This is the second of five conferences, given to our guests in the Guest House of MSJ this weekend, for the Advent Retreat, written and delivered by Br Rafael Duckett of MSJ.
Recognizing the Kingdom of Heaven
(Saturday morning’s conference)
In Sunday’s Gospel we hear the following words from Isaiah, which are taken up by St John the Baptist, as His own mission statement:
“The voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.”
It’s a scripture passage we’ve all heard before, and they are beautiful words. They are the words John the Baptist was responding to with his ministry in the desert, as he went about preaching repentance, preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God.
But what is John the Baptist saying to us? What can he tell us, as the precursor to Christ, to lead us – yes us, here, now, in this room – deeper into God’s presence?
Before we answer this question head-on, we’re going to start with a little historical background. When we read about John, we must remember, first of all, that Israel was already waiting for its Saviour, already anticipating the great leader of its people. We might say that, culturally, Israel’s ear was cocked for any sign of the salvation of their God. It’s a little tricky to imagine this nowadays, when the world is so seemingly secular and full of itself, and hasn’t the time to think about God. John the Baptist lived in a time of religious fervour, but also a time of warring kingdoms. The people were waiting to be led into ‘everlasting glory’, and their God was the mighty warrior who will smite their foes and put an end to their shame. But perhaps Israel was so busy waiting that they forgot to remain open enough to recognize Him, when He came. It is as though they constructed their own bulletproof concept of who God is and, when He actually became man among them, they didn’t recognize Him, because He didn’t conform to who they thought God was.
This historical lack recognition of God is a mirror to us, now. It has lots to teach us about waiting for the Kingdom of God. In this conference, we’re going to look deeper into this.
To do this, I’d like to concentrate on two points about John the Baptist, and we’re then going to use those two points to look at ourselves.
The first point is all about recognition. It is this: that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Son of God. Have you ever imagined what Christ looks like, His facial expressions, how He moved among His disciples, the aural gravity of His words? It is a tantalising thought, yet the Holy Spirit has seen fit to omit these details from Scripture. But we do know a little about Him. We know, for example, that He was a local, raised by a poor-enough family that had a working knowledge of hardship and poverty, of simplicity, of sharing the little they had with others. We can glean this simply from the place where Jesus grew up. His parables come from this first-hand experience: think of the parable of the seed and the sower, the scattering of corn in every possible place, even in the places that seem unlikely to bear fruit. Why? Because the taxes were so crushingly high that the farmers were left with hardly enough to live on at the end of the harvest. It certainly wasn’t as if these farmers had spare seed to scatter willy-nilly. No, this was quite literally an effort to survive. It’s the same story with the poor widow putting her last two pennies into the collection box. So, people in the area will have known Jesus as a carpenter’s son, probably going from village to village and town to town looking for work, not as a great military leader, not as a King’s son, not as a prince with jewels and fine clothing, not as a leader of thousands.
We can piece together, then, some of the physical Jesus, a snippet of what He was like during His earthly ministry. But recognizing Him as the Saviour of the world means more than recognizing the physical Jesus. It has to do with the grace of seeing with faith, seeing beyond what was physically there. Many who saw Jesus during His earthly ministry did not believe. But, as the one whose vocation it was to anticipate the Christ, John the Baptist looked at Jesus and knew. And, recognizing, John responded, and spoke to those around him: ‘Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’
So, John recognized the Saviour, and recognizing Him, told everyone He was here; that is my first point about John.
My second point is this. In his call to repentance, John seems to be saying more than: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand’. We might sense him saying: ‘Prepare, because what is coming you may not be expecting.’ ‘Your salvation is coming, but it may not come in the way you imagine.’
Let’s look at this second point a little more. John the Baptist’s entire life was unorthodox. And we could surmise that these unorthodox practices were part of God’s plan to teach us that He is coming in a way we might not recognize. The religious leaders had John on their radar: was he friend or foe? What were these challenging things he was saying? What was all this about baptizing in the Jordan?
John was the first person to offer a personal, all-submerging baptism of water in a river. This was not the baptismal rite of Jews. In fact, they didn’t have a baptismal rite in the sense we Christians understand baptism. They had baths at the temple – called Mikvah – that people could use to cleanse themselves of specific defilements, but this process was repeated for as many times as it was required. On the other hand, John came with a new, one-off baptism in the Spirit, a full submersion in a flowing river. Each person only ever does this once. The symbolism here is potent: the cleansing waters of the Jordan are carrying away the sin of the people, who emerge from the water with a new heart and a new mind. It is symbolic of the people of Israel who were led through the Red Sea, leaving their life of slavery for one of freedom. John was teaching the people to prepare for the coming of Christ in a new way. It is as if John is trying to make us think outside of the box, to put aside the religious practice of the day and approach God as sinners who are loved by God, even though we are sinners.
John also put the noses of many religious leaders out of joint. In John’s day, wealth, power and health were a sign of being favoured by God. The other end of the social scale was seen as being separated from God: their poverty and sickness was seen as a kind of divine condemnation. Lepers were unclean, but not just physically – they were to be shunned, because they are not favoured by God. We know, now, that Jesus changed all of this – He frequently lambasted the Jewish leaders for putting themselves on pedestals. It was the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the sinners whom Jesus had interest in. It was they who took up His time and His social calendar. John began to attract these very people, these people on the outskirts, these people thirsty for the love of God. And suddenly, these downcast, outcast characters – the people who thought themselves beyond God’s love – people whom the religious leaders ignored and scoffed at – had new hope. This was the beginning of Christ’s message. It was the beginning of His commandment to love.
Fast-forward two thousand years and we, as baptized Christians, are fixed with the indelible seal of God: we become part of the family, part of the Body of Christ. We are depending on Him and His mercy is greater than our own sinful hearts. We know this now through Scripture and tradition; but back then, John the Baptist was ushering in this God of love, this God with whom we have a personal relationship, each and every one of us.
So that is my second point: that John the Baptist prepared us for the coming of a God whom we may not altogether recognize, who lives and acts infinitely beyond our narrow human expectations. In other words, we must remain open, receptive, we must allow God to lead us to knowledge of Him. Because we are not in control of God’s identity.
To make this point, we see that even John’s perception of Christ was found wanting, when he and Christ met at the Jordan. Never did John think that he would be required to baptise Jesus, as Scripture says: “John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, ”Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented.” (St Matthew 3:13-17.) So at their meeting at the Jordan, Christ perplexes John, challenges him, throws a spanner in the works. And it is a spanner of humility. Poverty. The master becoming the servant. Yes, from the very outset of His ministry.
We can take what we’ve just said about John the Baptist, and personalize it for ourselves: Do we recognize Jesus our Saviour? When we recognize Him, do we respond by becoming His instrument, His mouthpiece, as John did? Do we remain open-enough to see beyond our own narrow understanding of God?
Do we try and shoehorn God’s message into a convenient shape that will fit neatly into our lives, so that we don’t really need to change much at all, and it is mostly everyone else who has to change, not us?
These are big questions. But for the Christian, they are daily ones. So where do we begin on this daily journey towards God, towards recognition of Him in our lives?
(Let’s pause here, for a minute’s silent prayer.)
We must begin with the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus came to tell us about, it is what John the Baptist cried out about from the arid desert, to repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God.
When we’re going into a place, we go through the door. And Jesus gave us those comforting words: ‘Knock, and the door will be opened.” This is all well and good, but how are we supposed to know where the door is, and to recognize it when we see it?
As Christians, we know the identity of that door to the Kingdom of God. Or rather, we know who it is, because Christ said that ‘nobody can come to the Father except through me.’ He is the doorway.
Jesus also told us: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21.) This is a beautiful, humbling, perhaps even frightening thought! To think that through Baptism Christ lives in us. The Holy Spirit, that unquenchable pilot light that remains flickering even through the darkest days of humanity, lives within us, came down upon us at Baptism, and through His grace we have become, as the Catechism states, ‘…adopted children of God, “partakers of the divine nature,” members of Christ and co-heirs with him, and temples of the Holy Spirit.”
In our daily life, we are challenged to live like Christ. This is what sanctifies us. It is what makes the saints who they are: their identity as people who are like Christ. But through Baptism it is more than merely emulating, putting on an act. It can sometimes feel like this, when we need to be welcoming but don’t feel welcoming, giving when we don’t feel giving, listening when we don’t want to listen. But it is more, because remember: the Kingdom of God is within you. Yes, Christ, Himself, lives in your being. Those who heal, heal in His name. Those who visit the sick do so in His name. Those who comfort the sorrowful, do so in His name.
We all know it can be difficult to minimize our own ways, to be selfless, to let others in, to do what Jesus would want us to do. All of us, every one of us, has selfishness within our hearts. We are human. But John the Baptist gives us a way forward, a way to go through that door into the Kingdom of God. For he says that “Christ must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30.)
The great C. S. Lewis wrote: “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become – because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. . .It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
So it was with John the Baptist, and with all successive saints. They recognized Christ through faith. Yet they did more than this. They responded by telling everyone about Him. They became small to allow Christ in them to become great. As Paul says, ‘When you boast, boast in the Lord.’ (1 Cor 1:31.) And the Psalms say the same kind of thing: ‘My soul makes it’s boast in the Lord. The humble shall hear and be glad.’ (Psalm 34.)
And this is what we are called to do. This is the beginning of the Kingdom of heaven. John is telling us to enter into the Advent season by allowing the light of Christ into our depths, to dispel the darkness with His everlasting light. As St Paul writes: ‘…you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime… put on the Lord Jesus Christ…’
He is asking us to remember that we are sinners, that we are in need of God’s mercy and love. He is asking us to remain open enough, humble enough, attentive enough, to listen for the word of God in our life and respond with love. He is reminding us that God lives beyond our fragile understanding of God – that He will come as the great ‘I am’, the God of the present moment, always new, challenging us to open outwards in love and understanding, challenging us to deconstruct our ego so that we can make room for the Kingdom of God.
Think of our ego, our lack of love, our lack of faith, our arrogance, our unwillingness to bend to the will of others; think of these things as a landscape, a difficult, hilly place of crag and torrent. It is a place of human brokenness, and we all know it, to some degree. And of this landscape, Isaiah is saying:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth…’
And then he says:
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
In other words, Jesus takes on our humanity so that we may become sharers in the Kingdom. And through this selfless act, all flesh is redeemed. All flesh becomes a temple of God’s love. All flesh is freed from the slavery of sin. God arrives in our hearts in a special, intimate way, to make us whole. Emmanuel: God is with us. As the Psalmist says: ‘To you all flesh will come, with its burden of sin. Too heavy for us our offences, but You wipe them away.’
We should remember that He is the agent of this change in us. We must allow Him in. A very holy monk once said to me: there are two weapons to fight darkness. The first is gratitude; the works of darkness simply have no capacity for gratitude. The second is humility, because humility is impossible for the devil. So, to make a smooth, straight way for the Kingdom of God, we remain grateful for our lives, yes, grateful even when we do not feel it. And we take on humility, that powerful landscaping tool that fills in valleys and razes mountains. Because, through humility, we come to be like Christ, who is the exemplar of humility. The idea reminds us about what Christ said about simple faith: “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” We all have mountains to move in our life of faith, and it all begins with letting Christ, the humblest of all, into our lives, and becoming like Him, just as He took on humanity and became like us.
So, let us remember: the Kingdom of God is already alive and active in our hearts. It is a wonderful thought! Perhaps now is a good opportunity to pray to the Master of this Kingdom for which we yearn, as like a deer that yearns for running streams. There is no better text to help us attain the Kingdom than the very words of Jesus as found in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5:3-12). We know them as the beatitudes. There are scant few musical arrangements of these words, but one of the most soulful is by the deeply Christian composer Arvo Part, a contemporary, minimalist musician who strips the music down to allow the words of God to come forth. This is the piece we’re going to listen to now, together. In it, Arvo Part has the choir gradually building in power throughout each exhortation from Our Lord. At the end, the Amen is a cry both of humanity and of God. Yes, the Amen is a message from Christ to us, to take these words to heart, as well as a profound acceptance of His will, on our own part. And then the organ, which has only spoken very softly until now, ends the piece, beginning a soulful explosion of rich harmony, and dying back into the silence of God’s creation: as we go to the furthest ends of the world to carry out His will:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.