Watch at https://youtu.be/aPOvM021kKw
Pause a while with me, in the presence of a sacred moment between parent and child, as we hear the final verses of the “Song of Zechariah” from the first chapter of Luke, which we heard last Sunday:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
As we revisit that tender moment, and reconcile these words of blessing with the bellowing baptizer we meet in today’s reading, we are reminded that the preparations and proclamations made by John to ready things for Jesus, are part of a holy process of peace. He may have been shouting in the wilderness, but the goal of these admonitions is awakening in the people a deep desire for Shalom. These words from Spiritual Director and United Church of Christ Minister Nancy Rockwell state it well:
“John the Baptist, ‘Wildman John’ leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below. His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees. He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, the brink of doom. Advent seems too small a stage to hold him.
“He roars because the rugged re-ordering he seeks, is with prim and manicured people in the city he has abandoned. The city, where life is contrived, where truth is artifice; the wilderness, where godly design is discernible still. John is a wilderness man now. And John roars because the crowds that come out to hear him are immense, multi-national, multi-lingual, even multi-faithed…. They come because the Wildman speaks the truth they long to hear.”
I’ve always found it hard to reconcile the story of John the Baptist, with the two Advent Sundays that typically house his story: the (second) Sunday of Peace, and the (third) Sunday of Joy. While an existential experience of peace and joy may well be felt by those who heed the call of the Baptist, he is not by nature a placid or peaceful man; he is, in Nancy Rockwell’s words, a man who roars. He’s a man who rebukes and demands, not someone who allows us to set the cares of the world aside to bask in the joy of God’s beautiful presence. We may well have experienced in our life’s journey, that this kind of truth-telling is needed at pivotal moments of our lives to jolt us out of our rutted road of good intentions – or perhaps even evil intent – into the levelled-down, straightened-out highway that leads to a peace founded in justice.
That is a common pattern of change, true change: you need to be confronted by hard truths in order to give yourself over to the grueling work required by new ways of being. Sometimes it takes the shape of a social crusader like John, both repelling and attracting the general populace with his uncompromising, all-in words and actions. But truth-telling can just as legitimately take the shape of a circle of friends and relatives who are impacted by the addiction of a loved one, gathered around that person for an intervention… or the quiet voice of a First Nations elder, recalling with a mixture of shame and resentment, the abuse they suffered at a child at Residential School and how it has shaped their life since then… or in the midst of greedy or self-centered life choices, a good hard look in the mirror, when you ask yourself, “is this really the kind of person I want to be?”… or a profound health event, like a heart attack or a brush with cancer or a traumatic accident or a collapse of financial security or emotional health, which clearly states that the way things have been will no longer serve, if health is to be found again. We hear the truth and if we find the courage to do so, give ourselves over to new pathways – of sobriety, justice, reconciliation, health and wholeness – whatever God places before us as the road to Shalom. Jesus is the one who will ultimately walk the long, challenging road toward peace-founded-in justice with us, but John does the prep work.
John, drawing people out to the wilderness, uses that barren, challenging setting to deliver a blunt message. While marketing experts might not recommend his approach, he shouts at those who have come to him, “you brood of vipers… turn from your sins! Don’t expect that being children of Abraham will save you from being judged! You’re proud of your roots, but I tell you that an axe will be taken to the roots of those who fail to bear good fruit.” (Lk. 3: 7-9, TEV). His uncompromising words place him firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, those who refused to sugar-coat the truth when people were turning away from God. Clearly, his words rang true for those who came to see him – while his words stung, he wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know. If everything was running just tickety-boo in their lives, they wouldn’t have gone to see John. They were wandering in spiritual wilderness already, now they went to a physical wilderness to find the next steps. They knew that they needed to let go of their attachments to worldly goods; they knew they were supposed to be sharing with the poor; they knew they were supposed to conduct their affairs ethically and truthfully. They knew these things in their hearts, but it wasn’t until this wilderness Wildman confronted them publicly, and in the midst of others who also had taken the very first steps toward new ways, that they found the motivation to actually change, and the ability to recognize the path of Jesus as the next part of this difficult journey.
The shouting of John leads to the person of Jesus, and this might lead us to a false duality, with weird, heavy-handed John battering people in the badlands with the harsh realities and then sweet, smiling Jesus leading them gently down the road of sunshine and refreshing breezes. That, to me, misunderstands both John and Jesus, and misunderstands what it means to commit oneself to the path of peace.
A tradition at Rundle Memorial United Church is the Peace Candle, and with the lighting of that candle comes these words: “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. Peace is what happens when those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little, when the very old and the very young are safe and secure, parents can feed their children and themselves, and all have the opportunity for meaningful work in their community. Let us pray and work for this kind of peace”. Both John and Jesus work toward “this kind of peace” – John, by challenge and confrontation and the baptism of repentance, or “turning it around”; Jesus, by consistently naming injustice, by fearlessly engaging brokenness, by courageously walking and dining with socially-excluded companions deemed inappropriate by genteel society, by the baptism of the Sprit. John takes their breath away, shocking them onto a new path, and Jesus starts them breathing again by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and gets them walking briskly down that same roadway.
There is one more thing I want to name, before bringing this message to its conclusion, a point I have made before but bears repeating. For most Biblical commentators, especially those familiar with the Land of the Holy One, “wilderness” is a term that suggests something terrifying. In the days of John and Jesus, the wilderness was where robbers lay in wait to beat you up on the road, as in the story of the good Samaritan, a place where evil, tempting spirits dwelled, as in the story of Satan tempting Jesus. It was a physically foreboding place “out there” where spiritual emergence might happen, but my goodness, it’s not a place you would voluntarily go unless you really had to.
Here in the Bow Valley, however, many of us love wilderness – it’s one of the things that drew us to live here, rather than someplace else. Multi-day hikes or canoe trips, tramping through unknown wilds on snowshoes, or skiing in the back-country are wilderness experiences where many locals thrive. Being out in the middle of nowhere is one of the places where we encounter the holy. So while our Biblical account of John the Baptizer may picture wilderness in the more typical manner, as a difficult place where it’s hard to get your bearings, many hearing this message today may well hear the word wilderness in a positive light, a place to get away from the falseness of civilization to restore the soul. Whether we picture wilderness as a difficult place, or as a place of solitude and spirit, this much remains true: we are most able to hear John’s challenges to our lives – God’s own challenges, when you come down to it – when we enter into wilderness. When we drop the polite excuses that keep us frozen in place, and enter into a wild, uncivilized place, we allow ourselves to be confronted and conformed by God, through the preparatory work of John and the purposeful journey with Jesus.
John the Baptist is clear: he is not the promised one. But he knows the one who is, and loves him, and will do everything in his power to get us ready for him. Zechariah knew this, John knew this, Jesus knew this. May we know and experience it as well, in our lives. Amen.
Rockwell, Nancy – http://biteintheapple.com/wildmanjohn/
Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff AB. Peace Candle Prayer. Source unknown.
(see also) Tannehill, Robert C. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Vol I. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
© Rev. Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, 2021.