Reformers, such as Isaiah, John the Baptizer and Paul, share a common trait. They constantly try to expand their community's experience of God. Given our insecure human nature, almost all organized religions eventually fall into the trap of conveying the image of a limited God, a God restricted to the boundaries within which the members and leaders of those religions are comfortable.

Even religions claiming to broaden the God-experiences of their adherents must daily confront the temptation to restrict those experiences to events, situations and people over which they exercise control.

Sunday's three readings demonstrate their authors' attempts to expand the very things their communities have been accustomed to limit.

Expanding

Isaiah the prophet, for instance, proclaims a God whose spirit knows no boundaries (Is 11:1-10). It permeates all Yahweh's creation. ``Justice shall be the band around His waist,' Isaiah announces, ``and faithfulness a belt upon His hips.' But lest we think God restricts the relationships which embody this justice and faithfulness to humans or to a chosen group of humans, Isaiah goes beyond our expectations.

First, he applies these qualities to animals. ``The wolf will be a guest of the lamb,' he proclaims, ``and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.' Those who limit their religious relations with animals to a blessing on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi will have big problems with those lines.

Second, Isaiah expands Yahweh's care and concern to more than Jews. ``The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh,' he predicts, ``as water covers the sea. On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for His dwelling shall be glorious.' The God who created all, relates with all. As with the Jews of Isaiah's day, our task isn't to keep God from others, but to be a rallying point for all people's faith in God. God expects us to be sea-faring sailors, not dam-builders.

Similarly, in the second reading (Rom 15:4-9), Paul reminds the Christian community in Rome that Jesus' dying and rising has completely wiped out all distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Here, as in many of his letters, the Apostle liberally extends to everyone the salvation which some early conservative followers of Jesus wanted to limit to Jews.

``I affirm,' he writes, ``that Christ became the servant of the Jews because of God's faithfulness in fulfilling the promises to the patriarchs whereas the Gentiles glorify God because of His mercy.' Because Jesus went beyond everyone's expectation and accepted all people, Paul can tell his readers, ``Accept one another.' If Jesus put no restrictions on love, how can His followers restrict their love?

Changes of heart

Yet, as John the Baptizer tells us in the Gospel (Mt 3:1-12), those who limit God's actions to one people, one religion or one denomination never achieve the one action which God expects everyone to realize: conversion. Confronting those pillars of first-century Judaism, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the prophet warns them that his baptism isn't just an external ritual. ``You brood of vipers!' he yells. ``Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform.'

As with Jesus, John's baptism is an outward sign of an internal change of heart. If these overly pious people aren't willing to do a ``180' on their value systems, then their plunge into the Jordan is a lie.

Individuals of that ilk always believe others, not they, have to reform. That's why John warns them, ``Do not pride yourselves on the claim, `Abraham is our father.' I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these very stones.' What God expects, God can find in anyone, as long that anyone is willing to change.

Our biblical authors constantly call us to break through the boundaries that keep us from experiencing and appreciating God's actions in our lives. Perhaps the first boundary we must break through is our lack of experience and appreciation of Scripture.

(12-03-98)