God, history and community … but what an outfit! Words that could describe John the Baptist as he strides into the opening scene of the Gospel of Mark. He stands there before us with his tumbleweed hairdo, draped in camel-hair skins, popping honey-dipped locusts into his mouth, and howling like the desert wind in his deep baritone voice: “Repent! For the Lord comes.” God, history and community … but what an outfit!
There is truth, and there is falsehood, in this portrait of John. The truth is that John is intended to shock the readers of Mark, to shock our sensibilities. His presence brings a note of discord to the otherwise tranquil harmonies of the Gospel. John is definitely out of place.
But what is genuinely shocking about John is not his weird outfit or his speech. This is the falsehood in the popular conception of him. For he is intended to jolt the readers with a memory – a history! John is not exotic. His clothing is not outlandish, they are the clothing of the past. John is dressed like the prophet Elijah, and the moment when he appears is sobering, indeed. It had the same effect as if Thomas Jefferson were to arrive in today’s Senate chamber waving a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
So … John is not out of this world, he is simply out of sync… but so what? Simply put, if we don’t understand that John represents the past, we also cannot understand what he has to say about the future.
John, like Jesus who came after him, preaches a message of repentance. But, repentance is a slippery word, a weaselly word as someone once said. We cannot fill it with meaning for our own lives until we have come to grips with this character who has stepped out of the pages of the Old Testament … and, into the pages of the New.
The repentance that John preached is not a mid-course correction: it is more radical than that. The repentance John preached is not a denial of the past; it is more complex thanthat.
The repentance John preached calls for a revising of the past … a turning around in our thinking, if you will. It calls for us to look behind, before we dare to move ahead. It calls for us to encounter the past we have lived through … but have not fully experienced, the past we have inherited … but not inhabited, before we enter a future, we do not yet fully understand.
Today John, in his out-of-sync-ness, calls out to us from the wilderness of our own lives – calls out to us from the desert places we have known – very inhospitable places. Even the Bible presents the desert as such. It is portrayed as the home of the Devil. It is where Jesus was tempted by Satan. It was also, the testing place of the Children of Israel in their long, long journey from Egypt to The Promised Land … a lonely, desolate, and terrifying place.
Yet, the time that Israel lived in the wilderness is often looked back upon as the time when Israel was most truly God’s people, the time when Israel most surely encountered Yahweh and submitted to divine leading.
Yes, the desert is a frightening place … dry, wasted and appearing to be lifeless. It is both awesome and threatening, dangerous and inhuman. The desert is a place where we are tempted to doubt God, as were the Israelites; but it is there that we can also meet God and be renewed, as were the Israelites.
If we were to look at the geography of the Bible lands, we would see the importance of the desert, or wilderness areas, in all of the biblical period. Israel is bordered on two sides by huge deserts, the Arabian desert to the east and the Sinai wilderness to the south. Israel itself possesses many, or all, of the physical characteristics usually associated with deserts. And, as we have seen, the patriarchs were well acquainted with desert life. Moses, with the Midianites and Mount Sinai, form the framework and development of the Israelite religion and our own Judeo-Christian tradition.
From then on, the wilderness, or desert, forms the backdrop found in whole, or in part, throughout the scriptures. And, it is out of the desert – out of the wilderness – that the voice of salvation arises.
Isaiah prophecies in our First Lesson for this morning that: “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. Then Mark’s Gospel begins with those words, identifying John the Baptist as that voice in the wilderness, preparing the way!
It is John, in his out of sync-ness, who once again calls us to repent, to turn our thinking around, and remember that it is the God who acts through history and community who brings our salvation. And, it is John whose cry from out of the past reminds us that it is from modern day wilderness experiences that our salvation comes today.
Even in the wilderness period of early America, religion was strong, and it continued to have vitality as people moved westward into an ever-new wilderness. The perils and terrors of the wilderness experience drew people closer to God and divine dependence.
The “voice of the Lord” still speaks to us today out of the wilderness of our own lives … the wilderness of illness or accident; out of the wilderness of bad relationships; out of the wilderness of moral wrongdoing; the wilderness of depression; the wilderness of loneliness; the wilderness of any desert-place that endangers and frightens us. Yet, it is in this wilderness experience that the Spirit teaches us that God is the author of life: we are not.
On this second Sunday in Advent, we are encouraged once again to listen, to listen for the voice of God arising out of whatever wilderness we may be going through. For, you see, there is always a wilderness to cross to get to Christmas.
Mary and Joseph had 85 miles of wilderness to travel, Joseph on foot, perhaps Mary riding on a little donkey; 85 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men of the east came clear across the Arabian desert and the shepherds came out of the bleak Bethlehem hills. God, also, came to us across the wilderness – the incomprehensible distance from transcendence to immanence – to show us the way to live.
And, yes, we too have our wilderness to cross, whatever that may be, and especially during this pandemic, a wilderness to cross to get to Christmas.
Advent is the time to travel those distances, to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to experience our past and our present in a new way, as we prepare the way of the Lord.
I hold out for you, then, that it is from the desert we hear the cry: The Lord comes! And it is from the desert that you and I, once again, hear the promise: it is Christmas that brings joy to our wilderness.