After turning our attention last week to cosmic matters like the end of the world, when the sun, moon and stars would fall and people would be distressed by the rising of the seas, Advent–and Luke in particular–zooms into the particular this week. Like a Google Earth camera, panning through the layers of the atmosphere, Luke zeroes in on a very particular time and place:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Anna and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
You couldn’t hear the word of God in any of the zillion political ads this fall. You can’t hear it in any of the statements released by the White House or the leaders of Congress. Maybe it’s even unlikely to be heard from any of the pulpits or chancels or soapboxes of the church or other religious establishments. “The word of God came – not to any of the political or religious leaders of the time – but the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”
And John went all around that region around the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write that “repentance means to ‘go beyond the mind that you have.’” (cited by Mary Ann McKibben Dana, in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2012, p. 5) Much of what we know today goes way beyond the mind that those who heard John’s message might have had, but the call to “repentance,” the call to go beyond the mind we have is as urgent today as ever. We would do well to consider the ways we’ve become captive to outmoded ways of thinking–about God, about ourselves, about life–and Advent is an opportunity to do just that. That’s why, instead of being coddled and cooed around the manger from the get-go, in the texts of Advent we are shaken out of our comfort zones with end-of-the-world talk and this sharp-edged character of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness.
After all, we and the world are still waiting. Still waiting for … what? Surely waiting for more than the latest iPhone, or the latest winner of the The Voice or American Idol; surely waiting for more than some political leader to solve all our problems..
Advent puts us in feeling-touch with what [one commentator] describes as ‘an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience.’ [Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, cited by Guy Sayles in JP, op cit., p. 13] That ache includes a yearning for hope, a hunger for meaning, a thirst for joy, a need for mystery, a craving for ecstasy, and, most of all, a desire to be known and loved. [Sayles, ibid.]
In the midst of our busyness, in the midst of all our decorations and gifts piled up in closets and attics, it’s all too easy to miss the One we’re waiting for. We’re paying attention to so many other things, trying just to keep up, trying not to disappoint anyone, trying to do what our culture keeps telling us we should be doing this time of year. So we don’t really have time to pay attention to that ache, that other hunger, and if we do manage to get it together to come to church on Sundays, we might be reminded–maybe we perceive it as a rather rude reminder–of just what that ache might be about.
“[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” Even now, this morning, John is calling us to go beyond the mind we have, the mind that may tell us we’re woefully inadequate, God is so far away, God is making a list and checking it twice… Go beyond the mind you have [–repent], be immersed in the assurance and knowledge that God is everywhere, even inside you [the forgiveness of sins is about removing the separation between you and God]. Pay attention. Be made new.
Poet Mary Oliver is a consummate observer, quintessentially paying attention, and she writes, “Everyday I’m still looking for God and I’m still finding him everywhere, in the dust…” The news that God is everywhere, lovingly, searingly, powerfully present everywhere–that news is “garbled,” as one writer puts it, “garbled almost everywhere except the wilderness.” (Sayles, ibid.) It rings true, doesn’t it? that the word of God would come to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, not to the pomp and proceedings of the political or religious establishments.
Zechariah, like almost any father, looked into his infant son’s eyes and saw there infinite possibility–so new, so longed-for, so yet untouched by the world’s brutality. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah sang, “for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them….He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David….And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…”
Some thought John was the long-awaited mighty savior, but here in Zechariah’s song the church affirms that he was the messenger announcing the coming savior. But John’s message is no less a saving message–”Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Go beyond the mind you have, be immersed in the assurance and knowledge that God is everywhere, even inside you. Pay attention. Be made new.” John may have a saving message to the church, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, a church who may need to be called back to the basics, a church whose heart may have been compromised, a church who may have lost our critical edge, softened the gospel, accommodated to consumerism, become cynically accepting of social violence and developed a casual indifference to the poor. “Altogether,” Brueggemann writes, ” [this may have led to ]a dulled faith that cannot well receive the Christmas gift of newness. John, the carrier of costly readiness, is a wake-up call to Christians to get back to the basics of faith, to recover our initial resolve, and to be in a mode of hungry receptiveness.” (Sojourners, Dec. 2009)
That is the gift of John the Baptist, this once Man-child to whom his aged father sang, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John would later cry, echoing the prophet Isaiah. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
…Prepare, prepare [writes Jan Richardson of John’s message].
It may feel like
the world is leveling you
as it asks you
to give up
what you have known.
It is impolite
and hardly tame
but when it falls
upon your lips
you will wonder at the sweetness
that finds its way
into the hunger
you had not known
[“The Advent Door,” Advent 2, 2012]
Pay attention to the hunger. Watch for gratitude. Take time to breathe deeply and be still. Walk
in the way of peace. Go beyond the mind you have. Prepare the way.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark