Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3)
Have you ever noticed that there are really just two protagonists in this season of Advent: John the Baptist (as in “you brood of vipers”), and Mary (as in “be it unto me according to your word”).
The strange thing is, that logically the pairing of these two doesn’t make much sense in this season leading toward the birth of Jesus. Mary, sure … as mother of Jesus, it’s obvious that she should figure as one of the main actors.
But John the Baptist? As we’ll be reminded in next week’s readings, he was actually exactly the same age as Jesus: as we will hear, the pregnant Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting, and the child in her womb (none other than the future John the Baptist) jumped for joy at the meeting.
Yet as we heard today, John gets a major role even before Jesus is born, as if he were already on the scene. But that just wasn’t true. In what we heard of John’s preaching in the wilderness today, we’ve actually fast forwarded about 20 or 30 years to when both Jesus and John would have been men, just starting out on their life’s calling.
So why do things get all out of sequence, with John making a rather dramatic appearance today, preaching a message of wrath and judgment, when next week he will not even have been born? Well, in one way this peculiarity does make sense: John is a voice crying aloud, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” which is what Advent is all about. So transposing his preaching to before Jesus’ birth, rather than years later, does seem to be a poetic license that is … well, kind of fitting. [It’s where our opening chant came from, for instance.] And for those of us who are old enough to remember, it may evokes that touching opening song of Godspell: [sing] “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
But I think there’s something deeper going on here as well, more than poetic license. I think that this season of Advent sets Mary and John the Baptist up for us as alternative visions of human life, and asks us to choose between them. On the one hand, there is John, who lives the way of negative prohibition: don’t do this, don’t do that. That’s what he tells the crowds in the gospel when they ask what they should do. “Don’t extort money. Don’t take more than you are due.”
And then on the other hand there is Mary, who is all about saying “yes.” Given the choice by the angel between being part of God’s project of salvation, or turning it down, she says yes: “be it unto me according to your word.” Mary is all about possibility, growth, risk. How different from the accusatory disapproval of John!
And therein lies the rub: in Mary, and by her son Jesus, God seems to have decided that the tactic of telling us through the prophets, what we should and shouldn’t do, just wasn’t working. So God’s had to try something new. In Jesus, God chose to make the way of encouragement and invitation to be God’s way, over and against the way of proscription and law: love one another, Jesus will say, as I have loved you. Abide in me, and I will abide in you. Follow me, and I will make you a new creation.
John represents the other way, the way of trying to live up to a prescribed standard, but even he acknowledges that in the end what he represents must decrease in order that another—Jesus—may increase. He passes his mantle to Jesus, realizing not only that his time has passed, but also the point of his message. His way of negative prohibition, must give way to the new life of receptive, self-giving, self-sacrificial love that is the way of Mary. And the way of Jesus. So contrary to John, Mary represents to us the beginning of the way of growth, of development, of evolution, of new beginning, of opportunity, of possibility, of new creation, of letting go, of expectancy, of hope … whatever you want to call it.
There is, however, only one little problem. By nature, we human beings hate growth, and development, and new creation, and letting go. In short, we don’t like what Mary represents. We instinctively dislike change, we resist conversion, we don’t want to develop, and we certainly don’t intend to move out of our comfort zone. We like things the way they are, even if they aren’t good.
In this week’s Economist, there was a fascinating article about a psychological study that offered participants a certain sum of money, if they would take time to read an article tailored to their existing political opinion. Then, the researchers offered a larger sum of money, if the participants would read instead an article representing a contrary point of view. Remarkably, almost two-thirds of the participants (both liberal and conservative), gave up the chance of earning extra cash by reading an article contrary to their opinion, just to avoid being exposed to the other point of view. Think about that: we can’t even be bribed to entertain a new idea!
So Advent is a bit like that psychological study, in that it asks a pretty basic existential question: would you be willing (even without extra cash), to step out of yourself, as did Mary, into a life of greater discovery, of trust, and risk, and growth? Or would you rather remain in the rule-bound world of John the Baptist, where everything is pretty clear and well-defined, but also dull, and unimaginative, and predictable?
Could it be, that the essential thing about the Jesus who is coming, is that unlike John, who was all about condemnation, he is all about invitation? And what might he be inviting you to do and to be, this Advent season? Are you ready to say with Mary, “Yes, be it unto me, according to your word?” Amen.