Scripture: Luke 3: 1-14
A couple weeks ago, we had a SpringHouse-wide adult education time during which we sat in small groups and talked about what this whole season of Advent was about for us, how we understood who Jesus was when we were kids and who this Jesus we were waiting for during Advent is to us now. I listened as people at my table talked about the Jesuses of their various life stages. And I realized, I didn’t really have a kids’ version of Jesus. Sure, I was in a Christmas pageant once upon a time. I was one of the chorus of angels with gold pipe cleaner hallows. I vaguely remember white a baby doll Jesus and thinking that was strange.
But my primary image of Jesus from a very young age was pretty precocious. As I’ve told many of you, I grew up in a predominantly queer church in the 1980s and 90s. That meant AIDS was a huge part of our collective life. And we had a banner that read, “the body of Christ is living with AIDS.” From the beginning of my conscious memory of church, this was Jesus. He was a divine body that also knew the fullness of human suffering, including the disease that had decimated many in the community I called home. He was the teacher who taught us how to braid together our spiritual struggles with our collective political struggles. He was the reminder that even in human bodies living with AIDS, God also dwelled.
I didn’t have any of this language at the time. I just knew that people cried A LOT when they first came to church with us and that banner had something to do with it. I knew that the group hugs, also known as communion, had to happen every week. People needed those for survival, to remember they were beloved when they left the church building and went back into the world where people were scared to touch them, where homophobia kept too many of us tying ourselves in knots to stay safe and hidden, where we would continue the struggle of the long work of building God’s Realm of Justice and Love.
As we sit with this season of Advent and our theme this year, “Who are we waiting for?,” this is still the Jesus I’m waiting for. This is still the Jesus for whom I’m preparing. I’m waiting for the Jesus living with AIDS. I’m waiting for the Jesus seeking asylum at our borders. I’m waiting for the Jesus pulled over for driving while brown in a white supremacist culture. I’m waiting for Jesus the Rabbi pushing his tradition to its radical edges. I’m waiting for Jesus who provided free health care in the streets. I’m waiting for the Jesus who went and prayed alone in the wilderness, who took is introverted time when he needed it so he could sustain the work of building God’s Realm here and now. I’m waiting for the Jesus who refused the binary of spiritual work versus political work, who knew that the traps of spiritual pain are magnified in structures of power and the pain of political inequality lives in our spirits.
And as John the Baptizer tells us as he told his followers thousands of years ago, there is work we have to do to prepare for this kind of Jesus to be born among us. Each Advent season, we read these texts and we seek Teshuva, which translates as repentance or what my friend Rabbi Arielle from Shir Tikvah congregation calls “spiritual healing.” What is the spiritual healing you need to do in this season of Advent?
Something important to notice here. John the Baptizer is not just calling on individuals in this work of spiritual healing or repentance. He’s calling on communities – the tax collectors, the soldiers, the crowds:
“And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John is telling us that spiritual healing and repentance are grounded in who we are as communities and the specifics of what our privileges look like. Essentially, John is calling each community to “right-size” themselves in relation to the world. You – soldiers, tax collectors, crowds – have more than you need? Give it away.
What might THAT look like today? I imagine John the Baptizer calling ME out: “You in that crowd of people who have more than you need, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Or more specifically: “You, white folks, repair your people’s history of enslavement and colonialism. Begin paying reparations.” Or: “You, citizens, show up in the streets to demand asylum laws be honored now like they were for your ancestors once upon a time. Make room in your church and your home for those seeking refuge.” I can only guess what John the Baptizer would demand of all of us for our collective spiritual healing of course, but I imagine his words would have felt blunt. As Jan Richardson writes:
It may feel like
the word is leveling you
as it asks you
to give up
what you have known.
It is impolite
and hardly tame…”
And yet, this is where our spiritual healing emerges. This is how we prepare for Jesus, for the Divine to be born again among us.
And yet… as I sat with my fellow SpringHouse church-goers a few weeks ago, I realized I was missing something in my precocious childhood version of justice Jesus. I realized I had an ache for a different kind of Jesus as I listened to people’s stories about him. Of course, some people had a lot of heavy baggage about their childhood versions of Jesus. But I was struck by a quality of innocence in their stories – both of Jesus and themselves. Jesus, for some of them, was kind of like a really awesome camp counselor or almost a superhero, cheering them on and loving them with goofy, joyful, larger than life persistence. This was the Jesus of the camp song I never knew until recently, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” And then there was baby Jesus and stories of pageants gone awry. Sweet, tiny, baby Jesus.
Last year this time of year when August was born, I think I got my first real experience of this version of Jesus. Holding all 6 pounds of her newborn body was surely the most holy moment of my lifetime. We still sit in the darkness every night together, me and August, as I snuggle her and she drinks her bottle before she goes to sleep. She still embodies a sweetness I didn’t know was possible. In her little body is all the innocence of the world.
This version of Jesus for me, it turns, out is still a version of justice Jesus – but with a twist. As I hold my baby girl, I hold the closest thing I’ve ever known to divine love also. She burrows into me with ancient evolutionary instincts, and I hold her tight with a ferocity I know would drive me into oncoming traffic if need be. I hold her with a love that will sustain my work for justice because I want a world where her little body is really hers, sovereign and safe as she grows into herself. I want a world where she can breathe and have clean water and live in flourishing with her fellow creatures and humans. I want a world where she can choose her path, speak her opinionated mind, and dance with same abandon she does in our living room now, barefoot and staggering to catch her breath for too much excitement. I want a world where she can still feel her own innocence, her own baby sweetness, when she is grown.
I want that for each of us, actually. And I wonder, I hope, I pray, that that is some of what this season is about. What if spiritual healing and repentance aren’t just about the big stuff, but about recovering our own innocence? Teshuva, repentance, means turning back to God when we have turned away. What does that mean? It means turning towards the God in everyone – those crossing our borders, those in political office we voted for and those who we voted against, and in ourselves. In ourselves. In ourselves.
Maybe that’s what adult innocence means. It’s not ignorance or living in a bubble. It’s returning to the sweetness of baby Jesus, of divine incarnation, that is born in each of us every year this season. It’s remembering that that divine sweetness is always there, that no matter what, it cannot be destroyed. As Japanese-American non-violence teacher Kazu Haga says, “If we carry intergenerational trauma (and we do), then we also carry intergenerational wisdom. It’s in our genes and in our DNA.” I love that.
Let us prepare for the Holy to walk among us knowing we carry in our very DNA the wisdom to do so. Let us turn back to God, seek spiritual healing, repent. Let us be hungry for its sweetness. As Jan Richardson remind us:
“… when it falls
upon your lips
you will wonder
at the sweetness
that finds its way
into the hunger
you had not known