While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called "the Baptizer," was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here."
John and his message were authorized by Isaiah's prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It's your life that must change, not your skin! And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.
"I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I'm a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."
We live in an era where “Performative Activism” is the way of the world. Have you heard that term before? It was relatively new to me a few months ago. I don’t know if my friend, Todd, coined that term or if he picked it up somewhere but it’s very poignant.
Something happens and people change their social media profile picture or they post a particular image on Instagram. Maybe, they go ahead and sign an online petition. Perhaps they go so far as to write a pithy and stinging social media post.
Afterwards, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.
In reality, nothing has changed.
When we practice performative activism we are no different than the religious leaders in the story above.
They saw the winds of change. The mood of the people was to go out to John the Baptist to be baptized and have this experience of life change. The people were looking for something authentic and real in their faith. In John, they saw that. So they flocked to the Jordan River to be baptized by this crazy person. The religious leaders took note and realized that it would be in their best interest to follow suit. So, they showed up at the river banks to put on a show for the people.
John was not amused.
“Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It's your life that must change, not your skin! And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
Beyond calling them a “brood of snakes” did you catch the other line? The more important line? “What counts is your life.”
You can put on an act and it doesn’t mean anything.
You can click a button, post a picture, or change a profile image, but unless you’re doing the work inside you then you haven’t done anything.
We can see very clearly the people who are just changing their “skin.” Do you know how to spot them? They’re the folks that simply trade one skin for another. They move from one fundamentalism to the next. They were outraged about one thing, drop it, and become outraged by the next thing. When you start paying attention you can see the lack of subversive-gracious-love in them at every turn.
The question we need to wrestle with is this: Are we actually changing the person in the mirror? When you come across injustice, hatred, or the like, are you taking the time to work through those issues in yourself? Because, they’re there. At the same time, are you acting in real life to make changes to confront the injustices you see? Or are you all talk, all words, all performative action?
Far too many of us reflect the “deadwood” of the religious leaders.
My prayer for us this Advent is that we would move beyond performative activism to a subversive-gracious-love of God, neighbor, and enemy.
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