If you were playing close attention just now to our various scripture readings, you will have noticed that they sort of move in different directions and paint contrasting portraits of God’s planned future for our world. In the first, from the Prophet Isaiah, written about 800 years before Jesus was born, we hear a glorious image of the coming age, when the world will be transformed into a place of peace and hope—in which the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the lion will eat straw. It’s a grand vision of a world turned upside down, lead by none other than an innocent little child. It is one of the most beloved and hopeful passages in scripture, often set to music and inspirational to Jewish and Christian communities alike.
But then, in our gospel reading, the mood shifts and we find something of a contrasting vision of the future: with the wild John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, crying out in the wilderness, calling his hearers a brood of vipers, and predicting the coming of one who will transform the world, not so much as an innocent 1970s-era flower child ushering in an age of peace and harmony, but with a winnowing fork and with fire.
Both, in their own ways, are emblematic and characteristic of this Advent season. The first vision, Isaiah’s, is undoubtedly more comfortable, happier, and easier to swallow and accept. But then, just as we are feeling all peaceful and Christmassy, lulled into Isaiah’s glorious future, John the Baptist reminds us, quite powerfully, that God’s kingdom will not come without struggle, without our prejudices being upset, without being called to account for our foolish, sinful, and even sometimes evil ways. God’s kingdom is coming, John reminds us, and life will never be the same.
It’s a coincidence, of course, but quite remarkable, that these readings are presented on this weekend when the world mourns the death of one of the greatest figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Naturally, I am referring to Nelson Mandela—South African activist and freedom fighter, prisoner, president, and prophet of democracy and racial reconciliation. Once considered a terrorist by his own country, and even by the United States government, he is now revered world-over for his work to free South Africa from the evils of racism and apartheid, remarkably free of revenge or retribution, but certainly with stark and searing honesty.
There’s no question that Nelson Mandela was a prophet for our time, much like Isaiah was in his, and John the Baptist in the first century, each offering a vision of a better society that is well within our grasp, but one that can only be accomplished through struggle, tears and sweat, and, unfortunately and all too often, blood. Thankfully, unlike John the Baptist who was killed in prison by the forces and powers of evil, Mandela lived to see freedom. And what’s more, he extended the gift of his own freedom to others. He once said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.” He most certainly did that, every day of his life.
In the many responses to Mandela’s death by presidents, bishops, and world leaders, among the most moving, meaningful, and perhaps surprising is that of F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last Apartheid-era president, who freed Mandela from prison and was defeated by him in the first democratic election. De Klerk said quite eloquently: “South Africa has lost one of its founding fathers and one of its greatest sons. I believe that his example will live on and that it will continue to inspire all South Africans to achieve his vision of non-racialism, justice, human dignity, and equality for all. We shall miss you, but know that your spirit and example will always be there to guide us to the vision of a better and more just South Africa.” In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at overcoming racial separation and moving toward a new vision of life together.
Now, I’m sure that President Mandela would have been the first to acknowledge that his glorious and hopeful vision of a reconciled and just society, in South Africa and across our planet, is still very far from a reality, just as Isaiah’s vision seems as far off today as it was some 3,000 years ago when he prophesied that the wolf would live with the lamb. There is still so much more that we must do to make God’s paths straight—from defeating racial and gender discrimination, to alleviating crushing poverty and hunger, to ensuring that all people, of whatever background and means, have access to the healthcare and education they need, not only to survive, but to thrive, to live the kind of life that God intends and dreams for us all.
That was Nelson Mandela’s vision, but you know, it was not only his vision, it was John the Baptist’s vision, as well, and the vision of all the Hebrew prophets. And most especially and importantly, it is the vision and it is the life of the one the Baptizer says is coming soon, whom we await and prepare for this Advent season, who will baptize with fire and Spirit, and through that fire, and through that Spirit, through that baptism, empower us to transform the world.
Now, all that said, if you are anything like me, even if you resonate with the prophet’s and the Baptizer’s call to justice and peace, you might find yourself a little uncomfortable with the razor-sharp edge that we find in today’s gospel reading and its implications, especially the emphasis on Christ clearing his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the granary, and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. In the past, when I heard that, I always assumed that John the Baptist was saying that Jesus will separate the good people from the bad people, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, just as elsewhere we read about him separating the sheep from the goats.
And, that may be what the gospel writer had in mind. After all, Matthew the Evangelist did have a preoccupation with casting people into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But upon deeper reflection, and inspired by the life and example of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I wonder if it could mean something else. I wonder if maybe, rather than bad people, the chaff that Jesus will destroy is everything that hurts and diminishes human life—racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, hunger, illness, and more. By separating us from these evils that so drag us down and limit us, we are then able to live free, and whole, and alive. In fact, maybe that is exactly the kind of life Jesus came and is coming to baptize us into, a life set free from diminishment, separation, and exclusion.
Because when you think about it, that’s actually what baptism is all about. In fact, that’s what being Christian is all about: being set free from the powers of sin and evil and death. And then, once we are free, in baptism we are empowered, our hearts and souls are literally and truly set on fire, so that we can live in the same way that Jesus himself lived, so that we can accomplish the same things that he accomplished, so that we can extend the work of transformation that he began some 2,000 years ago when he preached and taught and healed, and that has continued to inspire people of faith and conscience ever since. That’s what being the Body of Christ is all about. Not simply believing that Jesus said and did some really amazing things long ago, but believing and trusting and knowing that we can do them, too, because we are united to him. Because his life is our life. Because his power is our power. Because his passion is our passion.
And in a few moments, it is into that life of freedom and power and passion that we will baptize Lauren. As we baptize her, we will ask God’s Holy Spirit to come down to bless and strengthen her, to fill her heart and soul, and unite her to Christ, and to set her heart and soul on fire. And as we do that, the rest of us will also have the opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises, as well, to be reinvigorated and re-empowered to live in that same kind of way—forgiving and being forgiven, seeking and serving Christ in all people, and striving always for justice and peace in the world.
What an amazing and extraordinary faith we have been given, what an amazing and extraordinary life we have been given, what an amazing and extraordinary opportunity and responsibility we have been given in Christ, who came into the world 2,000 years ago and who lives in us all now, empowering us to bring the prophet’s vision of a renewed and restored world to life. Whether we find ourselves fighting against oppression and for reconciliation on a large stage, with life and death consequences like Nelson Mandela, or in far more modest ways here in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in schools, in the church, in our places of work—the call, the responsibility, and the opportunity this Advent and always is exactly the same: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, Ph.D.