About a year ago, I preached in one of the bigger United Methodist churches in Quezon City. It was on the Beatitudes text which begins with “Blessed are the poor…” The gist of my message was on how Jesus always takes the side of the poor and how the richest in the world must become poor so that the poor may live. After the service I was surrounded by a number of people who were expressing appreciation for my sermon, but one man about seventy years old came up to me and said, “That is the most terrible sermon I have ever heard.” My daughter Lauren heard what he had said and began confronting the man saying – “It takes a certain person to understand and appreciate that kind of sermon.” Ang taray di ba! So if you want to say that my sermon is terrible, just make sure you don’t say it where my children can hear you.
Most of you do not know it but I am a seminary professor teaching Christian Theology, Christian Ethics, Ecumenics and Feminist Theology. Last month, on the 109th anniversary of UTS, I received recognition for having served UTS for a decade. Ten years. Recently, one of my female students wrote a tribute to me on Teacher’s day saying, that at the beginning whenever I lectured in class, pinagpapawisan daw ang kili-kili niya at umiinit ang puwet niya. She started out as a very conservative student at UTS and she said she even whispered a prayer sometimes, asking God to protect her from my teachings. So if you feel any discomfort in the course of my preaching, it’s perfectly normal. That is the initial effect I have on some people.
But I assure you, I did serious research on the Bible text and am committed to the people of God and our nation, the Philippines, and it is for these reasons that I submit to you this morning my interpretation of the text. I hope that even if you feel that my sermon is not comforting or entertaining, you will seriously think about it.
The lectionary reading for this morning from the Gospel according to Matthew is preceded by the massacre of infants after the three wise men did not return to Herod after they found the baby Jesus in a manger. It was a time when children were not spared by those who have authority just to ensure that they remained in power. Many of us find satisfaction in the knowledge that the infant Jesus escaped from this killing because it validates his superiority and divinity. However, this morning I would like to emphasize the political, economic and cultural environment under the Roman Empire or the Kingdom of Rome. It can be described as oppressive, unjust and violent. Human rights were violated on a daily basis. Jesus himself experienced it because Jesus was a refugee, his country was a colony of the Roman Empire, he was born in a space for animals, and he and his family experienced oppression on a daily basis. If we cannot imagine how that looks like, we can look at videos in the internet of Syria, Palestine, Rwanda and even in America where black and Asian peoples experience racism, militarization and blockades and are denied basic provisions like food and water, have their homes demolished or bombed without anyone held responsible, and live in fear because at any time, they cannot keep their children safe because even their homes can be invaded. Jesus and so many children today, have suffered under the empire.
Our lectionary reading is not about Jesus. It is about John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way. Despite Jesus full divinity, he needed companions, co-sojourners, advocates, and yes, prophets to be with him. I wanted us to look at this narrative on John on three categories, three Cs: character, confrontation, and commissioning but as I wrote my sermon, John’s character is so interesting and I wrote so much about it that I had to put aside the two other topics.
What was the character of John the Baptist? What we know about him from the text are two things: his speech and his appearance. It is only in the Matthean text that we find the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” In fact, it is used 32 times. In Mark and Luke, what is used is “the Kingdom of God.” I really do not know the difference but both the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are central in the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. Let me repeat that, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are central in the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Nowadays, we speak about Jesus as savior and forget about the kingdom of God, or we speak about John Wesley and the United Methodist Church and forget about the kingdom of Heaven. We proclaim our Christianity and denounce other faiths but do we preach about the Kingdom of God? We express our loyalties to Marcos, Duterte, or Aquino, or even to Hillary, but is the kingdom of God part of our speech? We talk about revivals and building churches, mission and evangelism, bible studies, devotion and prayer, but is the rule of God as a present reality and a future hope part of our speech? We say so many things about what we stand for and what we believe in but are we speaking about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven? If we are not, we have to. Because John and Jesus did.
And why did Jesus and John speak repeated about the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God? First, let us talk about the Roman Empire. Side bar, Rome used to be the most powerful state in the world. Today, there are at least two: the U.S. Empire is known as the greatest nation in the world because of their military power. China, on the other hand, has an economic empire. They practically manufacture everything and export their products all over the earth. Going back to Jesus and John’s time, Rome had military and economic power.
In the Kingdom of Rome, Augustus Caesar, the emperor of Rome, is Lord and the son of God. On the other hand, in the Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ is Lord and the Son of God.
In the Kingdom of Rome, people must be faithful and must obey Augustus Caesar. But in the Kingdom of God, people must be faithful and must obey God. Only God.
In the kingdom of Rome, Roman Peace or Pax Romana meant peace and order. Peace and order meant punishment and even death for those who question or resist. On the other hand, in the kingdom of God, peace meant the peace of Christ. And the peace of Christ meant food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, healing for the sick, forgiveness for the sinner, and liberty to the imprisoned.
It is no wonder then that John the Baptist was later beheaded and Jesus was later crucified. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven goes against all earthly authority and power, especially the kind who do not genuinely serve God and serve the people.
Today, what do John’s words, “the kingdom of God is at hand” mean for the the Filipino People?
Is it about punishing and even killing all the drug pushers and drug lords in our nation?
Is it about exposing the corruption in government and weeding out those who do not serve the interests of the people?
Is it about “moving on” on the Marcos burial issue?
Is it about the bilateral ceasefire between the government forces and the New People’s Army?
Is it about shaming and publicly humiliating Leila de Lima when we know that many of those men in Congress and even the senate are guilty of the same offenses?
After some serious reflection on the question what do John’s words, “the kingdom of God is at hand” mean for the the Filipino People today, the closest thing I could think of is the peace talks between the Philippine Government and the National Democratic Front. The peace talks is not just about a ceasefire, or about freeing political prisoners. Because even if we take away everyones guns or free all political prisoners, but the majority of the Filipino people remain hungry and poor, there is no peace. For those of us who are not knowledgeable about the peace talks, they have already had two meetings in Norway. The third one is set in January and this one will focus on CASER or the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms. The CASER is the so-called “heart and soul” of the peace talks because it will impact the lives of the Filipino people, especially the poor. It includes the discussion on national industrialization which will create jobs and help the economy, genuine agrarian reform which will help food security and give farmers land to till, healthcare for all, education for all, etc. Food, jobs and just wages, education, healthcare, dignity and freedom – all these are the concrete manifestations of genuine peace. And for suffering Filipino People, many of whom are just outside our church, these give meaning to John’s pronouncement “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So let us pray for the peace talks and let us learn about it and how we can contribute to the fulfillment of its objectives. Ultimately, it benefits us all. And perhaps we can have more hope for our children and our children’s children when we re-build our nation based on equality, common good, and justice.
Second, the appearance of John the Baptist also exhibits his character. The text says and I quote, “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Well, obviously, if John lived today, he would be thought of as weird. I do not even know if he would come to our church. Analyzing his appearance, I would say he embodied subsistence and selfless living. Today, we are so engrossed with accomplishment, stature, honor, and success, which must be evident in what we wear on our bodies, our hair, our faces. It must be exhibited in the kind of car we ride, the kind of phone we use, the brand of our bags and shoes, whether we speak the English language or not, or even where we are able to send our children to school. John would have dismissed all these as his appearance exhibited subsistence. Meaning, he lived by minimum standards and denied himself any luxury or excess. Even his diet consisted of what could be harvested in the wild or wilderness. It is hard for many of us to imagine a human being living the way John did in Jesus’s time. But there people living like that. The fisherfolk who fish from day to day, and farmers who plant from season to season, live like that. The Lumad and the Aetas, whose lives are so connected to the land and will die defending their land and community live like that. Many human rights advocates, teachers, and nurses working in the Philipines in low paying jobs, even if they have opportunities elsewhere, live like that. Like John, they no longer desire to enrich themselves. Their riches do not come from material wealth but come from the fulfillment of living meaningful lives that contribute to the quality of life of their community and our nation
Now, I want us all to dwell on the question – what must we do today to “prepare the way of the Lord” as John did? As a spiritual and cultural leader, John preached in the wilderness and was never in the centers of power. Actually, he was beheaded by King Herod. As a servant of God, he did not serve as a priest in the temple but baptized in the Jordan River where he received no offerings or tithes. Today, as a church and as individuals, we are compelled to take the side of the powerless and not the side of those who have power. Furthermore, we are challenged to reach out to communities, families and children and not build for ourselves anymore cathedrals or big churches. Can we support more children to get an education? Can we commit to feeding, relief and rehabilitation programs for children and their families? Can we help those affected by typhoons and climate change to rebuild not just their homes but their lives? Can we commit to HIV-AIDS education and gender sensitivity to protect and empower our youth to make responsible choices? Can we speak against human rights violations and corruption every time we encounter and see it? There are so many things we can do and it begins with stepping out of our churches and leaving our comfort zones. John the Baptist and even Jesus modeled this and we can do the same intentionally and little by little.
In summary, John the Baptist, the one who baptized Jesus, who forgave people and baptized them in the Jordan River, known as a holy man even by Herod and was eventually beheaded for speaking the truth against those who have power – is a model of true obedience to God and true service to God’s suffering people. He challenges us to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and possible in the here and now. And we who call ourselves disciples of Christ and servants of God must “prepare the way of the Lord” where we are – in our families, workplaces, and as citizens of our beloved country, the Philippines.
Finally, the lectionary text is followed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit of the grown Jesus by John where the Spirit of God descended as dove on Jesus. According to the text, a voice from the heavens was heard saying “This is my beloved son in who I am well pleased.” And then in the next chapter, there is the narrative of Jesus being tempted in the desert, and then the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and then his calling of the first disciples. The Gospel of Matthew does not waste any time sharing about the childhood or the teenage years of Jesus. After his birth, he is baptized, tempted and immediately begins his ministry. In the text, you feel that there is a sense of urgency to tell immediately that Jesus was called to do something that could not wait. Jesus responded immediately to the urgent political, economic and social issues of his time. While most Christians want to talk about the divinity of Jesus and how he is again superior to human beings, we have to remember that Jesus became fully human. He was immersed in the human condition of hunger, poverty, and suffering.
We must realize that God came to earth to become human. God had to become human to transform the world. God had to become human to save the world. In the fullness of Jesus’s humanity, he went to the poor and hungry, the political prisoners, the workers and the farmers. So every time we turn away from the world and talk just about heavenly and spiritual things, we must remind ourselves that Jesus was immersed and responded to the brokenness and cries of humanity. And if Jesus were alive today, he would be with farmers and indigenous people in the rural areas, with the workers in the picket lines and protests, with the poor and sick who are lined up in the out-patient department and charity wards, with the political and poor prisoners who have to face trumped up charges or have no money to hire a lawyer. In the gospels, Jesus went to the temple only twice in his lifetime. Jesus spent his ministry going where people are struggling and crying out for life. This was how Jesus proclaimed and embodied that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
As we take part in the communion this morning, take the bread and the wine to remember the ministry and life of the Christ who came to be one of us, let us reflect on how we can be a part of ushering in just and lasting peace for the Filipino People, and the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Art by Tamara Adams