The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Reflecting El Roi: what should we do?

Reflecting El Roi: what should we do?

By: KAYA WEAVER

Glorify Dance Theatre will premiere a new ballet, Reflecting El Roi, in March 2024 during the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period when Christians prepare to experience Holy Week and Easter and to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Reflecting El Roi uses dance to explore three traditional intentions of Lent: preparation, prayer & fasting, and giving.

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PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED

In last week’s post, Audrey shared how in the practice of dance, every rehearsal or performance is preceded by a warmup. Seasoned dancers repeat the same sequence of familiar movements, ordered with gradually increasing energy level and range of motion, to prepare the body for more difficult or less familiar movements they will need for the work they’re creating. The dancers don’t always know what movements they’ll need to execute later in the rehearsal, but the thorough warmup prepares them for anything the choreographer might ask them to do.

In a similar way, we humans usually can’t anticipate exactly how God will show up in our day or in world history. But for as long as God has related to humans, God has given direction for ordering decisions and daily life in a way that prepares us to respond when God does something amazing and unexpected. In anticipation of one such incredible appearance of God in history, John the Baptist reminds the Judean people living under Roman rule of the way God has taught people to live. The Gospel writer Luke introduces John’s ministry in Luke 3:

1 But in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate reigned over Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip his brother was tetrarch of Ituraea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,

2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

In the Old Testament, “the word of God came” to prophets so they could speak messages and perform sign-acts that would remind God’s people to live faithfully in accord with God’s law and the divine character it represents. Luke says “the word of God came” to John the Baptist and lets the reader know that he is likewise calling people to return to right relationships with God.

BAPTISM AND REPENTANCE

3 And he went to the whole neighboring region of the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…

Luke describes the ritual John and his followers engage in with the word “baptism,” which indicates dipping or immersion in water. The Greek word used here in Luke’s Gospel also appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) in contexts that can help shed light on its significance here. In Leviticus 11:32, items that touch unclean animals are “dipped into water” and then are clean by evening. Washing with water is both an effective means of removing dirt and a symbolic means of removing ritual impurity, or the mark of something that is kept separate from God’s space. 

In 2 Kings 5:14, Naaman, a man with leprosy, “immerse[s] himself seven times in the Jordan” (NRSV) and is healed of his disease. After this he acknowledges the God of Israel and announces his intention to worship God alone (2 Kings 5:15-18). Similarly, in Daniel 4:25, Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and tells him, “you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven…until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will” (NRSV). In each of these cases, a person’s washing with water is followed by their turning to honor the God of Israel.

In the same way that these Old Testament “baptisms” consist of more than a physical washing with water, John’s “baptism” is not just a wade through the water but a symbolic act pointing to a person’s “repentance,” a change of heart and a turn toward God.

WORTHY FRUIT

4 …as is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: 

“A voice is crying out in the wilderness, 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5 Every ravine will be filled 

and every mountain and hill will be leveled, 

and the crooked things will become straight 

and the uneven places will become smooth.

6 And all flesh will see God’s salvation.”

Luke references Isaiah 40:3-5, which uses similar imagery of leveling out high and low geography to make a straight, level path for God’s arrival. Luke portrays John’s “preaching a baptism of repentance” as an event reflecting the truth of Isaiah’s words; the people coming to John to be baptized are engaged in the preparation Isaiah describes, doing something to get ready for God to show up. Isaiah’s words also hint that “God’s salvation” is expected with this arrival. Having supplied this background, Luke goes on to describe John the Baptist’s preaching.

7 Therefore he said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Offspring of snakes, who warned you to flee from the coming anger?

8 Therefore make fruit worthy of repentance; and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as a father,’ for I say to you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones.”

9 But already the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that does not make good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire.”

When the dancers studied this passage, they were surprised at the venom in John’s words; why would he call his followers snake-children when they’ve heeded his call to repentance?! John’s discussion about whose children these people are makes an important point: Abraham may be their ancestor by kinship, but John wants them to examine their actions and see whether the way they treat others relates them to the righteous Abraham or to the deceiving, rebellious snake. Their actions, or their “fruit,” should reflect the repentance they profess in this baptism.

The image of a tree “being cut down and thrown into the fire” puts a choice before the crowd about what kind of people they will be. Will they be like a tree bearing good fruit, doing actions that reflect their hearts turned toward God? Or will they be people who refuse to do life-giving actions toward their neighbors and are cut off from life themselves?

10 And the crowds were questioning him saying, “So what should we do?”

11 But answering he said to them, “The one who has two tunics should give to the one who doesn’t have any, and the one who has food should do the same.

12 But tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 But he said to them, “You should take no more than what is commanded of you.”

14 Now soldiers also questioned him saying, “What should we do, us too?” And he said to them, “You should extort nothing nor harass, and be satisfied with your wages.

People of various professions ask John what kind of fruit is “worthy of repentance,” and he gives them concrete instructions to share what they have, to level the distribution of needed goods among their neighbors or to refuse to exacerbate inequality by using the power of their positions for personal gain at others’ expense. Much as Isaiah exhorts his hearers to prepare for God’s coming by leveling out mountains and valleys, John exhorts those questioning him to prepare themselves by leveling their relationships with others, working towards justice through their everyday actions.

READY FOR REFINING

15 Now since the people were expecting and everyone was wondering in their hearts concerning John whether he might be the anointed one,

16 John would answer everyone saying, “I baptize you with water; but the one is coming who is more powerful than I, of whom I am not qualified to loosen the straps of his sandals; he will baptize you with a holy spirit and fire.

17 His winnowing shovel is in his hand to purge his threshed grain and to gather the grain into his storehouse, but he will burn the chaff with inextinguishable fire.”

Now John explains what the baptism of repentance is preparing people for. John himself is not “the anointed one,” but such a person is coming to bring another kind of cleansing. John’s baptism invites people to turn toward God so they’ll be ready to welcome God’s anointed one into their lives.

This second image of burning lets John’s listeners imagine and anticipate the work God’s spirit will do within them, once they’ve chosen to be “good trees” that won’t be cut down and burned in their entirety. The ideas and practices that don’t reflect love of God and love for others will be burned away like chaff, leaving behind the nourishing grain, a person refined by God to enrich the life of the world.

SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

Jesus is God’s anointed one who arrives in human history to do the most amazing, unexpected thing: to conquer death in his flesh so that we can share in the life of God through his spirit. The new creation and resurrection life are coming; how do we prepare? As John reminds the people of Israel before Jesus arrives in history, God has taught us to seek justice and to act in mercy and love. Choosing to honor God by acting this way in our daily lives prepares the way for God to work in our hearts and further refine us to live more fully into God’s purposes to give life and flourishing to creation.

The season of Lent is an opportunity to reflect: Jesus is coming, so what should we do? What idols should we turn away from? What do we have to give to others? Will we welcome the Holy Spirit to refine us and renew us?

 

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Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation except where otherwise noted.

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