Whenever Jesus blesses us, we know that he is telling us to do something we don’t want to do. Look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5: we are told that, among other things, those who mourn, are peacemakers and are persecuted—especially the persecuted—are blessed. I, for one, do not wish to do or be any of these things. So, when we are told today that we are blessed when we do not take offence at Jesus’s comments on the Kingdom, we should expect that we will most likely take offence at him.
Let us look at why and begin with John the Baptist.
John has been arrested. He will soon be executed and as Dr. Johnson well said: nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as impending death. Has his life been worth the sacrifice, will the kingdom of God come?
John had led a demanding life, sacrificing everything for his role as forerunner. Yet he was uncertain for whom he was preparing. When the Jewish leaders came to be baptized, he greeted them with “you brood of vipers.” Rather than trying to charm them, he told them that if they did not produce good fruit – acts of love, justice and kindness – they would be cut down no matter what their religious and social pedigree. (Mat. 3:7-10)
His baptism was a sign of repentance, but he knew there was more: a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. This he expected to be frightening event, one that would separate the good from the bad: “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:12) This imagery had a history in Israel and it usually meant direct, unmistakable and probably painful divine intervention.
He baptizes Jesus (Mat. 3:15), then he waits for the signs and wonders. They do not come. Indeed, he hears that Jesus has not dammed the Pharisees and Sadducees, but eaten with him. He has not condemned the occupying forces of Rome, but invited hated tax collectors to join him. Although he cast out demons, he has not led an angelic army against them.
This is not what John was expecting. He is now about to die, and he needs to know if he has backed the wrong horse.
Jesus’ answer is also not what he expected. He quotes from Isaiah: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. (Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1-2). They would have known these passages but would have placed them off to side. They were not as immediately satisfying as the separation of enemies in a winnowing fan or their destruction in unquenchable fire. A winnowing fan by the way was a device that could remove the grain one wished to keep from the chaff, the uneatable husk around it, which had to be destroyed. It should come as no surprise that John and his disciples would need some time and grace to consider Jesus’ words a blessing.
What then about us.?
We have heard not only the words of Isaiah but Jesus himself for our entire lives, but do we want to hear Jesus’ answer, or would we prefer something harsher and more punitive?
Look at a “Make America Great Again” rally or is it now “Keep America Great?” Somewhere during it there will be a chant to build a wall, deport a class of people, or put someone in jail There is little sense of healing or nurturing anyone or proclaiming much of anything to the poor. There is however the sheer pleasure of being with people of like minds who have found a reason for lost dreams. The vision of the kingdom is simply not as immediately satisfying as a winnowing fan separating us from them.
This is by no means reserved to the right. The rise of cancel culture, especially on our college campuses, reflects not only the same distain for other’s beliefs and opinions but pleasure is righteousness and purity. This has reached the point where Former President Obama has been publicly critical of those who so easily condemn others even before his wife was taken to task for remarks on the need for role models. Personally, to me the most interesting situations are the attempts to prevent people with non-woke opinions from speaking on college campuses. Heather Mac Donald, a not particularly abrasive conservative author, was invited to speak at the College of the Holy Cross in Mass. In a public lecture on Renaissance humanism and education she said that students of today far from being discriminated against are privileged. Students who were warned that she might say something like that were prepared and chanted “My oppression is not an illusion” and then accused her of sexism, racism and, homophobia. The faculty at another college prepared for her talk by establishing a trauma center where students who would be distressed by her talk were invited to paint “self-care” rocks if they attended the lecture. Does peace and harmony stand a chance against the pleasures of standing with like-minded people and calling down unquenchable fire? It is not called cancel culture by accident.
You may say that these are extreme examples. To an extent they are, but are we immune from them? America is an increasingly polarized country and I do not see it getting any better during a presidential campaign year. During this first part of Advent we are asked to prepare the way for the Lord’s return in glory. What would you prefer Jesus to do: reconcile you to someone with radically different opinions and beliefs, or humiliate your opponent? He is telling us today that he will do the former. So we must ask, do we even want what Jesus is offering, much less see it as a blessing? I leave this question open for us all most particularly myself but end with another seasonal observation.
You will notice that today the priest is dressed in rose-colored vestments. It is Gaudete Sunday and the entrance hymn for the Mass begins with “Rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice indeed the lord is near: It is from St Paul.(Phil. 4:4-5) The world may play on our worst instincts but the source of blessing is far more powerful, rejoice for the Lord is always and everywhere great, and his grace can never be cancelled.