Sunday December 4, 2011- Advent 2
Rev. Laura Everett
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I was very new at the Massachusetts Council of Churches. And very young. Nervous about navigating around the statehouse on my own. The building is not a logical layout, and so I wandered. A man was sitting at a small wooden desk about to make a cell phone call. He had on a faded yellow tee-shirt that read “1992 New Bedford Cape Verdean Festival,” a little odd. Not exactly the business professional suits and ties of the other men in the statehouse. He was a round man, with small round glasses. I asked “Excuse me, can you tell me where the House member’s Lounge is? I’m looking for the Torah Study Group” In an accent that I could barely understand, he said something, and the man gestured to his right, down a long hall. I walked passed him and eventually found my room. I sat with my Jewish colleagues and a few legislators and staffers to study what the Torah was teaching about justice and political leadership. Nose in my Bible, all of a sudden, everyone in the room stands up. “Good Morning, Congressman Frank.” “So good to see you again, Barney.” They say to the round man in the yellow “1992 New Bedford Cape Verdean Festival.“ Sometimes we just don’t see what is before us. Will you pray with me…
John the Baptist is weird. This may be a bit heretical, but I’ll stand by it. John the Baptist is an odd duck. He’s weird, and that’s awkward for us nice church folk. The Gospel text from Mark today gives us plenty of evidence of John’s strangeness.
First, let’s talk about his clothes: Camel hair tunic and a leather belt. You know, as I was getting dressed to come be with you today, I couldn’t decide- Camel hair tunic or Geneva preaching robe? Camel hair or preaching robe? Even in the time of Jesus, camel hair tunics weren’t exactly mainstream clothing choices. This is not someone dressing to blend in. This is someone odd, and marked. These are markers, big flashing camel-hair signs of a prophet. It’s as if that words for “camel-hair” and leather belt have hyperlinks to the Hebrew Bible and 2Kings 1:8, where the prophet Elijah is described in almost the same way, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” John doesn’t dress like the people. He’s a marked man.
John doesn’t eat like the people. he eats locusts and wild honey. Bugs and sweets. He doesn’t dress like the people, he doesn’t eat like the people. In other biblical meals, we get feasts of meat and bread and wine. John’s scavenging for bugs and honey, gleaning the wilderness and eating out of doors. A vegetarian among carnivores, a dumpster-diver among restaurant-goers. Probably didn’t use his salad fork.
And we know the wilderness is here to tell us something. The Gospel of Mark, this great good news, begins in the wilderness. Outside the city walls, outside the traditional religious settings. In the wild, beyond the everyday bustle of Jerusalem to a barren desert. You know, they tell preachers not to show off, and talk about the Greek or Hebrew of the original texts. But you are a wise and curious people, no? You’d like to know that the verb in verse 5 is in the imperfect, “the people were going out” “were going out”- a constant procession of people from the thick of the city to the thin space of the desert. The Gospel writer expects the listeners and readers to cue up the wilderness of our ancestors. Moses, Elijah, David, fleeing to the wilderness. The music swells and then quiets, the light shines down- something big is going to happen here, we can feel it.
And John gets even stranger. Shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” All of those proper cityfolk looking for something more, all those spiritual wanderers looking for some answers, all those desperate people looking for something to believe in – when all else has failed. All those mess of people have come out to the edge, to the bug-eating, camel-wearing, desert-shouting John the Baptist. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. “
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” echoes in two directions. For the wanderers in the desert and the generations to follow, John gives baptism, the confession of sins and the freedom of repentance and grace. For the Gospel readers, “Prepare the way of the Lord” is the admonition that Jesus Christ is returning in Judgment. This double meaning is what we get in Advent, prepare for the birth for of the Christ Child, prepare for the Messiah coming again. This is where we get the word for Advent- in the Latin Adventus meaning “coming,” in the Greek parousia, which refers to the second coming of Christ. How do we prepare for this coming that John speaks of?
“Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare, Wait, Keep watch, Be alert! The commands of Advent. In truth, the commands of my Advent are more likely “Vacuum! Worry! Shop! Stress!” Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his pathways. If Jesus were on the road to my heart, he’d have to go down through the valley of my dread, over the mountains of my own ego, around the roadblocks of protection that prevent true vulnerability before God. More likely than not, in the chaos of the Advent season, the roadways for Christ to enter my home again are impassable.
This is the road that the odd man John meets us on. Strange and removed, the pretenses of culture and manners are dropped for the Baptist who points his way to the greater one who is to follow him. Standing on a corner, in the middle of the desert, pointing to the Messiah that is to come. We need John to stand out from the crowd, we need John to shout, we need to get off the highway and detour our freight train to Christmas onto some back-roads to find Christ.
Because Jesus goes out to the wilderness too. Because God is at the edges. God with a preferential option for the poor. God is at the margins, who turns the minority into the majority, who cares for the 99% and the 1%. God who goes to the margins, to the edges, to limits of our comfort zones to find the fertile ground of the barren desert to meet us in the wild. To offer us salvation in the wilderness. That is where salvation in Christ is found.
John reminds us of the weirdness of Christians, the distinctiveness against the backdrop of a larger culture, especially at a time when being a good Christian looks conveniently like being a good American consumer. Emily Dickinson wrote “Tell the truth, but tell it at a slant.” John’s strangeness is the shift in our vision, the slant, the madman we pause to pay attention to that points us to the truth.
Now, I don’t know about Episcopalians, but I’ll tell you the truth about my own tribe in the United Church of Christ: some of us are a little weird. I’m sure there are no odd Anglicans. And sometimes, we are even a little awkward and strange. We do things for no good reason other than we’ve done them that way for a while and no one can remember when we didn’t do them that way. My home church is a merger of two congregations, a newer younger group and an established older group. On the first Sunday we worshipped together, I sat in the front pew with some of the older members. As we rose to sing the first him, we all stood up and then like clockwork, each person in the front row turned around to face the back of the sanctuary, leaving only me facing the front. Turn around, she tugged at my shirt. Turn around. I asked her after the service why she turned around. “Well,” she said, “we turn around to see the other people, because there are so few of us in the pews. “ Except, that since the congregations merged, the pews were full again. We say “debts” instead of “trespasses,” we cross ourselves, we say Creator instead of Lord, we read the King James Bible instead of the New Revised Standard Version, we actually get out of the pews to pass the peace, we use wafers instead of bread, we bring our bibles to church, we raise our hands in praise, we leave church smelling like incense. But you only really notice the strangeness of your own when you visit another tradition.
I’m beginning to think ecumenical awkwardness is a spiritual discipline. To sit in one another’s pews, to visit one another’s houses of worship and risk being out of sorts is a frightening. It’s a risk to step off of the familiar and well-marked path of our own community into the wilderness of another land. I stood in front of my closet, planning carefully, remembering back when I had been with their church before. Long black dress, down past the knees. No chance of offending anyone there. More formal than I would have been with most Protestants, and off I went to the vespers service for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston of the eve of the feast of their patron Saint Andrew. I sat next to a retired priest, who helped me follow along in the Greek. About half way through the liturgy, he leaned over to whisper. “I hope you aren’t offended, but look at the other women around you. If you want to blend in with the Greek women, don’t cross your legs. “ Down the row, to a one, each woman was sitting in the same way. Weird and awkward, embarrassed and humbled. We’ve all been there. The one who sits when everyone else stands, the one who finishes reciting the Lord’s Prayer when everyone has stopped a verse before. To wander into the wilderness is to risk being out of sorts enough to need help of another, someone to point the way to the Truth.
That is the wilderness road that John leads us on, a road that means we are not the expert navigators, but dependent on the wisdom of others to lead us. And it’s the weirdness, the awkwardness that leads us to Christ. Those gawky teenage years when church youth group is the only social refuge. The acknowledgement that we’re all suffering from something we’re too afraid to name. We aren’t just out on the periphery all alone, but that is precisely where God goes, to the place where we didn’t think anything sacred could be. The grace of Christ’s entry into the world, and truly the Church at it’s best, is that all of us who feel weird, and strange and on the outer edges of some community, are met in the wilderness by Jesus Christ. God is on the edge. We must go there if we are to meet God. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his pathways. Keep your eyes open for strange men is camel-hair shirts pointing the way. AMEN.