Judgement as liberation, not threat.
Some years ago a film was made called The Matrix. The story of the film is as follows: the life that human beings think they are living is not real. Their entire lives are imaginary, generated by a computer programme, into which their brains are plugged. The reality is that their bodies lie in cells which keep them alive so that they can generate electricity to power machines which now rule the world. The computer programme which generates the imaginary lives of human beings is called the Matrix.
The film revolves around human beings who have been freed from the Matrix and those who have been born outside of it (in a city named Zion!) Liberating individuals from the Matrix, so that they can then live an authentic life, is a difficult challenge, because they must first face the shock of realising that their entire life until that moment has been artificial. Their muscles must be electrically stimulated in order to learn how to work, because up until then, they have never actually used their muscles.
One of the main characters in the film, named Trinity(!) tries to explain the reality of the Matrix to Neo, who turns out to be a Messiah character. One of the best lines she delivers is to tell Neo that ‘the Matrix cannot tell you who you are’. There are some wonderful parallels between this film and Christian spirituality, and that line is one of them. As we heard today, it’s central to the message of John the Baptist: the life you live is not as authentic as you think it is. And what you have allowed to tell you who you are, cannot tell you who you are. Which means that you don’t really know who you are, and therefore you don’t really know how to live.
John the Baptist takes individuals through the shock of realising that the world isn’t quite what they thought and neither are they. That’s what his baptism by water is – a washing away of their past mindset about the world and themselves.
John the Baptist is to be found in the desert. The desert functions like the room Jesus tells his disciples to go into to pray, where they can engage with God ‘in secret’. It’s free from distractions and destructive voices, which lead us astray. The desert is a place where people can face their inner demons and cleanse their soul. It is where they go to shed the accretions of life and get back to the essentials. More than being in the desert, John is the desert personified. He embodies the Jewish tradition of repentance through being realistic about oneself and the world, and changing one’s behaviour as a result.
The human heart is clever and even willing to deceive itself if it feels threatened, so it needs others to guide it. There have been great figures down through the ages who have carried this role, for example the prophets Elijah and Ezekiel. Wearing clothes made of camel hair, John ‘channels’ Elijah, harasser of kings who were unfaithful to Yahweh. It’s why he eats locusts and honey. The locust was the means by which Yahweh tried to wear down Egypt’s Pharaoh to set his people free, so it became a symbol of God’s judgement – judgement which was never vindictive, but always only to bring about positive change. Eating honey refers to an occasion in which the prophet Ezekiel, in a vision, was instructed to eat a scroll upon which God’s judgement was written, but when he ate the scroll, in his mouth it became honey. The idea being conveyed in this is that our experience of God’s judgement, which calls us to change our hearts and behaviour, depends on our perspective. If we don’t wish to change and instead justify our present mindset and behaviour, then God’s judgement will be experienced as punishment – like a locust trying to devour us, whereas if we allow God’s judgement to show us how we are deluded and clear the path for change, then it will be experienced as honey, sweetness – something enjoyable.
Our experience is usually that judgement is both, but we won’t mind the pain if we have the gain.
One of the questions that John throws at the religious officials (Pharisees and Sadducees) is ‘what warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ This is a key question that we must answer if we are to
change our life for the better. In other words, what fears hold you back?
Behind that fear, lies acceptance of a mindset given to us, which we have adopted as the truth about the world and about ourselves. It may be a mindset imparted by a culture that says you are defined by your achievements, or by how others see you, or it may be a mindset that you have adopted in a hostile environment, such as a childhood in which your worth depends upon pleasing authority figures. From the mindsets that we take on from environments such as these, our identity and resulting behaviour can be driven by fear, so we become a particular person, act in a certain way, to be a somebody. We fear being a nobody, unrecognised, unacknowledged by others.
As the Matrix cannot tell those plugged into it who they really are, neither can ‘the world’ tell us who we are. And I mean ‘the world’ in the sense that it is used in John’s gospel, which is the world in all its ungodly aspects, driven by profit and power at the expense of human beings and the rest of creation.
People went out into the desert to hear John and accept his baptism, because they knew in their heart that he was right. They wanted more out of life. They felt they were made for more. This is because human beings are made to desire to live as God intended, but this desire gets smothered and redirected.
John’s role is to name and expose. He unmasks the powers in society which smother and redirect, and the desires and values in the heart which do it too. There is more here, though, because behind John is ‘one who is more powerful’, more powerful because he can give the life we are meant to live. John can only prepare the way. Jesus waits for John to do his thing and then he arrives on the scene. All that is required is to follow what John directs, in order to become open, so that the divine life within us can express itself.
The knack is to respond to John whenever we hear his call to change our mindset or behaviour. The way we do that is to pay attention and respond to whatever or whoever is exercising the same function that John the Baptist does, which is to challenge and offer to wash away mindsets and behaviours which suffocate and oppress us, making us less than we can be, for ourselves and for others.
When other’s generosity makes us realise we are less generous than we could be, ask ourselves what is behind our selfishness. Are we are clinging to what we’ve got for a no good reason? When our busyness makes us frantic, let the resulting stress be God’s judgement, inviting us to consider whether we are smothering something within ourselves, perhaps avoiding something painful, but in the process, only half-living. Suppressing suffering goes hand in hand with losing passion. Do we find it hard to say no to people? Let the resulting stress be God’s judgement inviting us to be more courageous and choose only what God calls us to, not whatever is asked of us. What are the core desires that drive us? Do they put us in touch with the Ground of our Being? Are we physically grounded? – in the sense of our bodies embodying good values as much as our thoughts and actions.
John the Baptist is the voice of good conscience and that which challenges anything in us that makes us less than we could be. Not all voices which challenge us are good though. We also hear voices which tell us we’re not good enough, that we SHOULD do this and that, voices which hammer us with guilt for past mistakes, tell us we are incompetent, should be afraid and are powerless. That is not what we hear from John the Baptist. One of the titles for the devil is ‘the Accuser’ and that is just how we experience him. He’s not an individual spirit who comes to taunt us, but can feel like that. He is, rather, the sum total of critical assertions and half-truths, which are ONLY negative and destructive. It’s important to differentiate between challenges which set us free to be more loving, generous and creative, and those which diminish us. One type makes us feel uplifted, the other drained. Being fully alive, is allowing the inner fullness (that we call Christ) to overflow in us. It means not being defined by the world or others, but being open to God.