This Year in Dystopia
"Next year in Jerusalem", the Jews say at the end of their Seders expressing their hope of returning to a Jewish homeland. Well, this year our Advent is in dystopia giving us the hope of actually getting it.' This late 18th century word is the opposite of utopia. For the bulletin cover I was going to use an image of a totalitarian or post-apocalyptic society, but this image of John the Baptist was scary enough.
John the B. is a man for "times like these" in which "we're all in this together", but the times' and the this' are ill-defined and therefore foreboding. Well, John came from such a time as this.' The 1st century was a time of political unrest and fervent religious zeal for a deliverer from the oppression of church and state. What particularly fired this was a messianic zeal. The prophesy of Gen. 49:10 said, "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until the one to whom it belongs [Shiloh] comes." Judah lost her independence to Rome about 60 years ago. That meant Shiloh, the Messiah, could come. And between 200 to 500,000 streamed to John in the desert saying He had. (Buls, Ex. Notes, B, 7).
This year you might be able to taste the dystopian flavor of those times. People were anxious, some were desperate, most were fearful for one reason or another and then came the voice from the wilderness. The Holy Spirit tells you it was the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, so John is the Voice of the Gospel. The word gospel' was rare in classical Greek. It had the emphasis of good news' that you're probably familiar with but it also referenced a general amnesty by a new ruler taking the throne. Your "Spidey" senses ought to be tingling now. The word translated "the beginning" is also the word for ruler'. The Voice is saying a new sheriff is in town. And John points to Him not from a Roman palace, not from the Jewish Temple, but from the wilderness.
Although the Spirit plainly tells you this is the beginning of the Good News that a New Ruler has ascended the throne declaring an objective amnesty, all you hear is law, law, law. That's what you think is needed in these dystopian times of government approved baby killing, redefining of marriage, and violence in the streets. A new Moses is needed to reestablish law and order. Basil, a 4th century church father, sets us right. Moses had handed down baptisms or washings, but these distinguished between this and that sin with some being unwashable. And his baptisms required that sacrifices, purification rules, days and seasons be observed. After that baptism sealed the purification. John the B's Baptism, just like ours, gave instant access to the grace of God for all sins and sinners (ACC, NT, II, 9). It cut through the worry, fear, and unknowingness of dystopia by forgiving sins.
Look at that bulletin cover. Isn't that a face fit for a dystopian movie? Isn't the "Mad Max" wilderness setting dystopian? Doesn't John's Spartan dress, and diet of locusts and wild honey smack of the Gulag, concentration camps, or "1984"? Remember in the wilderness when poisonous snakes slithered into the OT church for the same misbelief, unbelief, despair and other great shame and vice we have? What was the "cure"? Moses was commanded to make a bronze image of the very snake that was killing them, raise it high on a staff, and promise those who looked would live. John, fathered by a priest from a mother also in the priestly line, could've been, should've been a priest, but he's in a dystopian wilderness.
Go back and read Luke 1. Read of his birth to parents too old and unbelieving, on his father's part, to be graced with a child. Read of the voice of the Mother of Yahweh filling him with the Spirit when he was 6 months old in his mother's womb. Read of him being given the strange name of "John" which means "Yahweh is a gracious giver." And then read this: "And the child grew and became strong in Spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel" (Lk. 1:80). The cure', the answer to the time of dystopian fearful anxious unknowingness came not from the oppressive State or the bankrupt OT church. It came from a dystopian figure, living a dystopian life, in a dystopian setting. It came from a Voice preaching a washing of forgiveness that changed everything and joined you to One above, beyond, and more powerful than any dystopia. A Voice that called you to cross the Jordan, like the OT Church did, confess your sins, be washed of them all, and enter the Promised Land where the Spirit of forgiveness, life, and peace reign even though surrounded by dystopia.
When you're caught up in a dystopia be it political, theological, or medical, the temptation is to retreat to what you know works. Law. The law makes things happen. The law can prevent this or that from happening. The law of social distancing, mask wearing, and vaccines can do this, this, and this too. The Law of repenting of this and starting to do that, is impressive too. So too is political law. Curfews, closing places where people gather, limiting amounts of toilet paper, these do things. These control things. And no, I'm not dissing any of these. I am saying none of these answer your soul that is disquieted within you; none of these still your quaking heart, or stop the stampeding horse of worry carrying you off. The radical Gospel does and it comes from the Voice of the dystopian preacher John.
Note how John is all about Baptism. He was "baptizing in the desert region." He was preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the muddy Jordan. Then what does our dystopian preacher preach? He apparently disses his own Baptism. He says how weak he was compared to Jesus; how absolutely unworthy he was compared to Jesus, and how, apparently, what he poured out was nothing compared to what Jesus did. This is the proper way of saying it for it gives you the best hope of understanding what John actually said.
John is not saying his Baptism lacked the Holy Spirit. How could it? It forgave sins. The same exact Greek words describing John's Baptism eis aphesin hamarton are used by Peter to describe Christ's Baptism in Acts 2:38, be baptized eis aphesin ton hamarton. Both are "for the forgiveness of sins." And Jesus speaking of John's Baptism in John 3:5 says it's being reborn of water and the Spirit. But there is no doubt that while hundreds of thousands throng to dystopian John in this time of dystopia as the answer to all that is unnerving them, John certainly belittles himself and apparently his Baptism.
Not so fast. In times of stress and strain, fallen mankind's default state is the Law. When unnerved, unmanned, undone we hit restart and reboot in the law mode. That's why in apocalyptic, dystopian times hellfire and brimstone preachers are popular. Anyone preaching law and order in a time of disorder and lawlessness seems to be the answer. John wants to disabuse you of the notion. O, the Law is there. It's in the word "repent'; it's there when he calls the church leaders snakes, and the people depending on their ancestry no more than stones. But repentance' and/or a return to the law in an of itself is never the answer. Ask the child wailing about how sorry he is if all his repenting does anything. Ask yourself: how did my resolve born of the law to stick to my new diet, control my temper, or snuff out my lustfulness work?
Luther said the most important thing about John the Baptist was his finger because it pointed to Christ. DaVinci painted the same thing. This is where John "is going" with his words about his baptism which don't make sense. The Greek word baptizo means "to apply water." So John says, "I apply water to you with water, but Jesus will apply water to you with the Holy Spirit." He is not comparing baptisms but people. As John applies water that as we saw carried the Spirit and therefore forgiveness and new life, Jesus is the One who applies that Spirit to begin with. At his Baptism by John, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a Man in the form of a Dove so nobody could miss it. Jesus as a man with the Holy Spirit resists the Devil's tempting using none of His powers as God, but only the Spirit inspired Scriptures. Then the Man Jesus, never once defiling the Spirit of God within Him, as you and I have too many times to count, is tortured, whipped, beaten, slapped and nailed to a hell of a cross, to suffer, be damned, and die in our place. And what does the Gospel of John say Jesus did after saying, "It is finished"? He handed over the Spirit (Jn. 19:30).
But there's more. On Easter Evening, after giving His peace to the terrified apostles in the upper room, what does Jesus do? He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit whoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." And there's more still: any of the words Jesus speaks to you through me, through others, through your Bible reading, Jesus says: "They are Spirit and they are life" (Jn. 6:63). Can there possibly be any more? You bet there is. The Man Jesus received the Spirit without measure (Jn. 3:34). Do you think that for the last 2,000 years it has been leaking out of Him? No, so when you eat His Body and drink His Blood in Communion, you are eating and drinking the Spirit. The Spirit courses through your body and blood by means of His Body and Blood thereby renewing your mind, your heart, your soul, your life.
My last point, could be a bridge too far. We sing in a Communion hymn of Jesus as both victim and priest. The Spirit makes the point in our text that Jesus is both the "saved" and the Savior. The first OT quote comes from Exodus and refers to Yahweh sending His angel before His people to prepare their way to the Promised Land. So, Jesus is depicted as being all the people of God. Yes, it's Him for all of us; Him instead of all of us. And the second quote is from Isaiah. There the Voice prepares the way for Yahweh. Jesus is not only all people in One Man, but He is Yahweh in that flesh and blood Man. No dystopia stops or even slows down this Man who is God from delivering us not into utopia which literally means no place' but into that place of many mansions where dystopia isn't even a memory. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20201206); Mark 1:1-8