Praying with Thankfulness
Beloved Members of St. Martin's,
This week, we get the introduction of another character who is important to the overall narrative of scripture. This week we get the arrival of John the Baptist. Like Forrest Gump, though, John could easily have been an insignificant character from an insignificant place. He certainly doesn’t seem positioned to make a big impression on the powerful or the mighty. Far from being a common man, he seems to be downright weird.
He’s a familiar character to most of us, in our mind’s eye: a wild-haired, wild-eyed man dressed in camel’s hair, which had to be pretty itchy, one would imagine, with a belt around his waist, known for eating a diet of grasshoppers and wild honey—which always makes me wonder if he flossed or brushed his teeth because that just sounds like a dental hygiene nightmare, you know? And that’s also my way of distracting myself from the fact that he ate bugs.
From the stories we get about him, he kept to the wilderness near the Jordan river, because the Jordan was necessary for the baptisms he offered to people. His message could be harsh and abrasive—and yet it seems that people flocked to hear him anyway. But we don’t hear that part of him this week. Instead, we are reminded that John started out as a longed- for baby born to parents who were thought to be too old. And he’s a baby boy whose life will be intertwined with another baby boy born not too long after his own birth.
John himself was seen by the first Christians as
A voice crying out in the wilderness….
Preparing the way of the Lord, and making his paths straight,
Leveling out any obstacle, whether mountain or valley, that might stand between the Messiah and the broadcasting his message of salvation.
John does this by calling God’s people to repentance to turning around their focus and priorities, not half-heartedly, but decisively. What the ancient Greeks called metanoia-- a decisive changing not just of the mind but of the heart, so that we experience reality in a different way. For John’s ministry is meant to prepare us for Jesus’s ministry. They complement each other. John’s radical pronouncements of condemnation and demand for repentance reminds us that Jesus’s message of reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness doesn’t come cheaply.
Jesus comes to restore creation to its proper beauty and balance, but that same beautiful vision meets resistance from the powers of the world that thrive on oppression, division, fear, and chaos. Reconciliation cannot happen unless we own up to and repent—renounce, even-- all that we have done to harm our relationships with the earth, with each other, and with God. Mercy forgives, but in forgiving, there is inevitably judgment. As the Rev. Becca Stevens says, love heals, but in order to heal love also has to reveal the places where there is woundedness and brokenness.
It is this kind of preparation that Advent calls us to make. Starting inside of ourselves. Making what is crooked straight, setting what is turbulent at peace, and turn our focus so that it rests outside ourselves. Changing our emphasis from doing Christianity to being Christians within the same flesh and bones that God sanctified by sending his Son to be one of us. Yet that’s what we’re preparing for. Salvation WILL be visible to us, because it is coming in the form of a little, helpless baby, born in the middle of nowhere to parents who are nobodies, too. A little baby who shows us the spark of God inside us all, grounded in love, in promises made and kept, in fidelity, peace, integrity and wholeness—what our Jewish friends call shalom.