When my son, Jacob was eight years old, he was in the kitchen with me while I was making him a bologna sandwich. He said, If I bought that bologna with my own money, I’d eat it all in one sitting. I responded that this wouldn’t be very good for hi sbody. Without a thought, Jacob quipped, What do I care? The afterlife is right now; the afterlife is the same thing as your first life.
Isaiah says, And a little child shall lead them.
A little child shall lead us because as Jacob demonstrated in that one brief conversation, and as I’m sure you’ve heard from children in your own life, children intuitively understand that all of life is one. They have not yet developed a divided consciousness—an inner self and an outer self, an ego that needs to be defended and preserved, a sense of separation from the physical world and the spiritual world, from this life and eternal life, from us and the “other,” from brown skin and white skin, from humanity and God. The afterlife is right now.
Isaiah holds out for us a vision of complete union in creation—the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls this characteristic of children “unitive consciousness with God”—and it begins to diminish around the first grade as individual awareness increases. This is why in the Catholic tradition, says Rohr, they give them their First Communion in first grade—to repair the breach between them and God, to get them back into the Garden of Eden, into oneness with God, when we all knew and understood that all of life, and creation and all of humanity are One with God.
Isaiah’s vision reveals that the divisions in this world—even in creation—between the predator and the prey, in the earthquake and tsunami, and even in death itself—are a result of the brokenness of sin, a sin and brokenness that permeates and manifests itself in human life through divisions and walls of separation more numerous than we count.
Onto this scene comes John the Baptist in our Gospel reading—he’s as One with Creation as anyone can be who lives in the wilderness of the middle east. He wears and eats and lives wilderness—he’s become one with creation and he sees that the separation and divisions of this world are against God’s purpose and God’s will as does Isaiah.
John’s message of fierce judgment in Matthew calls for humanity to repent of its sin—of its divided state—from God, from each other, and from creation in order to prepare for Jesus’ reign, to prepare for the One who will bring humanity back into unity with God, with each other, and with all of creation.
Perhaps this explains why John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers! For aren’t they the very ones who have structured the divisions and strata of society and claimed it to be by God’s will and design: the clean and the unclean, the Jew and the Gentile, the pure and the impure, those who are righteous and those who are not, those who have made their sacrifices and those who have not.
The religious elites proclaim and enforce the belief that division and separation and oppression and privilege are the very nature of God’s purpose, the very character of holiness, the very order of creation—a structure that always leaves them on top, and so many people divided and oppressed and left out.
Even the apostle Paul in in Romans is struggling against these divisions between Jews and Gentiles in the church in Rome. Paul writes to bring unity in the midst of their cultural, historical, and spiritual differences, Welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you.
John the Baptist gets us ready to welcome Jesus and his kingdom which will bridge the gap between God and us, between us and “them,” between humanity and creation. For Jesus entered the biggest chasm we have—that of death itself and conquered it for all time that we might be made One with God again—that our “unitive consciousness” with God might be restored as our sins and all the divide us are redeemed.
For John, our entrance into this new reality, the unitive reign of God in Jesus Christ, is Baptism. "Repent!” announces John! Change your thinking, let go of your divided mentality, and enter into the unity that Jesus brings—a reign where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the Gentile shall eat with the Jew, the outcast shall worship beside the elite.
Then John lays out a three-fold Baptism to bring us into union with this new reign of Jesus. I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! Why are we baptized with water, the Holy Spirit and fire?
First, we baptize with water as a sign of “cleansing and rebirth” our baptismal service says. This part we get! The waters of baptism wash away our divided thinking, our old ways of doing things—it cleanses, purifies, and scrubs away the old self. Through water, we enter into the whole body of Christ; it’s not just about me, but we’re all together, floating in the same ocean of living water bound together by Christ himself.
But then John says Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit! The very same Holy Spirit Jesus received in his own baptism! Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. As the Holy Spirit alights on him, God’s voice from heaven announces, This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Jesus offers us this same gift at our Baptism which we celebrate with two children today. God says to them and us: you are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God views you with favor and delight. God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance.
Have you noticed that the most difficult times we have in living in unity with others, is when we feel unlovable and unworthy and insecure? Have you noticed that the bullies you’ve encountered in life push people away and harm others to hide the truth that they do not feel beloved by God or anyone?
But what happens inside of you when you receive this gift of grace? You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased! God loves you unconditionally with total acceptance. It changes everything, doesn’t it? I don’t need to prove myself, to defend my ego, or denigrate others when I receive and accept this gift of grace in my Baptism. It’s why Martin Luther wants us to remind ourselves every day that we’re baptized—that God’s grace and gift of the Holy Spirit is for for me, Linda, by name, and for you Jeff, and for you, Lisa and all of us by name. Such a daily practice can restore that childlike wonder and love, and bring us back to unitive consciousness with God.
Finally, John talks about Baptism by fire! Once we’re cleansed and grasp a new vision, once we’re loved unconditionally, then the real unity comes. Through love, Jesus burns away like chaff that which is not fit for the kingdom of God. And in this Baptism by fire, John foreshadows the risen Lord sending us the fire of Pentecost after the resurrection–remember? Divided tongues as of fire rest on the disciples so that everyone hears the good news being preached in their own language! The baptism by fire at Pentecost burns away divisions and brings all people, all cultures, all nations together hearing the Gospel of Grace in unity with one another. The baptism by fire enables us to see that God creates and loves all people, that Christ came for all nations. Every moment that we live in the union God intends, we are participating in the unitive vision of God spoken by Isaiah and the body of Christ Paul preaches in Romans.
This is the one thing my son Jacob at age 8 didn’t yet understand. When I told him that eating a whole pack of bologna wouldn’t be very good for him, he said, what do I care if this life and the next life are one? He thought that how he behaved now didn’t matter. A little child shall lead us, but it’s our job as the Church, to teach them that how we live now does make a difference—to other people and to God.
In this season of Advent, we prepare not only for the arrival of the babe in Bethlehem, but for Jesus to come again and to bring to fulfilment, our complete union with God, with creation and with all of humanity. And until that day comes, God calls us to be ready when Christ returns, by living in this beloved and baptismal unity here and now. For the afterlife is right now.