Advent is upon us. For Christians, Advent is the first of seven seasons of the church, and begins roughly four weeks prior to Christmas. It is a time for us to prepare for the coming of Jesus when the light pierces the darkness of the world. Clearly, at the center of this most dramatic narrative is Jesus. The supporting cast of characters include Mary and Joseph; Elizabeth and Zechariah, and of course, John the Baptist, who makes his entry as the one crying out from the wilderness with the proclamation of the coming reign of God and the exhortation to repent and prepare the way of the Lord.
Most all would agree that the Christmas message is all about the incarnation – about God coming to us in human form. Well, that is surely where we are headed, and soon the world will once again experience the wonder of the Mystery of the Word made flesh. But that’s the Holy Nativity and that is December 25. Let’s not run too far ahead of God’s grace. Today John the Baptist has something else to tell us, or better yet, God has something to say to us through John’s prophetic voice.
The scene from Luke’s narrative begins with a list of a kind of who’s who in the power elite of the day – both political and religious – with emperors, governors, rulers, and high priests. Yet God didn’t choose the power-players of the day to deliver what God had to say. Instead, God chose one close to Jesus – one with family ties. The voice of God echoed from the wilderness through this somewhat strange and prophetic figure we know as John the Baptist.
John was way outside the mainstream and he certainly wasn’t on the list of first-century power players, nor, I suspect, would he have wanted to be. Today’s Gospel narrative suggests that Divine truth often comes from the edges, from the out of the way places, from the desert places and from people like John.
I can’t help but think about those who would make their way into the desert a couple of hundred years later – people like Anthony, Mary of the Desert, Moses the Black, Poeman, Syncletica and Benedict. These desert fathers and mothers knew the spiritual futility of a life lived in a world ruled by the so-called power players who had questionable interest in bringing forth the true word of God for God’s people.
It is no surprise that thousands of people would follow the desert elders into the wilderness seeking truth. It is also nothing new in scripture. Elijah heard God’s voice in the silence of the wilderness when he couldn’t hear it anywhere else. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert wilderness working out their relationship with God, and Jesus, after his own baptism, would spend forty days there before initiating his ministry.
So it is from the wilderness that God chose to announce the biggest truth of all – that God’s reign of justice and peace was coming in the form of God’s Son and that salvation was and is to be had by all through repentance and forgiveness of our sins. This astounding proclamation did not come through the temple but instead through the desert air. And it didn’t come from a ruler or a priest. It came from one who had been living in the wilderness and listening to God. It came from the one who wore weird clothes and had a strange diet that included locusts. It came from the desert dweller, the outlier. It came from John the Baptist.
John’s call is to repent, to cleanse our hearts, to prepare the way of the Lord who is coming to offer us salvation. This is the Advent message today. It’s a call to get ourselves straight – both as individuals and as a community – so that we can receive the greatest gift God has ever offered humankind, the gift of God’s Son, who is sent to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves – to reconcile us with God and with one another, and this is very good news in a world that is desperate for some good news.
Christmas Day will come soon enough. When it does we can rejoice in Immanuel – that God is with us. But in the meantime, we have an opportunity to do some important work, life-changing work, both within ourselves and with each other. And when that moment comes when God becomes incarnate as one of us, we will be able to welcome that startling truth with cleaner hearts that make the moment truly special. Don’t we want that for ourselves and for others? God sent us the voice of John the Baptist to set us on the right track – to get us started in the right direction for Advent. Because God wants that for us too.