Call to Worship/Isaiah 35:1-10 (NRSV)
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Faithful God, in this season suspended between hope and fulfillment, let us never forget what you have done. May we be overwhelmed by your mercy that flows in wave after wave. May we be honest about the darkness within us, and perceptive of the light around us. May we make straight the path for the Lord, that together we may see God’s glory revealed. In the name of the One who is coming, Emmanuel, God-with-us, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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. 12His 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.”
Message/Crying Out in the Wilderness
The Biblical prophets do more “forth-telling” about the present than “fore-telling” about the future. Their specialty is prognosis rather than prediction. Prophets discern with unusual clarity the significance of current events and the circumstances of God’s people. Based upon their diagnosis, they speak a word from God to provoke God’s people to change. By speaking God’s word to our world, prophets call us to radical transformation.
For about a thousand years, from Moses to Malachi, God spoke to Israel by sending them prophets. As Israel’s first prophet, Moses outlined the criteria for true and false prophets and was himself called a prophet without peer. God sent significant women prophets too, like Miriam, Huldah, Deborah, and Noadiah. Jeremiah summarized Israel’s prophetic history after they had been exiled to Babylon: “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.”
Malachi was Israel’s last prophet. His book is placed last in the Old Testament. He was also chronologically the last, writing about a hundred years after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. This dates him the closest in time to the birth of Jesus. After Malachi there was 450 years of prophetic silence. That long silence was finally broken with the first prophet of the New Testament period, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is distinctly identified as the “forerunner” of Christ who had come to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist came neither from imperial Rome nor from the Jerusalem temple, Israel’s religious establishment. God’s Word did not come from someone dressed in a Perry Ellis suit who lived in a luxury high-rise. Neither did it come from a corporate board room nor university laboratory nor place of power or comfort.
God’s Word to all humanity came from a wild and wooly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, on the margins rather than at the epicenter. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source. John would have been easy to ignore if you expected or wanted something normal, safe, or traditional. But neither John nor his message was normal by any stretch of the imagination.
Scholars believe that John the Baptist was part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect, the Essenes, who considered the temple in Jerusalem to be corrupt and opted to carve out their own community on the periphery, focusing on obedience to the covenant laws of God. At least this much is clear — he was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors even went so far to say that he was possessed by a demon. In the end, John the Baptist he paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to his prophetic calling.
Whereas John’s father Zechariah had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John had fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins and ate insects and wild honey. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The story of Jesus begins not with the celebration of his birth but with a public address announcement: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means it’s time to brace ourselves for John the Baptist. Dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts, the curmudgeonly prophet raises his voice and lets us have it: “You brood of vipers!” “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” If you’re looking for a soft, pillowy entry into the season before Christmas, John isn’t going to provide it. There’s nothing gentle or saccharine about him. “You brood of vipers!” Repent. Wake up. Bear fruit.
The Gospel of Matthew makes a point of telling us that John both appears and cries out in the wilderness. This is where the crowds gather to hear him — in a landscape that is desolate and barren. Why the wilderness? Why the lonely desert to start our Advent reflections? If you have any experience with real estate, you know the mantra: “Location, location, location.” Location is key. The place where we stand, the terrain we occupy, the space from which we speak — these things matter.
The four Gospels offer several approaches to the origins of Jesus, but sometimes it feels like they’re not telling the same story, especially at this time of year. Luke tells us the story through the life of Mary and gives us the shepherds being serenaded by the heavenly host; Matthew brings the story to us through Joseph and adds the story about the arrival of the magi; but Mark and John come empty handed to our Christmas party. The first thing the gospels all agree on however, is John the Baptist. In all four Gospels John is in the same place wearing the same clothes with the same message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near! Prepare the way of the Lord. It doesn’t matter which Gospel you read; if you want to get to Jesus, you must pass through John the Baptist. I’ve never seen John the Baptist featured on an Advent calendar or Christmas greeting card, but all four Gospels place him front and center in Jesus’s origin story. John the Baptist’s gaunt austerity is the only gateway we have to the swaddling clothes, angel’s wings, and fleecy lambs we hold dear each December. As baffling as it may seem, the holy drama of the season depends on the disheveled baptizer’s opening act. So again, why the wilderness?
For starters because the wilderness is a place of vulnerability, risk, and powerlessness. In the wilderness, we have no safety net. No Plan B, no rainy-day savings account, no quick fix. In the wilderness, life is raw and unsettled, and our illusions of self-sufficiency shatter quickly. To locate ourselves at the outskirts of security and power is to confess our neediness in the starkest terms. In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up. Because they do. And it’s into such an environment — an environment so far removed from safety as to make safety laughable — that the word of God comes.
But the Gospel of Matthew goes on. Not only is the wilderness a place that exposes our need for God; it’s a place that calls us to repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” John cries to those who seek him out. We read that crowds stream into the wilderness to heed John’s call. In other words, they leave the lives they know best, and venture into the unknown to save their hearts through repentance. Something about the wilderness brings people to their knees.
For us 21st century Christians, though, “sin” and “repentance” are loaded words we try to avoid. Many of us, particularly those of us who grew up in more fundamentalist circles, dislike the word “sin.” We associate it with shame, guilt, and condemnation.
Many of us also distrust the word because we’ve seen how easily it can be manipulated to justify one moralistic agenda over another. And yet, Advent begins with an honest, wilderness-style reckoning with sin. We can’t get to the manger unless we go through John, and John is all about repentance. Is it possible that this might become an occasion for relief? Maybe, if we can get past our baggage and follow John out into the wilderness, we will find comfort in the fact that something more profound is at stake in our souls than, “I make mistakes,” or “I’ve got a few issues.” What ails is something deeper, grimmer, and far more consequential.
What is sin, really? Growing up, I was taught that sin is “breaking God’s laws.” Or “missing the mark,” as an archer misses his target. Or “committing immoral acts.” These definitions aren’t wrong, but they’re incomplete — they don’t go far enough. They don’t name the fullness of what we struggle with. Sin, at its heart, is a refusal to become fully human. It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves. Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony. It’s the sludge that slows us down, that says, “Quit. Stop trying. Give up. Change is impossible.”
Sin is apathy. Care-less-ness. A frightened resistance to an engaged life. Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of human flourishing. Sin is a walking death. And it is easier to spot, name, and confess a walking death in the wilderness than it is anywhere else.
John underscores his message of repentance with a harrowing description of the coming Messiah: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Are you squirming yet? How is this good news, this portrait of a Jesus who judges, sorts, and burns? I wonder if we squirm because we misconstrue the meaning of the word judgment. I tend to equate judgment with condemnation, but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is. In my dictionary, synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception.
What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us as we are? That he knows us at our very core? Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of deep love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff of sin. Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give God permission to “clear” us — to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and worthy.
Finally, Matthew suggests that the wilderness is a place where we can see the whole landscape and participate in God’s great work of leveling inequality and oppression. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John cries, quoting the prophet Isaiah. “Make his paths straight.”
Unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege, and even harder to imagine giving it up. No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain flattened. But when we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure. Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet. We experience what it’s like to struggle down winding, crooked paths. We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape. A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables “all flesh” to see the salvation of God.
About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch. At a party one night, Herod capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend’s daughter. John was a forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a forth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife. But, as with many perverse politicians, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, and so John was beheaded.
As for the religious establishment, Jesus tells us that “the Pharisees and experts in the law” spurned John’s call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing “rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (Luke 7:30). The prophetic word of God from John the Baptist, then, did not originate with the state powers or the religious establishment, nor did it find a receptive audience with them.
Where are you this Advent season? How close are you to security and power, and how open are you to risking the wilderness to hear a word from God? What might repentance look like for you, here and now? Where is God leveling the ground you stand on, and what will it take for you to participate in that uncomfortable but essential work?
Location, location, location. John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, and people stream to him there, hungry and ready. May we stream there, too. Like John, may we become brave voices in hard places, preparing the way of the Lord.
Gracious God, as John the Baptist came proclaiming your message of justice, may we be prophets for our own time. Help us to work to make governments more aware of their responsibilities to those under their authority. By our words, prayers, and actions, help us to be forerunners for your kingdom of love, justice, and peace.
As John the Baptist came to prepare the way for your coming, may we, seek to prepare the way for you to come into the lives of others. Help us to follow Christ so closely that others might see his love flowing through us and grow to desire to follow him too.
As John the Baptist came to call the people to repentance, may we offer ourselves to others by our witness and example, an alternative way of life, one based on love and honesty, rather than selfishness and complacency. Give us a glimpse of your kingdom that we might be a reflection of your righteousness that brings light and life to the world.
As John the Baptist came to challenge the self-righteous religiosity of his day, may we always be ready to challenge our own attitudes and traditions in the name of love. Help our church to be a place of healing where the fearful and the anxious, the sick and the grieving, the overwhelmed and the humiliated, may find acceptance and love in our inclusive family.
We ask that by our words, prayers, and actions, we may be forerunners for the joy of life in Christ, who boldly taught us to pray:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Can you be a voice crying in the wilderness?
Can you proclaim that God is living and active in the world?
Can you declare the mystery and the majesty of God’s inbreaking kingdom?
The time is near when we will sing with the angels and celebrate the good news of our Savior’s birth.
As people who are being changed, we go into a world that is being changed.
The long-expected Jesus is coming, whether we are ready or not.
Go in the expectation that the power and promise of God’s new creation is about to be revealed to us.
Live in the hope that comes from knowing that, in the Christ-child, God is coming to live among us, flesh to our flesh, bone to our bone.
Serve in the strength of the Spirit, that we will be found ready to receive the precious and holy gift of Godself.