unattainable dream for many young New Zealanders; and the growing gap between the wealthy few and the working poor.  I wonder what John the Baptist would say to us this Advent?  I think the donations of food and presents to Anglican Family Care at the Hanging of the Greens last Thursday is a step in the right direction; a step from illusion to reality; a gesture that points, however slightly, towards the Kingdom of God and the One who will return.

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