A quick search for at chron.com confirms my suspicion: tis the season for redistricting. Sunday’s Opinion section had a great visual of how important redistricting can be in swaying votes one direction or another. On Friday the Houston Chronicle editorial talked about Texas’ “improper standard or methodology” for redistricting that did not adequately “reflect the interests of voters.” All parties are up in arms to gain as much as they possible can. I understand that. But what’s really at stake is fairness, equality, and democracy. John Branch‘s cartoon from the San Antonio Express-News captures what seems to be going on right now.
I bring this up because redistricting -or something like it – is at the core of the Advent season. All four of the gospel story tellers quote Isaiah 40:3-4 to define and defend the ministry of John, who came to prepare the way for Jesus.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
In other words, his job is to change the landscape. What does redistricing mean for this Gospel prophet?
The first thing he does is show up in the wilderness, dressed like a weirdo, or at least an outsider. Both are things that stamp him as being on the margins of society. Jerusalem, the city, the temple, the palace, they were the Centre, where all the power was. The ancient Jews saw Jerusalem as being at the very center of the universe, the locus of God’s activity. Everything good came from the Centre; including all meaning in life. Margins were for outcasts and social deviants.
But this is precisely where John shows up! Under the downtown I-45 viaduct looking homeless, powerless, and out of place. And here, at the margins, he does and he says something extraordinary: He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
We moderns read right over this not knowing how forgiveness operated in 25CE. You didn’t kneel gently down beside your bed and pray the Lord your soul to keep. No! You had to take days to travel to Jerusalem, to the temple, and buy an expensive animal, and pay for it to be killed at the right time in the right way by the right people. How are sins forgiven? Sins are forgiven at the Centre, by the seat of power, by practicing Temple Piety. It didn’t happen at the margins, in the wilderness, or where most people actually lived. Only at the Centre.
Forgiveness of sin was a major business. A Religious-Industrial Complex you might even say.
But this message of forgiveness from John? This… was not that!
The Margin is not the Centre.
John is not the religious establishment.
Baptism is not expensive Temple Piety.
Religiously. Financially. Politically, John has just turned the world upside down. In doing this he fulfills the very content of the message Mark was preaching as narrator. Level the playing field. Down is up, up is down. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
To those on the margins, his was a message of Comfort. “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
But to those in the Centre, his was a message of repentance: “every mountain and hill will be made low.”
And I’m drawn to John’s integrity: what John says is supported by what John does. The two can not be separated. John didn’t just walk the streets shouting and singing “Comfort.” Oh my no. Had he done only that, history would not have shined on him. No, he rearranged the orders of society in such a way so that people not only heard comfort, it was their reality as well. Comfort was the new order. And everyone was invited to live into this new reality.
What is perhaps most intriguing is who responded to John. From “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem…” From the margins and from the centre people came streaming to hear news that is good for everyone, for all of us. In other words, both those who had a lot to gain from John’s redistricting plan and those who had a lot to loose responded to the good news of comfort and equality for all.
Will it be the same for Texas? Will we see redistricting in light of the advent story, and allow power to be shared with those in the margins?
Whether you come from the Margins or the Centre the message is the same for us all: God’s mission of justice and human flourishing changes the landscape of our world. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, raise valleys, lower hills, and challenge the ways we’re accustomed to living