Temple and Empire: Sermon for 3 Advent

Christ and John the Baptist from www.richard-seaman.com

Christ and John the Baptist from http://www.richard-seaman.com

Temple and Empire

 “From the days of John the Baptist until now
the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,
and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12)

 Advent is not about waiting for Christmas; it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

It’s no coincidence that we read from the Book of Revelation at the Daily Office during Advent. It’s about longing for the Temple to fall and anticipating the day when the Empire will collapse.

In the biblical story the Temple, according to John Dally, professor of theology and culture at Bexley Seabury, stands for religion and purity over against the relationship that God desires with his creatures – symbolized by the Garden of Eden and by the table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples.

Empire is every impulse of violence that crushes human beings for monetary gain or personal pride. In the biblical story, the people of Israel contend against both the Babylonian and the Roman empires, and they are consistently urged to remember the poor and the needy.

Today we have made religion into a violent battle about belief, with the same rigid purity codes, exclusionary rhetoric, and shame-based culture that Jesus fought against. We keep trying to rebuild the Temple. And the constant splintering of denominations – Orthodox against Roman, Protestant against Catholic, some 24,000 Christian denominations in America today — betrays the violence at the heart of our dealings with each other.

Today we can live heedless of the suffering of billions of people around the world because we belong to the only remaining superpower – we are the only Empire left in the globalized First World. We play with electronic toys or watch flat-screen TVs or buy Christian consumer goods made overseas in sweatshop conditions, we send unmanned drones around the world to kill people (guilty, innocent, who cares?) just like in a video game, and we put children into jail on minor charges for profit.

Both Jesus and John the Baptist fought against Temple and Empire throughout their short lives. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

John the Baptist

John is near the end of his life.

He has been taken by force, bound, and imprisoned in Herod’s jail. His judgment against King Herod (and more importantly, Herod’s adultery with his brother’s wife Herodias) has put him in the prison of the Roman Empire’s puppet state.

He sends a question to Jesus by his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

That’s not much help.

John has been preaching the message his father sang at his birth:

This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham,
to set us free from the hands of our enemies
Free to worship him without fear
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our lives

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:68-79)

Though his ministry has focused on preaching repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, surely in the back of John’s mind is also the promise of freedom in Zechariah’s song, that God’s people would be “free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear all the days of our life.”

From the perspective of his jail cell, as he lies there in the hands of the Empire, John must not get much comfort from Jesus’ healing ministry or his preaching against the Temple religion.

Jesus

Jesus is near the beginning of his ministry.

He answers John’s question by pointing to the breaking in of the kingdom of God:  “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus’ life and ministry are focused on subverting the Temple and its righteousness codes – depending on which Gospel you read, in fact, he has already overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (or he will before long).

Dally suggests that Jesus takes the architecture of the Temple as the map of the people he will minister to – to those excluded at every stage. In the Holy of Holies, it’s only the High Priest and only once a year; in the Court of the Priests, it’s only the Levitical priests; in the Court of the Israelites, it’s only men; in the Court of the Women, it’s everybody but Gentiles, lepers and Nazirites.

The Ethiopian eunuch from the Book of Acts, baptized by the Apostle Philip as one of the first Gentile converts to the Way, wouldn’t even have been able to get into the Court of the Gentiles – the bazaar where the souvenir shops and the moneychangers were.

The healing Jesus points to in his answer to John is possible only because he goes out of his way to associate with the blind, the lame, the deaf – and especially ritually impure women and unclean lepers, Samaritan women and the undeserving poor.

In his focus on overturning the Temple religion, Jesus has not yet begun to fulfill his mother’s song, the Magnificat we just said together:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:46-55)

 Mary’s vision has to do with the overturning of the powerful – the proud, the mighty, the rich – but it won’t be long before the religious leaders use the power of the Empire to have Jesus put to death on the cross like a common criminal.

Without Fear

Today in Herod’s jail, the criminal John the Baptist is one of those people Isaiah describes “who are of a fearful heart.”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The prophet Isaiah reassures the people of Israel:

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4)

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be taking charge here. He doesn’t seem to be overthrowing anybody. In fact, John is still in jail and will be beheaded before much longer.

Jesus’ answer is not a direct response to the power of Empire, but it points at the hope of God’s kingdom, which is already coming into the world.

It’s not here yet – Empire and Temple still hold their power over people’s lives – but it’s coming and nothing will stop it.

How will you join the fight?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. 

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.

 How will you fight against Empire in this relentlessly commercial season? How will you fight against our culture, which engages in a war on the poor rather than on the businesses and policies that keep them in poverty? How will you work to keep people out of the literal prisons we build with private corporations – and with occupancy quotas that local governments have to meet?

How will you fight against the building of the Temple in this religious season? How will you fight against the judgmental attitude that sneers at “Christmas and Easter” worshippers or takes offense when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays”? How will you work to respect the dignity of every human being – Christian or not? How will you demonstrate that you are “so clothed in Christ’s spirit that you reach out your arms of love to bring everyone into his saving embrace”?

How will you practice repentance and forgiveness at holiday gatherings and with difficult family members? How will you, like John, preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to a world – and people like you and me – so desperately in need of them?

How will you practice self-giving in a season of consumer frenzy and self-centeredness? How will you, like Jesus, give your comfortable life away in order to heal people and bring them into fellowship – even if it means giving up your own power, your own privilege?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come.

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.

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