OT: Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm: 85:1-2, 8-13
Epistle: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
I. Introduction – It’s an E267 kind of life.
“E267 at window number 3…”
“E267 at window number 3…”
“Last call for E267.”
Now at this point, I was growing a little impatient. “Should I call it out myself,” I asked? “No one’s gonna hear their number in this god-forsaken place.” My wife, Crystal, and I were sitting with some friends of ours in Durham’s social security office. We serve as our friends’ representative payees, and together we’d all sat in this same waiting room on numerous occasions usually to iron out some lost piece of information.
Now, if you’ve ever been to the Social Security office, you’ll know that waiting in line there makes a trip to the DMV seem like a visit to the amusement park. The woman we were with, one of our friends, said it best, “Watching water boil would be better than sitting here all day.”
Indeed, 40-50 people pack the tiny room waiting patiently for their number to be called from one of the five service windows. Usually, that number appears on a large monitor at the front of the room just in case someone didn’t hear the last announcement. On this particular occasion, however, the number being called – E267 – was not showing up on screen.
“That’s it! I’m calling out numbers myself,” I said.
“Shhh,” Crystal replied. “You need to be more patient! It’s Advent after all; this is the season for learning how to wait.”
“Yes dear,” I said, “but somebody’s got to ‘cry out in the wilderness.’”
“Maybe,” she replied, “but I don’t see you wearing any camel’s hair.”
“Honey,” I said. “You know I don’t like it when you out-theologize me before lunchtime, right?”
“I know sweetheart, but wait just a little longer. When we leave, I’ll make sure you get plenty of locusts to eat.”
II. John the Baptist – A Holy Fool
Yes, every year, on this second week of Advent, we run into a most peculiar character. What do we make of this John the Baptist? How are we to understand this so-called forerunner to the Son of God? The Gospel of Mark tells us that John just appeared in the wilderness – out of nowhere – proclaiming repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And yes, he wore camel’s hair, tied a belt around his waist, and preferred locusts marinated in honey for his potluck dish of choice.
Now, I don’t know about you but John’s strange behavior doesn’t sound like a good strategy for evangelism or church-growth. He dressed funny, probably smelled, and spent a whole lot of time outdoors. And yet, for whatever reason, all of Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside came out to see him. Evidently, the people of Israel thought John had something significant to say.
Well, not everyone. We know from the other Gospels that the Pharisees and Sadducees were offended by John. And eventually, King Herod had him put to death. But who was he, this John the Baptist? What was he doing in the wilderness? And why the extreme take on sweet and savory foods to eat?
Well, as it turns out, John took after that long line of holy fools in Israel’s history known as the prophets. The prophets were always peculiar, out of place characters. They didn’t fit in. In fact, they stuck out like a sore thumb because they spoke out against Israel’s idolatry, especially the poor treatment of the orphans and widows, the strangers and aliens.
The prophet Elijah was a primary example: similar to John, he was notable for being hairy, wearing a belt around his waist, and spending too much time in the wilderness. Later prophets came to see Elijah and the deserted wilderness as symbols of judgment and correction for Israel. Indeed, it was said Elijah would reappear in the wilderness one day to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Now the people of Israel would have known what this meant, and it was not so much a thing to fear, as it was something for which to rejoice. For them, the wilderness was always a place of training and preparation for the good things to come. For example, after the Exodus in Egypt, Moses led the people through the wilderness for 40 years before they entered the Promised Land. And later, when the people were exiled in Babylon, they returned home to Jerusalem by way of the wilderness. In fact, the river Jordan, where John was baptizing, was very much the symbolic final gateway before entering God’s gifts of abundant land, flowing with milk and honey.
So as you can see, John was no ordinary fool. His appearance in the wilderness was no accident. Even his eating of locusts – that pesky bug of judgment sent by God to plague Egypt – and his eating of honey – a reminder of the abundant promises of God – were both symbols of John’s prophetic calling. Yes, he was one of those holy fools – the new Elijah – called by God to cry out in the wilderness and make straight the pathway for the Lord. But what was this path making supposed to look like exactly?
III. What is the substance of making a path (or high-way) for God?
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of valleys being lifted up, and mountains being flattened low. Ground would become level, and rough places made plain. And there’s more!
2 Peter says the day of the Lord will come like a thief, the heavens will pass away with a thundering crack, set ablaze and dissolved, the elements will melt with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Yikes! Now I’m from Kansas so I know how a thunderstorm can level the earth, but nothing compares to this biblical picture of clearing out a pathway for the Lord. It’s almost as if John’s role was to begin a cosmic clearing off the table for the main course.
But there’s more than meets the eye here. This isn’t all doom and gloom as some might think. Rather, these are the birth pangs of something new – the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
You see, prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist were certainly judgmental, for lack of a better term, but their fiery cries also called for something known as repentance. Now, repentance involves turning one’s life and conduct around through a new kind of discipline and practice – a wilderness training if you will. This was good news, especially for the poor who were constantly being overlooked by the idolatrous practices of the people. Time and again, Elijah and the other prophets reminded Israel of their precious history, their being delivered out of slavery, and their being made into God’s representative people of good news on earth.
Ultimately, John appeared in the wilderness to bring comfort to God’s people, to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and to cry out to her that she had served her term. Again, our reading from Isaiah gives us John’s job description: “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ […] He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
You see, John was sent to proclaim the coming of the one who was greater than he who would usher in the kingdom of God, the destiny of the whole world. What is that destiny? Our Psalm today reads, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.”
IV. Time: the patience of our Lord or the grace of living “During the World”
Now I know what you’re thinking: “This is all well and good preacher, but we live in an E267 world, remember, a world that isn’t going away quickly or easily.” And that is absolutely right, of course, but here’s where the season of Advent helps us understand the wild foolery of John the Baptist.
You see Advent teaches us that we inhabit two modes of time simultaneously. On the one hand, we wait in lines, get labeled with numbers, live and work within large institutions, and find ourselves hemmed in by systems that breakdown or break us down. Indeed, the economy that determines our lives paints our resources in shades of scarcity and lack. How many of us wish we had just a little more time, a little more space, or a little more income to pay the bills? I know I do. The world indeed is fallen; it is lacking – shot through with sin, decay, and ultimately death.
But we also inhabit another kind of time – one that is already… but not yet. You see, the greater-than-he for whom John the Baptist set the table has already come! Jesus declared good news to the poor, healed the sick, washed the feet of sinners, and defeated death by his resurrection. Through him, the time of the new heaven and new earth has already begun. Christ invites us to begin participating in the destiny of the world even now as we await its fulfillment in his second coming. Only then will the powers and principalities of scarcity and distrust be finally laid to rest.
But why the long wait? 2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. Since all these things are to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
Now that sounds like wilderness adventure training to me.
V. St. Joseph’s: a place and time for Holy Fools to witness
You see folks we do indeed live in an E267 world, but that is not the whole story. Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Here at St. Joseph’s we are called to participate in Christ’s first and second comings even now. Together we discover the grace of God’s patience as we practice repentance, confess our sins, work hard for peace, make friends with the poor, help one another navigate systems, and open our homes to the righteousness of the heavenly banquet.
Not only has our penalty been paid, not only do we discover that our savior loves us deeply, but we also discover that the content of that love is the invitation to be transformed. By participating in Christ, we are welcomed on a wilderness journey that will change how we think, what we feel, what we desire, and what our bodies do.
Yes, our world is still full of pain and sorrow, but like John we are not here merely to reign down stormy judgment. Instead, we foolishly and joyously proclaim good news to the world, and especially the poor. For the world is being remade little by little.
And when we do meet someone who seems to have lost all hope, let’s invite him or her to see what’s going on in the wilderness at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church. In just a short while, we, like John before us, will clear a table and wait upon the one who feeds us not with locusts and honey, but with the sweet and savory food of his own flesh and blood. Indeed, let us greet our Lord as holy fools like John the Baptist – voices proclaiming good news in the wilderness: “Behold, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
So let us go forth today hearing the calling of John we find in the Benedictus prayed each day at Morning Prayer:
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from oh high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”