Advent marks the beginning of the Litirgical Year. This year the three year cycle begins with Year A gospels from Matthew. The first week of Advent is always an end of time warning to move us to repent. The first Sunday of Advent gospel was published under the title: “Believe”. This week’s gospel introduces us to John the Baptist as he faces off with the religious leaders of his day. One of the members of this group might have been John, the future Apostle. It was because of John that Peter was allowed into the court hearings Jesus faced just prior to his death. Perhaps this encounter with the Baptist was his first call to become an Apostle
The Baptizer knew his end was near. He didn’t know how or when it would happen, but the Pharisees were always in his face looking to trap him. They would find a way to destroy his work of shaping people for the man who was to follow him. Maybe they didn’t like his attire. Not too many men smelled of camel and leather. But the mantel shared by prophets provided warmth in the frigid desert nights. And the leather belt on his hips served many purposes for a survivor like him.
Finishing his breakfast of honeyed grasshopper, he rinsed his hands in the waters of the Jordan. The river was tinted gold from the first rays of dawn. He looked up a moment his cut features giving him a handsome cast. Gazing eastward his pale eyes caught the sunlight like pools of liquid topaz. The lines in his face, chiseled by a life spent in the desert, deepened with worry over the band of sinners coming toward the riverbank for baptism. Among them he noted the small band of Pharisees sent from Jerusalem. Quickly he splashed water on his face, combed fingers through his auburn curls, and stood up tall, bracing himself for their usual cross-examinations.
“Who told you to flee God’s wrath?” the young prophet addressed the temple leaders, not giving them a chance to start an altercation. He glowered at them letting them know they didn’t belong. Without losing a beat, he scooped water and poured it over the heads of the penitents wading into the river. He allowed the band of Pharisees that shoved their way forward to approach. Among them he saw a new young man, a handsome youth of gentle demeanor. Accepting the possibility that one or the other of the group might be open to the Spirit he studied the boy. Yet he found himself mumbling under his breath, “Brood of vipers.”
The simple folk, ready for the coming of the savior whose herald he was, touched him deeply. Unlike these leaders of the people, they were honest. He knew that his warnings; “Every tree that isn’t fruitful will be cut down and cast into the fire” would not upset them. Though the Pharisees, for whom they were meant were stung by the words, the humble townsfolk took them to heart.
Stung by the quote, a few of the Pharisees turned away in disdain; then a few more. Before the last of them turned to go, the junior member, a teen, came forward and faced him squarely. The tuft of a beard growing on his chin made John smile. Somehow he sensed this youthful temple leader could turn into an ally and friend. His innocence was evident.
John bent down to draw water for the baptism. He begged God for a sign as he poured the the fluid over the boy’s head. When the prophet raised up again to face the newly baptized, a vision intervened. Before him stood a priest of the new order. The cloak of outer appearance obliterated, the youth bore the mark of a priesthood that would originate with the coming Redeemer. This young virgin, he realized instantly, would be among the first to follow the Lamb of God.
As quickly as it had come, the vision ended. The teen stood waiting, his robe hanging loosely over his arm. The baptizer couldn’t help his curiosity. He dared to ask, “Your name?”
The youth answered, “John.”
Matthew 24: 34-47
The mother was worried. She followed her son listening more to his heart than his words. She knew he was depressed. His cheeks gaunt, his expression crestfallen, he no longer taught with his former self-assurance. He was a broken man and the people he addressed seemed to know it. His closest friends dragged their feet as they wound through the streets of the big city. The riotous sounds spilling from taverns no longer brightened the gloom of folks who had attached themselves to him. Even his mother had lost her taste for the busy market hawkers. She looked at her son’s face as they neared the temple and could see his disappointment over the money changers who had returned to its courtyard.
A young wedding party made its way down their path. Her son stepped aside. So did his followers. Once the heady, giggling group had passed he leaned against an awning’s supports as if he were crushed beneath its weight. The crowd with him bunched close aware that he was going to say something. They didn’t want to miss a word. His mother, weary from her inner fears that he would soon leave her sat down on the stoop of the building and cradled her head in her hands. Her son’s faith was blatantly evident and it was getting him in trouble. She had spent her life in silent example knowing that telling people how to live their lives wouldn’t work. Nobody wants to be told to change. Long ago her husband had whispered to her, “Holiness attracts; nothing more is needed.” Her little holy family had lived by that creed.
The mood was suddenly electric. Someone had asked her son about the end of time. Ears perked and eyes fixed on him. Before he gave answer she could see in his drawn countenance that his time was ending, and the crowds didn’t have a clue. Not even his apostles got it. Her stomach knotted as his words fell on her ears.
“People will marry and be given in marriage. They’ll drink and carry on as it was in Noah’s time right up to the day of the flood.”
A tear slipped from Mary’s eye and rolled down her cheek, for she knew Jesus felt like an utter failure. People wouldn’t believe.
Why? I thought. Over and over I searched for a reason as I watched the horror before me. The guy had everything going for him. He was young, he was healthy, he had a million friends, he had a dream. What a dream! Yet here he was dying.
Word gets ’round. I wasn’t really in touch with ordinary events, but I’d heard plenty about the guy with the dream. In fact, the thing that had caught my attention was a fellow inmate yelling sarcastically, “This guy said he’s gonna set captives free.” What a dream that would be, to get out of that stinking jail. I got out alright, but not the way I wanted. What I got out for was to join this man with the dream in a broken illusion.
Why? I asked myself again as I looked over at him hanging there. He didn’t even moan or complain. Not like that fellow next to him, cussing like hell. Now that guy deserved to be strung up. But not this fellow. I kept thinking, he can’t be bad! No matter what he did, he can’t have deserved this.
Crazy world, I thought. Why do these stupid things have to happen? Why do good people, the real heroes, have to die like this? Why couldn’t they go out with some glory, like it was worth it all? Dumb quirk of fate!
I looked at him again. God! He was so peaceful. It must have been that dream of his. I wanted his dream bad, my legs and chest were hurting, and I knew I’d be a gone soon. “Listen,” I whispered over at him, “I want a piece of your dream when this illusion’s over.”
He answered, “This day you shall be with me in Paradise.”
“It’s so dumb; all the gold’s spent on the temple walls and fixtures,” said the husband to his wife.
His sister who had come with them to shop cut in, “Shouldn’t we adorn God’s house!”
“It’s excessive,” retorted her brother. “Such a waste.”
His wife just rolled her eyes. “I don’t think so.”
His complaints burst out regularly. He was always watching every penny that left his pocket. Her family was middle class so she could allow herself the liberty to make occasional offerings. Just recently the religious leaders had started a special fund for temple repairs. Big donors would have their names inscribed in the pillar supporting the . . .
“What are they supposed to do?” asked the sister. “Most of the gold’s been here since before grandma was born. Are we supposed to strip it off; it doesn’t belong to anybody, really. It was donated for God.”
“Like God needs it?” said the man. “What about the poor? I’d rather give money to support them.”
“You? Support the poor?” The wife knew him too well. Her eyes bored through him in rebuke. “You’ve never spend a dime on anybody.”
“But you do,” he complained. “It’s my money, you know.”
His wife had heard the comment umpteen times. He always let her know it was his money. “Half’s mine no matter how you look at it. We’re married, you know.”
The man’s sister laughed out loud then turned red. A young rabbi who was teaching some youngsters nearby looked up. Had he overheard the conversation?
Jesus swept his hand wide across the temple’s façade behind him. “All this,” he said as if trying to impress the three with the futility of their argument, “there won’t be a stone left upon a stone.”
“He’s passing through,” said Moshe. The young Sadducee tucked his stray curl under his turban. “Let’s go put the question to him.”
The partner, gnarled old hands folded on his lap, stared in thought at his silk slippers. He knew the swarthy kid of the Jericho synagogue was still insecure in his knowledge of the Torah. The boy had been his understudy and struggled with the idea of no afterlife. “Go ahead, catch up to the Rabbi and ask him what’s on your mind. The man knows the good book well as I do.”
“Only if you come with me,” said Moshe. Not sure of how to frame such a question he wanted his teacher to back him up. The sly old fox would word things right.
“When are you going to come out of your shell?” asked the learned Sadducee knowing Moshe was looking for an out. “You know I won’t always be there for you.”
A party atmosphere filled the street. A ball rolled across the road with a child ten yards behind. A crowd spilled around the corner. When the people spotted the two men sitting on the stair of the synagogue, they nodded respectfully. The Rabbi at the head of the crowd came forward and greeted the men as if he knew them.
Moshe rose instantly. His arthritic partner huffing against the pain in his joints leaned forward. The Rabbi put a hand on his shoulder to keep him down. The elder Sadducee cracked a smile and said, “Moshe here has a question for you.”
The young understudy’s face blanched. “I . . . I. . .” he stumbled out, groping for a way to ask the big question.
Word had gotten round that this Rabbi believed in heaven and hell. Moshe wanted proof, but he could find nothing in the learned scrolls about an afterlife. He wanted to believe that he would again see his angelic wife who had died the year before. The Rabbi waited patiently for Moshe to gather his thoughts.
The young Sadducee finally came up with a solid premise. He told the rabbi about a woman who had married seven times because one by one each husband had died. He ended his story with, “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
The question lit the Rabbi’s face with surprise. Not many Sadducees had a belief in the resurrection, but this young man’s heart was still open. He answered; “There is no marriage in the afterlife . . . for they are like angels.”
The words gave Moshe new hope. He always knew his wife was an angel; but there was nothing in the book.
To help Moshe, the Rabbi looked straight into his eyes and said, “Moses told us the dead will rise.
Moshe’s memory of scripture failed him.
Jesus encouraged, “At the burning bush.”
The old passages had become too familiar. Moshe just couldn’t make the connection.
Jesus’ lips curled in a smile and he said, “Don’t you remember Moses said it, ‘God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living’.”
Zacheus had loved the man since that day he had come to Zacheus’ home. Their meeting had been one of those rare blessings people always hope for. It all began when he heard the commotion of the crowd coming down the street and wanted to see what was going on. Being too short to see over the heads of the eager people, he’d climbed up the Sycamore tree next to the road to get a better view. And for some strange reason the man who was the center of attention stopped and invited himself to his house.
But all that was some time back. Now Zacheus stood appalled, watching the proceedings. The man he’d come to know and love fell painfully to his knees under the load of the heavy beam he had been made to carry. Why? thought Zacheus, confusion growing in his heart. Seeing the bloodied figure stumble toward the city gate made him feel sick inside. But drawn by love he followed the man to the hill where he was to be crucified.
Zacheus’ thoughts raced, trying to remember everything the man had told him at that first meeting. He wanted to keep his mind busy because the horror of what was happening was too much to bear. But as the soldiers began to drive the nails into the man’s hands and feet, Zacheus reeled with nausea. He leaned against a nearby tree to steady himself. Then, looking up at the man being raised above the ground, he remembered! That day at his house, the man had said—almost jokingly it seemed, “Someday, Zacheus, I will climb a tree for you too.”
It wasn’t a joke, Zacheus thought, and wept.