December 8, 2013
Here in Week 2 of Advent, John the Baptist suddenly appears in the Gospel reading from Matthew. But how is the appearance of this “wild man” supposed to prepare us for Christmas? At first blush, it would seem that a man who “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3:4) would have about as much to do with Christmas as a fish has to do with bicycle.
It is helpful to remember that in the Gospel of Luke, John is presented as the cousin of Jesus, the son of Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth. In the Lukan Gospel, John’s birth is foretold by the angel Gabriel to the elderly, childless Zechariah, saying “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). So John is to be the one who goes before Jesus, preparing the way for Him. In order to prepare for the coming of Jesus during Advent, then, we get to spend some quality time with John.
John is not an easy person to be around. He appears “in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matt 3:1-2). Consequently, if the Judeans wish to take John up on his offer of baptism and repentance, they have to go out to the wilderness to meet him. In the Hebrew Bible tradition, the wilderness is that place where no civilized person wants to go. It is the abode of wild animals and demons. There is little to no sustenance there, leaving life hanging by a thread. However, the wilderness was also where the Lord tested the Israelites for forty years in the Exodus story. Walter Brueggeman says that “wilderness bespeaks vulnerability, for without visible life support systems, direct dependence upon YHWH’s care is intense, and anxiety is rampant” (2002. Reverberations of Faith. pp.231). If we are go out to meet John for our baptism of repentance, we have to come face to face with everything that frightens us in our comfortable lives: Lions, tigers, bears and starvation. Chances are, if we saw John coming down the street toward us today, we would contemplate dialing 911 on our smartphones.
In addition, like many saints and prophets, John has a habit of speaking the truth, whether you want to hear it or not. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John to be baptized in preparation for the kingdom of heaven, John barks at them “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt 3:6-8). When the religious establishment comes to John looking for cheap grace and forgiveness of their sins with a quick dip in the water, John tells them how full of $%&!! they are. That’s the problem with letting messengers from the wilderness into our comfortable modern lives. They show us the path to salvation (genuine, life-altering repentance), but they also let us know how full of $%&!! we are. Boy, is that awkward.
John the Baptist confronts us before Christmas, because the coming of the Lord has nothing to do with tinsel, trees and going out to the store to buy more plastic crap for the people we love (then slapping the name of Christ on top of it). The coming of the Lord has to do with taking a hard look at our lives, how we are living on God’s good earth, and then doing something about it. What would John the Baptist say about our lives if we went out to meet him? Are we avoiding him (and the people like him that we see on the street …) because they might tell us how full of it we and our comfortable, scripted lives are? Because they might demand something more out of us than a tepid, once-a-week church service?
If we skip the wilderness baptism because of this, it’s understandable. Most people do. However, we then sentence ourselves to yet another colorful-but-empty Christmas full of running around, eating and buying things … and nothing changes (except our stress level). Maybe this year, we could try something different. Maybe this year we could go to the wilderness and see what God has to say. Maybe we could talk to the poor and homeless and actually listen to them, instead of chucking some change at them and running away. They may tell us we’re full of it … but that might be a good thing.