In our lectionary we are in Year B, so we read from Mark’s gospel today about a man called John the Baptist.
Mark’s gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear. There are no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, no wise men from the East following a star, no big-eyed animals standing around a manger. The gospel writer, Mark, either does not know about those things or else he does not care about them. For him, the good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness of Judea with an old-timer prophet named John, the first real prophet to turn up in Israel in 300 years.
He is dressed in a camel’s hair robe with a leather belt, the exact same outfit Elijah wore 800 years before him. His hair and his beard look as if they have never been cut and he is scraggly, skinny as a rail. Surely this is a statement of some kind. This man was a messenger, predicted by Isaiah, dressed like Elijah, a prophet in the classic mold.
Maybe that is why people flocked to him; I’m not sure, but everything I know about John makes me think I would have gone out of my way not to encounter him. He sounds too much like those street preachers in the city that tell you you’re going straight to hell if you do not repent right now, (and of course they are the only ones who know what you are supposed to do). Only, there is one big difference between them and John.
Self-appointed prophets tend to plant themselves right in your way so that you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. They get in your face, but John planted himself in the middle of nowhere.
He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there, maybe borrowing the neighbor’s donkey or setting off on foot with enough water for the journey, which led down lonely trails thick with bandits.
You have to wonder why someone should do a thing like that, especially someone from Jerusalem, which was where the temple was, and where the rabbis were, where the Jewish religion was established.
If someone wanted to hear from God, why couldn’t they just stay in the city, talk to the chief priests? It sounds crazy for anyone to set off for the wilderness looking for something else that the city and the temple couldn’t supply.
But John had something weirdly unique. He seemed to be repeating what God was saying to him right at that moment, one sentence at a time. He did not have many details. He did not know the name of the one who was coming, nor what he looked like, but he knew that the old was about to end and a new world was spinning toward him, carried in the arms of God’s chosen one.
A new world was coming, built out of new materials, not the rearranged stones of the the old religion. The Holy Spirit had gotten all but covered up in Jerusalem with pretend piety, and temple taxes, and priestly hocus-pocus. The flame of the Holy Spirit was all but snuffed out under the weight of all the pomp, so God moved it out into the wilderness, where the air was sharp and clean, out under the stars where it was fanned by the most socially unacceptable character anyone could imagine. Dressed in animal hair with a piece of tanned hide around his waist, his breath heavy with locusts and wild honey, (really what do locusts smell like and who eats locusts?). John proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not simply enough to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready, to prepare the way, so that when he came he could walk right to their doors.
That was the good news that started with John. He was the messenger, and the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness. People were drawn to him, apparently not just because of who he was and what he said, but also because of what he offered them — a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again, by allowing him to wash them off. The bath, the baptism, was his own idea. There were not any rules about how it was supposed to be done. The rabbis had not okayed it. It was just something John offered those who came to him — even women who were not allowed into the inner courts of the temple; even well-known sinners who would not have dreamed of trying to get inside. John’s baptism bypassed the temple and all its rites. Setting up shop in the wilderness, he proclaimed his freedom from so-called civilization, with all its rules and requirements. He called people to wake up, to turn around, so that they would not miss the new things that God was doing right before their eyes.
The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering in Mary’s ear, or a parent telling a child a story, or a skinny prophet standing knee-deep in a river. What is unusual is that this messenger, this John the Baptist, is that he was not connected to the traditional temple, and those who insisted on staying inside the traditional synagogue, never heard his message. Only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom, and many of them were still there when the spectacular someone arrived, far from the civilized center of town.
I imagine every one of us has some idea where our own wilderness lies. We probably have our reasons why – a long list of reasons why we should not go to the wilderness. Maybe you lost your job, or someone you loved. Maybe you or someone you love became ill, maybe you think you or your children are on the wrong path. We are comfortable where we are, after all. We know the ropes and we know we will be fed. Why should we hunt for God anywhere else? It’s hard to imagine, except that that voice in the wilderness calls to us, the voice you can’t quite make out from here. But we have a holy longing that shows up in some of the most unexpected places.
We don’t want to miss something important that God is saying. The good news is always beginning somewhere in the world, for those with ears to hear and hearts to go wherever the way may lead. (adapted from a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor in Home by Another Way, Boston: Crowley Publications, 1999).
John says “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his path straight. Be baptized in the Holy Spirit! Jesus is coming.”
Perhaps today you can hear the voice of the messenger John telling you to prepare for the coming of Christ into the wilderness of your heart.
Please pray with me…In this time and season of Advent, of wilderness preparation, hear our prayers, O God. Hear our cry, that we may be receptive, to your voice as it is raised in unexpected places and persons; hear our desire, that your spirit may tune us to the sound of your voice among and within us, that we may recognize your call and go where you may lead us; hear our yearning for prophets in church and in society, gifted by your Holy Spirit, to hear the call to repentance and the grace to welcome. In this time and season of Advent, let us straighten our crooked ways and lift up your beloved creation and community that longs for your coming. In Jesus Christ we pray. AMEN