Sunday December 8, 2013- Advent 2A, St Mark’s Church in Southborough MA
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
It happened in the most unlikely of places. I had flown down from Boston to Atlanta to visit my aunt and uncle, one of those emotionally stabilizing trips in the dead of New England winter that those of us who can afford to take do to get ourselves out of the grey slog of February. My family lives in the urban center of Atlanta, not the sprawling suburbs, but the inner core- Midtown, in fact. There are houses but also apartment buildings, office towers and streets laid out in a grid. Midtown Atlanta is not wilderness. We drove left onto Charles Allen Drive, right onto 8th st, left onto Monroe Drive. We pulled up to a stoplight, to take a right turn onto Virginia Ave. As we waited and the walk signal turned, there in the crosswalk was a man with knee high white leather boots with red tassels, with a baton in hand, marching. There, next to the Starbuck’s and Woody’s Cheesesteaks. Knees up high, baton twirling in the air, marching to music that no one else could hear was the majorette of Midtown. Behold, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Let us pray.
John the Baptist is just that odd. He’s dressed like the Elijah, he sounds like Isaiah. He might have been a part of a community of Essenes, a Jewish movement of people dedicated to intensely communal life. He certainly looks like a hippie, with his camel hair and leather belt, eating his locust and wild honey. He’s wearing clothes that the Bargain Box would reject. John is out in the wilderness of Judea, out beyond the city limits, away from the temple that centered religious life calling for a new kind of religious life. In verse 5, we learn “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” The people are leaving the city to go find something new, something bold out in the wilderness. It’s more than a tent revival, John is claiming some pretty wild stuff. He’s opening up the possibility of repentance and forgiveness of sins without sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem. He’s threatening to put the temple out of business. All four gospels speak of John the Baptizer, but none of the evangelists are totally sure what do to with this odd character. He looks like the prophets who have come before him. He sounds a bit like the Jesus who will come after him. John seems to make the religious authorities of his time, and the gospel writers a bit uncomfortable too. Part of my ministry with the Massachusetts Council of Churches is to visit various congregations around the state. I find it hard to imagine any of the churches I’ve visited being a good fit for John, maybe except some of the outdoor churches that serve a primarily homeless population. Maybe John the Baptist makes us nice church folk uncomfortable, as well. And as he goes after the religious establishment, the Pharisees and the Saducees, saying our titles will no longer save us. Maybe us clergy should be more uncomfortable with John the Baptist too.
In John we have this person that is hard to understand. We first encounter John shouting. John is the voice crying in verse 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” You linguists and scripture scholars know that the Greek verb here for the command “repent” is Μετανοεῖτε. “To repent” is change, to turn around. And it’s the command form of the verb, an imperative. Advent is a season of imperatives: Watch! Wait! Repent! Sing! Look! Listen! We keep getting told what to do! We are told to slow down and wait, but every church I’ve visited seems to have more planned during Advent than the months proceeding. All the demands of this season can get a bit shouty. I feel the weight of all that being told what to do. Clean! Shop! Party! Repent! Turn around!
When the Majorette of Midtown marched through the Atlanta city streets, it was impossible NOT to turn around. Baton Bob, as he was known locally, or as he self-proclaimed “the Ambassador of Mirth” was apparently a regular, though I first saw him in 2004. He was hard to miss. First there were the boots, and the baton. Sometimes a tall hat, always a whistle that got your attention, screeching in time to a song that only Bob could hear on his headphones.
For the longest time, no one knew who Baton Bob was. He just showed up one day, marching on the streets of Midtown. Some just thought him crazy, other’s a public nuisance. But there was a wild, brazen logic to Bob’s marching. Raised on a farm in Martinsville, Virginia, Bob had been the first male baton-twirler in his high school. It turns out he was really good. But it’s hard to make a career out of baton-twirling. Bob was a flight attendant when the chaos of 9/11 struck, and he was furloughed as air travel halted. Out of work, in a time of immense anxiety for our country, he returned to this thing he loved, this thing he excelled in, this incongruous thing that gave him joy. And he marched on the road that was in front of him, preparing a way forward. You could look and think, that is a crazy person. Respectable people don’t march in the streets. Or, if you squinted and turned your head just a little to the side, you could see, this is someone who is reveling in the goodness of what is possible even in a wild inhospitable place, literally marching to his own drum, throwing a party while the world around crumbles. When I first saw Bob march past us, I remember thinking, how to I find that defiant joy, that confidence that the world cannot take away, that peace that passes all understanding?
Part of what is so radical and I think so hopeful, and so upsetting of the status quo, is that John the Baptist is calling for everyone to turn around and repent. Not just the Gentiles who are outside the community, but the Jews within. And John is leaning hard on the Jewish leadership. Needless to say, calling the clerics a “brood of vipers” is not a sign of respect. John is calling all the people, to turn around, to notice, to prepare ourselves to receive God. All you who have sat in the same pew every Sunday for the past year; all you who walked through this door for the first time today; all us in the religious establishment. The great truth of the prayers of confession in our liturgies is this: we’re all in need of repentance. “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just the pathways for some, but the pathways for all. John tells the faithful Jews, your ancestor Abraham won’t save you. Our names won’t save us. Our titles won’t save us. Our status won’t save us. Our ancestry won’t save us. Our white privilege won’t save us, Mandela pressed. Being a St. Mark’s alum, or a Yale grad or a Genzyme or EMC employee won’t save us. They aren’t all bad things, they’re just not going to save us. The voice of one crying in the wilderness invites all of us to clear away the stuff that’s keeping us from receiving God.
The Methodist reformer John Wesley, who was looking for a little more heart and spirit in the Church of England in his time, wrote a commentary on scripture. When Wesley looks at verse 3 and saw John calling to “make straight the paths,” Wesley said this is the process of “ removing every thing which might prove a hindrance to [Jesus’s] gracious appearance.” Only you know what is cluttering up God’s pathway into your heart this Advent.
When the Majorette of Midtown marched by, you stopped and looked. The danger of people in wild dress and unexpected places is that they are easy to dismiss. But those who arrest our attention point us to something larger, something greater, something almost unimaginable. John points to revolutionary coming of Jesus, Baton Bob points us to a party that is to come. Mandela pointed us to a vision of reconciliation for sinfully divided people. That’s the invitation this Advent, to be so arrested by the wild, incongruous, unimaginable that appears before our eyes that we open up the possibility of what’s to come and maybe even clear a pathway. And what if the wildest, most unlikely place we could see the way of the Lord was Route 30? Or in the sidewalkless urban wilderness of midtown Atlanta? The invitation is to see. To turn around. To twirl around. Do that thing so utterly impractical, non-productive, non-monetary generating that clears a pathway for Christ to enter your home this Christmas.