Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
“You keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait.
For the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we are to go,
Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you … for the waiting time.”
~ John Bell
Where were you, and what were you doing, when you got the news? The news that changed your life forever. “We’re going to have a baby.” “The war is over.” “It’s cancer.” “I want a divorce.” “The Twin Towers just collapsed.”
You remember that moment. The room where you were standing; the people to whom you were speaking. You remember feeling the world shift. It didn’t matter if the news was wonderfully good or unspeakably bad. Regardless, it threw you, and everything around you, into a spin, and a place where nothing seemed to hold together. Where everything was in confusion and chaos.
“On such a day, in such a year, at such a place, when so-and-so was ruling in the capital city…something happened.” The author of the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts, tells the reader over and over where and when these things are taking place. This is very much a Lucan concern, from the very beginning of the Gospel:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…I too decided…to write an orderly account…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruling in Galilee...the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness around the Jordan.” Not once upon a time in a kingdom far away, but in a real place at a real time. Not just any place, of course. The wilderness—the place where God’s people had wandered forty years, led by the pillar of cloud in the daytime and the pillar of fire by night. The place where they encountered God as both demanding and protecting; as requiring obedience and steadfast faith, and yet always there for them regardless of their frequent disobedience and faithlessness.
And not just any wilderness—the desert, the uninhabited area away from towns and villages, the desolate, parched places near the Jordan River. The border country; the place where years earlier God’s people had passed through the water together and entered into the promised land.
It is here—in a place resonant with the echoes of God’s saving acts—that John the Baptizer appears.
He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism, and the use of water in a variety of religious cleansing rites, was not unknown in those days—many religious sects within Judaism used water for ritual purification, as well as ordinary washing. John’s baptism is of a particular sort—to signify a change of heart and action in the one so baptized, and to prepare the participants for the arrival of God’s kingdom. And so Luke explains this baptism, and the ministry of John the Baptizer, by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth:
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It is for this that John baptizes—to prepare the way of God’s arrival, in the lives and hearts of those who have begun to suspect, even ever so faintly, that something is about to change. That something big is on the way, something for which “getting ready” is necessary.
Last week I had the honor of visiting Erin and Carson Scott at University Hospital. Something big had arrived on November 30th, something that had indeed created enormous change in their lives. Ehlana Orin Scott is not large of body, but her coming has been the source of “Getting ready” for many people. And now that she has come, the beginning has come to an end, and a new beginning is underway, the beginning of something even more wonderful and amazing. For this one life has already affected many other lives, and will continue to do so for years, decades, maybe centuries yet to come. The transition from “getting ready” to “here she is, the new life has begun” is so quick.
We are in Advent—the season of “getting ready.” And it’s not just about getting ready for the baby in the manger on Christmas Eve, much less trying to recreate some sort of Norman Rockwell-meets-Andy Griffith fantasy about picture-perfect holiday gatherings. I don’t know any perfect people. Truth be told, I don’t think you do either. A friend of mine shared a thought with me last week, what she called her “Advent Mantra—‘Christmas will come even without a
John the Baptizer is calling his hearers to get ready—in every way—for what is already coming. He is not calling them to somehow make themselves into perfect specimens of humanity, “OR ELSE.” He’s inviting them to recognize God’s kin-dom already showing up among them, and to act in harmony with it. To cease from acquisition of power and possessions; to share what they have with those who are in need of even the basics; to see in the face of a neighbor or stranger the very image and likeness of God.
The repentance of which John speaks (and will speak further in the gospel next week) is not about feeling miserably sorry for past misdeeds. There may be need for something like that, but that’s not really the point either. Repentance—metanoia—turning around, changing the mind, changing the direction in which you’re going when you realize “I don’t want to go that way, I don’t want to live like that.” The ah-ha moment. Maybe dramatic and public—Paul on the road to Damascus; Peter in the house of Cornelius the Roman military officer—maybe private and known only to one person or a few—the alcoholic who wakes up one morning and decides “Enough—today I quit this behavior,” and takes himself to an AA meeting.
It is the practice—sustained over time—of taking on the kingdom values for oneself, even in the face of cultural and societal expectations that run completely counter to those values. Love God above all things; Love your neighbor as yourself. Then, and now, it is radical stuff.
This is the call of Advent. In the midst noise and chaos—a call to silence, and deep listening. In the midst of seemingly limitless consumption and desire—a call to simplicity and gratitude. In the midst of temptation to give in to despair and anxiety—a call to live lives of hope, faith, and love, in which all people shall see and know the salvation of God.
May it be so with us;
May it be so among us.