Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday December 5, Advent 2
Text: Matthew 3: 1-12 John the Baptist’s
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme : Repent with Joy
It is the second Sunday of Advent for those of you keeping track. It means that we are halfway through our Advent journey, halfway done with our waiting for Christmas, for Christ to born in a hovel at Bethlehem, for God to scandalously put on flesh as one of us, to share our life. All around us there is a flurry of activity to get ready for this Holy Day turned holiday and none of us is immune to its seductions. But the truth is that the church with its strange sense of time is in no hurry to get to Christmas. The old ways of Advent intend to teach us that the journey to Nativity is just as important as the infants cry in the manger. What we need is to pay attention, to take stock of our lives. Our Christmas lists are clues to a deeper mystery. Our lists might grow into self-reflection, an unexpected entry in our journals. What do I really need? What do I really want? Is what I need something that can be bought? Can my loved ones, so full of good intentions really meet the need inside of me that cries out for wilderness, for the wildness God, for singleness of heart, for a sense of the kingdom’s nearness?
This is one of my favorite Sunday’s as it is dedicated to the wild-prophet-man, John the Baptist. Johnny B for those of you on more intimate terms, who count him among your odd and devoted friends. I think we ought to call this Sunday wilderness Sunday. In fact, we ought to celebrate it outdoors as close to the Rio Grande River as we dare to get, wading up to our knees in mud, drinking in the Sandias and staring wildly into the eyes of each other searching for hints and clues of where the newness of the kingdom is arriving.
Johnny B is a man of few words. But his message is clear. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew likens him to the prophets of old, in fact he says that he is the one Isaiah spoke of, “The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Johnny was an odd looking man dressed in camel’s hair accessorizing with leather, the same get-up that the prophet Elijah had sported just 800 years earlier. Evidently this look never goes out of style. John was un-kept, wild, offensive, blunt, hairy, water-loving, intense, sinewy, fierce, uncouth, and seemed a bit angry really (and anger sometimes makes us uncomfortable). John was a messenger, a prophet, spoken of by the ancients, outfitted like Elijah, and sent by God. And so people came to hear his message, to enter the waters of the Jordan River to be taken under the water by this wild-man whose baptismal liturgy had not been approved by anyone, not the chief priests, not the Pharisees, not the Romans, not even the adult Sunday School committee. No one had given John permission to perform this new ritual cleansing in the running water of the wilderness. And still they came, making their way from the comfortable confines of Jerusalem and the beautiful temple there full of sagacious priests to this out of the way, austere, riverbank in the wilderness presided over by the wild prophet of God.
What made Johnny B. so compelling, that he drew crowds into the wilderness to hear his demanding message? “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I suspect “repent,” is not a word we are especially comfortable with. We associate the word with doom-saying prophets on street corners wielding large floppy bibles like swords of accusation. Repent is one of those words you feel like someone needs to say with a boney finger pointed right at you.
But I wonder, is John’s message all that scary? Do we really understand the word Repent? Repent simply means to turn around, to go a different direction, to change course. Fredrick Buechner says it beautifully, “To repent is to come to your senses. “It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying “Wow!”” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973)
John’s message of Repentance was simple but it hit home with a great number of people. And instead of hounding people on the street corners or preaching at them in their Episcopal churches, John took his message to the outback of Judea. For Johnny B. “location, location, location” meant don’t make it easy for them, if it is worth having they will go to the trouble to get there. And people did just that. They packed a lunch, picked up their trekking poles at REI and made the hike out to encounter John’s strange preaching. They fueled up their friends camel, took a few days off work and made their way to hear the madman of God and undergo the odd ritual cleansing that no rabbi had approved.
Those who went to hear John were not disappointed. He was wild-eyed and uncivilized. He seemed like a person from another time, speaking a foreign language. But what he preached struck a nerve, he told of one who was coming, one who had incredible power of fire and spirit. John was a bit short on the details. He didn’t tell people that someone’s name. He didn’t know what he would look like. But John was able to communicate something that stirred the hearts of his listeners deeply – the old ways were about to give way to something new, the old world was yielding to a new world. This “One” who was coming God’s chosen one, would initiate this new world, this kingdom of God would somehow come near in this person.
The way John prepared people for this newness, the way he made the paths straight, lifted up the valleys and shaved down the mountains was by inviting people into the waters of the Jordan. He pulled them away from their well-established protections and their familiar routines. People from all walks of life came to listen to John’s message because it was fresh, hope-filled and expectant. But they also came because of what he offered them – an opportunity to make adjustments with God, to come clean, to stop pretending, quit playing games and start over. All of this was symbolized and made real by the baptism that John offered right there in the wilderness in front of God and the curious crowds. John simply invited them into the living waters of the Jordan and washed them off. He didn’t seem to have many rules about how it was to be done or who could come. There was no choir and no fresh towels at the hotel lobby. But people who gave themselves to John’s baptism came away saying things like “I can’t really explain it but I feel alive again, awake for the first time in years.” In fact, John’s baptismal policies were a bit scandalous. John’s baptism was open to anyone: women, outsiders, religious elites, dead-beats, lawyers, housewives, skeptics, the-too-cool-for-religion-types, athletes, mystics and engineers. John’s baptism broke all the religious rules and for that he was both hated and loved, but even the religious of the day could not stay away so compelling was his message. John was hard on the religious types, especially the smug entitled ones who work like hell to convince others of their innate goodness and piety. He called them playful names like “You bunch of snakes” or “ you fruitless trees, I’ve got an ax waiting for you” or “you all are like white washed tombs.”
Yet, John gave all who came a bath of newness, his own custom method for saying wake up, repent, do a 180, step lively so you do not miss the new thing God is doing right now, in front of your very eyes and within your softened hearts.
“The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering into Mary’s ear or a parent telling a child a story or a skinny prophet standing knee-deep in a river (Barbara Brown Taylor).” John is a messenger who stirs our hearts by yearning, leaning toward something better that is difficult to put into words. He can only say, the kingdom of God has come near and “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”
For John wilderness and humility were both important. First you needed to be willing to leave your comfortable life behind and head out into the wilderness to catch a glimpse of this newness so that when it arrived you might recognize it. God is not confined to temples or churches for Johnny B. John’s wilderness adventure was meant to clear the mind, purify the heart and open the nostrils to the scent of the kingdom. So the movement away from the familiar to the unknown, the risk-taking of the spirit is important to John. My guess is that you have a pretty good idea where your personal wilderness is, the place you’d rather avoid, the place of fear and self-doubt you struggle with day in and day out. The story of Johnny B. assures us that it is precisely in that wilderness, our wilderness that discovering the newness of the kingdom awaits.
Second, John was certain that being open to newness was not a posture we easily embrace. People do not seek out newness all that often, in fact we humans are often rather hide-bound and predictable. We don’t know what we like, we like what we know. So John struck the chord of repentance rather forcefully. The wild-man prophet of God invited anyone and everyone to consider repentance as a way of life and to make it real, he offered them the experience of baptism. In this humble act, John the Baptist offered, a new pattern of life, the humble willingness to let go and get into the cleansing river, lowered into the water clinging to the old life, and raised up into a new possibility for the future. It was a nearly perfect act for a new beginning, a hopeful humility that is the posture of everyone who is waiting for something new.
So this day, if you can hear the sounds of one crying out to you from the wilderness, don’t be afraid to make the journey out there. And if it is true that, like those who came to hear John the Baptist preach, you are desiring something better, something more from life than you have, take that as a good sign, as the scent of faith and hope within you. And don’t be afraid, be willing to hold the things of your life, even the good things of life, lightly, so that you can let them go if for a moment they are getting in the way of Christ’s new way for you. Advent is about opening your hands and heart to receive the newness that John sensed coming and that is always coming into the world. For the coming of Christ goes on forever and in our midst there is always an Advent going on (Jean Danielou). So put repentance on your Christmas list. And repent with joy, for the kingdom has come near.