Year C December 6, 2015
The Rev. Stephanie C. Shoemaker
John the Baptist emerges suddenly out of the wilderness, answering his call, wild with the Word of the Lord in his heart and on his lips calling us to get ready to see the salvation of God….to do what we need to do …to be where we need to be to so that when the Lord appears we will know who he is and the salvation he brings. John is not operating in a vacuum. Luke takes great pains to place him in a very specific historical situation, naming names in the cozy system of the Jerusalem power establishment. There was collusion among all segments to maintain their prominence and to control any perceived threat to it from the people by means of cruelty and violence. By contrast, the one who is preparing the way for the arrival of God among God’s people is the son of a person of no particular stature, but someone Luke can also call by name, Zechariah, John doesn’t appear in Jerusalem, the seat of power. He is not a player in that arena. He operates at a distance, on the margins, but speaks prophetically to the center.
Luke emphasizes the idea that this new action God is taking in our history to save us is for all people…all flesh, he says, shall see the salvation of God. His message of salvation is pronounced in a bleak and barren area just across the Jordan River from Judea, outside the Promised Land, but on the edge of it. John’s message offers a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The word translated as repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia that has the dynamic connotation of turning around, changing direction, reorientation of focus…not just passive regret for the past, or contrition. Repentance is an act of will to change toward something, and as such is positive and directed toward the future. John’s repentance was something new—repentance and forgiveness were the province of the Temple in Jerusalem and of its high priests acting as go-between agents for God. John was asking the people to listen to something new in that place where God’s appearance, revelation and direction had brought about change for the people of Israel in the past. It was in the wilderness that Moses saw the burning bush and heard the voice of God giving the commandments and making covenant. It was through the wilderness that the people traveled from exile in Egypt in the Exodus, crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and it was across the desert wilderness they travelled home from Babylon. Now it was God’s word spoken by John across the Jordan to bring people back home from the exile created by sin. John was asking them to repent-to change- as preparation for the changes God was about to bring about in the world for their salvation. The world will be disrupted in new ways…things will be redistributed according to God’s justice. Isaiah’s prophetic images have new implications of a creation altered, remade on a very large scale removing the rocks and debris that make us stumble and fall paving the way to salvation with bridges of forgiveness over valleys of depression and sin and tunnels of hope through mountains of fear. The leveling, straightening and smoothing are both preparation and result. The great mountains of wealth and valleys of poverty will be filled in, leveled, so all may walk through life with enough and with dignity. The crookedness of the distortions of God’s benevolence will be straightened out and the abrasive roughness of suffering will be smoothed from the layers of rule imposed by the systems of empire and culture to the rule of God so all might be able to imagine and to see the salvation of God when it comes to us in Jesus, the one who will remove all obstacles between God and humanity out of love for us.
The setting of today’s gospel is not incidental. There is a critical relationship between wilderness and repentance. Wilderness implies separation, danger, uncertainty and fear. It is a desolate uncivilized place, out beyond our usual coping and controls. When we experience wilderness, we experience vulnerability. It is at these times we are more ready to recognize our powerlessness and dependence…no atheists in foxholes…and it is in these conditions we are most open to hear God’s voice speaking to us…inviting us to turn toward Him and to find life…hope and peace by refocusing our attention, values and priorities. There is tremendous power in the openness of vulnerability. It is the power to touch and to engage the heart and to be touched and engaged. We can love only if we are vulnerable…open to its potential. Love exerts its creative power through trust, respect, forgiveness and generosity. (I experienced this in this past week spent with my baby granddaughter, who captivated my heart through her unselfconscious need and affection, disarming any pretense and engaging me with her loving trust that drew me out of myself, bridging the space between us.) What a contrast with the events we have lived through in the last several weeks of horrific violence and the reaction of fear we feel pervading our world. The world is in many ways a place of wilderness right now…in the scorching heat of uncertainty and threat of danger…in a drought of hope and trust…in the chill of complacency and contempt…dislocated, disoriented and disconnected…not so different from the time the Baptist appeared. When those who rely on the power of destruction and death to sow seeds of terror tear into the social fabric of Paris, one of the most sophisticated and civilized cities in the world, we feel vulnerable. An editorial placed not on the last page of the NY Times yesterday, but on the front page, responded to the latest mass killing in San Bernardino on Wednesday: “All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents in California, it began. Calling it a moral outrage and national disgrace that weapons are readily available to facilitate such horrific outbursts in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and Connecticut in in far too many other places, it exhorts us to hold our elected leaders who place a higher premium on money and political power than public safety accountable, summoning them to action to limit the availability of the guns that are the means for such deadly outbursts and thus to restore some sense of decency in our nation.”
Civilization is letting us down. We are tempted to distrust those structures we have counted on to protect us from malice and evil. We need to hear a voice crying out in this wilderness, the words of a hymn are often that voice for me: the hymn that begins…all my hope on God is founded spoke to me this week he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true :…mortal pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust. But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower. (665)
Malachi reminds the people newly returned from Babylon and lax in their religious practice and commitment to their covenant with the Lord that there is judgment to come. God’s purification and refining are not just for the removal of impurities, but to strengthen them for the righteousness of relationship that leads to right action. Our president, among others, has said…our thoughts and prayers with the bereaved are not enough. To what action for change is God’s justice calling us? Our prayers for openness to discern God’s will that will bring the first and great commandment to bear on our thinking and acting give us the power of love to bear on the world’s tensions and fears.
Advent calls us to the same preparation to meet the Lord when he comes…incarnate in Jesus at Christmas and when he will come again with power and great Glory. That is what John’s voice crying in the wilderness was for, what a baptism of repentance was for, what the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap are for, what our Advent preparation is for—to mark a transition that smoothes the way, a change in our orientation from the layers of rule imposed by the systems of empire and culture to the rule of God so we might be able to imagine and to see the salvation of God when it comes to us in Jesus, the vulnerable one who will remove all obstacles between God and humanity out of love for us.
We can’t predict the future in its specifics or particularities, what event … what joy, fear or sorrow lies just around the next curve or over the next crest of the hill or across a vast barren stretch of dangerous wilderness. But, through the example of Jesus, we can be certain that God’s saving grace is there with us in our all of our vulnerability.