“A feeling of expectancy had come over the people….” …we have a similar feeling each year don’t we. We have the expectations of Christmas, of what it might bring, of what it might be, of what it might resolve or open opportunity toward.
John articulates an expectation that was shared by the religio-cultural context of his time. This expectation centred around the Messiah who would come with the Justice of God and restore Israel to its former glory. John puts it like this – I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals: he will baptise you with water and with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.
For John the Baptist it was clear that the wrath of God would be delivered in the person of the Messiah. He would deliver a justice that would separate the good from the bad, that would punish the evil ones, that would ensure that God’s violence toward the oppressors would display God’s justice and restore new peace and order.
When Jesus arrives this is not what John sees. At least not in the way that John is expecting. Jesus reveals that God has no violence. Wrath (anger, rage, fury) belong to human beings, not to God. John’s expectations are so disappointed that he has to send messengers to Jesus – are you the one who is to come? In other words – why no sacredly endorsed violence to restore things to order?
Behind this dilemma, this mismatch of expectations is a dynamic at work which is revealed time and again in the biblical texts, which shows how human beings so often reach peace by means of scapegoating someone and eliminating them as a communally agreed enemy or victim of the tribe. Theologians, Rene Girard and James Alison have written much about this insight.
Alison tells us that what we find instead is that Jesus puts himself in the place of wrath and shame. He is the shepherd and the gateway and the gateway is the place where the sheep go through to be slaughtered. He is the innocent crucified. He does this not to make God happy – not because no other sacrifice would have made God happy. That is wrong and dangerous and continues to perpetuate that God is violent and vengeful. He is the shepherd and the gateway, he is the innocent crucified and in so being reveals that vengeance belongs to humans not to God. John was wrong, we are wrong, James Alison entitled one of his books The Joy of Being Wrong. We are wrong if we think that violence and retribution and the thirst for blood belong to God – they do not.
And so we wait – for the penny to drop with us. In Jesus there is no ‘in’ and ‘out’ there are no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.
There is humanity. Loved by God.
By Fr Brendan Reed