Year B, Advent 2
December 7, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
I love the images that flash through my mind when I think about St. John the Baptist. Most of the Biblical record is a lot grittier, a lot less pristine then we usually imagine. “The Good Shepard.” How bucolic, fluffy white puffs of wool gamboling across the field with the happy shepherd tra-la-laing along behind… I don’t have any direct experience of sheep, but Windy changes clothes to even feed our goats because as neat as goats are compared to sheep, it’s still
a grubby business and we’re not even going to go into the secret lives of pigs. As lovely, rewarding, perhaps necessary to ecological farming systems as it may be, it is not a pristine business, raising livestock. Like the Cross. Look up there hanging from the ceiling. It is beautiful. The cross in my pocket is beautiful. But on Golgotha, at any of the thousands of sites where Roman imperial forces nailed their enemies to crosses, beauty was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The cross is a filthy reminder of the depravity of humankind, the consistent cruelty of the ruler towards the ruled and the eternal and everlasting love of God for a broken creation. So it is with John the Baptist. Nothing tame, nothing pristine about him.
What a figure! Can’t you picture him, dripping with water as he waded about in the muddy Jordan River, utterly convinced about what he was doing, ranting about this that and the other thing as far from pre-modern conveniences as you could get within a day or two walk from Jerusalem? He was dressed a couple of centuries out of fashion in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. He was eating as primitive, as uncultivated, un-(agri)cultured food he could find, locusts and wild honey. He appeared “in the wilderness” undomesticated, on the frontier of civilization and possibility, unconstrained by the boundaries that we who live in polite society live within, hearkening to an earlier age. This vision of him points directly, intentionally for St. Mark’s readers, to the prophet Elijah, the last great prophet of Israel with whom prophecy was said to have ended until the Messiah arose. What a figure!
And if his outward appearance wasn’t wild enough, look at what he was doing: calling for repentance, hearing people’s confessions? Hearing stories people told about themselves about not measuring up, not living as they understood God expects or hopes for them to live? That’s pretty wild. That wasn’t something people did then. (Then again it’s not something many folks do now).
And he offered forgiveness of sins through hearing confessions and what, wading in a river with them, baptizing them? This whole baptism thing was all on John, it was something new. There were other ritual bathing rites in that time and place, the folks at Qumran on the Dead Sea had ritual cleansings, there was the pool of Bethesda in St. John’s gospel, but being welcomed into God’s light through the forgiveness of sins by gift of water, that was brand new.
And John was prophesying. He had the audacity to proclaim, to herald, to announce the word of God. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! The one who is more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals!” He shouted this to all who would hear it, and it would seem that a lot came to hear what he was going on about. That’s a radically humble message, “it’s NOT about me, I am just the messenger” humility being a notoriously uncommon trait amongst popular preachers throughout the ages.
This wild man in a wild place doing wild things and making wild statements. And he got his head cut off and displayed on a silver platter for it. Well, not for what he said but because his truth telling ticked off someone with more worldly power than he… What do we do with John the Baptist in our religious imaginations today? We’re here in Advent, getting ready for Christmas. Its eggnog season; stockings and mistletoe have been hung, or plans for it have been made and there is fresh tie-died toilet paper at the Holiday Market, and young Baby Marcus is about to be the newest Christian in the world for maybe a minute or two. What do we do in this lovely season with the wild likes of John the Baptist? What do we do with the knowledge that Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior was announced by someone as far outside of the fold as the religious wacko John living in the wilderness? Some reports even say he was related to Jesus! Scandalous! What do we do with all of that right here, right now?
Well first off, and very practically, we’re going to baptize young Marcus. We’ll be baptizing with water while God does God’s work in the Holy Spirit. How does it work? Does young Marcus have sins that need to be cleansed away in the waters of baptism? I can’t imagine, but Baptism like all the sacraments is necessarily cloaked in deep mystery. What I do know about the Baptism we offer to Marcus, which is the same exact baptism that John offered to Jesus, is that through it, through the outward and visible sign of water dribbling down your perfect little head you will inwardly and irreversibly be welcomed into the heart of God, joining us, others who have been ordained into the priesthood of all believers. In baptism a path to God is made straight, the ruts are filled in, the uneven ground where you bottom out, that’s been made level. The path to God will be made straight for you in the little drop of water, in the little smudge of oil. In the little words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” That’s one thing we’re going to do today because of John the Baptist.
What else are called to do because of his wilderness ministry? Well, one thing we need to do is consider who it is that we listen to. I address this especially to the young ones among us, and there are a whole lot of you with us this morning as it is a Choristers Sunday and usually you have to/get to miss these little church chats. John looked pretty odd to regular folks. He dressed strangely. He lived very differently than most people, he lived outside, he ate weird food. He said some pretty far-out things, things no one wanted to think or talk about. He pointed out problems that no one wanted to have pointed out, like the church in his time wasn’t doing what God wanted, or the leaders of his country were not doing what was right. It is very sad, but a lot of us don’t want wrongs pointed out, a lot of us don’t want to change the way we do things because it is very hard sometimes to admit that we have been wrong, or that we haven’t been kind or right. Why? Because admitting that something is not right means you have to change it, and it is very hard to change how we do things. (Yes, it is hard, but it actually only seems harder to change than it really is). That is one of the hard parts of growing up: change becomes harder as you grow up, we get used to the way things are. So that’s an important lesson from John: the truth is not always easy to hear, and is often hard to follow.
What St. John the Baptist also reminds us of is that sometimes the truth is told by people that we usually don’t listen to. He reminds us that sometimes we don’t want to listen to some people because maybe they don’t look like us, or sound like us or go to the same schools or eat the same kind of food or go to the same kind of church or any kind of church at all as we do. Sometimes people talk in ways that are hard to understand. (Meaning we might have to work to understand them). Often the truth comes from people who are poor. From people excluded from the table. From people who are African-American or Latino/a. Women. Gay people, trans people. John reminds us that truth comes from many corners, not just from “respected” sources, not just from teachers and priests and police officers and news people and politicians and heads of transnational corporations. Sometimes, usually we, the respectable, are the most invested in the way things are. Sometimes we, the ones people listen to now, are the ones who want things to change the least! So remember that, young folks, those with the most to lose if things change are maybe not the people to listen to for the word of God. I’m just saying…
And lastly, unexhaustively, but lastly for now, another thing St. John the Baptizer is telling us is “It Matters!” What matters? God. Who matters? You: you in relationship with God. How does it matter? Well, the things we do relate to our relationship with God. In particular, according to John, for some of the things we do we need to repent, we need to seek forgiveness. What we do and don’t do, how we handling our mistakes and failings and sins and ways we are distracted from what is right that ALL of us do, that ALL of us fail to do, it all matters. It all matters to God and it all matters to each other. We need to make it right. We need to seek forgiveness.
When we ask for forgiveness, when we receive forgiveness, maybe most visibly when we offer forgiveness, truly the way is made straight to the Lord. For God to us and us to God: it is a main line made smooth as glass with the soft-handed buffing of forgiveness.
This forgiveness can be as simple as helping your sister feel less bad about eating both peppermint patties in the Advent calendar, a completely hypothetical example. (Or forgiving your dad for eating them). Forgiving little things matters. Bigger things matter, too. Like forgiving your parents for all they did and failed to do, from those hurtful jabs, to withheld love, to leaving or not leaving when that would have been best for you. For not seeing you for who you are and not for who they wanted, want you to be. Heavens. How would your life change if you forgave all of that? If you were forgiven for all of that? Forgive the wrong and make it right. And that extends to the wider world, all the way to Eric Garner’s family and friends, forgive the wrong and create the structures of justice that not a single other black man is strangled to death by police with the only arrest being the person who filmed it. The forgiveness that John offered in baptism is that strong. Because true forgiveness happens only in a substrate of justice. This is what John the Baptist has to teach us this Advent.
Oh, and John tells us one more thing. Jesus Christ is coming. Soon. AMEN.