It's interesting, and I think right, that today we have this sort of chopped up beginning of John's gospel. What we've been given today in the lectionary seems to me to be perfectly appropriate for this Advent season. Today, we don't begin in the soaring wonder of eternity, in the mysteries of heaven, or the universe-shaping love of the Trinity. We don't begin, "In the beginning," where John starts his gospel. As an Advent people we begin in the wilderness. We're still in the wilderness. This week, like last, we're still a people being gathered out of the hustle and bustle, all the energy and boredom of everyday life, and into the wilderness--that place where something is about to happen.
There's a relentlessly earthy quality to the part of the story we're concerned with this week, the part of the story we find ourselves in. There are no angel choirs yet. The possibility hangs around the edges, but for now we're in the presence of a man. And an especially earthy man, at that: wearing camel's skin and eating bugs; a man, muddy with desert dirt and baptismal waters. A man named (John), in a specific place (outside of Bethany), on ground you could go stand on today, if you had the inclination. I mean, we hear that this man was sent by God (which has a sort of otherworldly ring to it), but he's sent to this particular time and place, talks with particular people, dips his hands in a particular river. In John's company, we're not whisked into the heavenly realms; we're deep in the wreck and wonder of our surroundings, we're settled into the dust. We're in the dust, ready and waiting for God's creative work; reminded again, that our God is a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of God.
And out here, in the wilderness, we're in the midst of particularly worldly problems. Problems like identity: "Who are you?" inquiring minds want to know. And authority: "Who authorized this baptism; who sanctioned your prophetic word? What are your qualifications?" Why is this crowd flocking out to the middle of nowhere, to let this strange man hear their confessions and splash them with water? These are questions of hope and fear and wonder, oddly earthy issues--oddly human questions. In the company of John the evangelist and John the baptizer and the Church, we are aware that at the beginning of the gospel, in this Advent season, that we can't get to the angel choirs without the dirt. Our Christian hope is not that we'll be launched off into the light, away from here. Our hope is that the true light that enlightens everyone, the light that overwhelms all darkness, is coming into the world.
Let's pray: Holy God, enlighten us this morning. May your light increase, in and around us, that we might know you better--and in company with John, make you better known. In Jesus' name: Amen.
It has to be said that John's unflinching worldliness, his radical earthiness, brings to life a meddlesome truth. There's nothing ethereal or elsewhere about it. It demands something of us, here and now: Prepare the way of the Lord! Get ready! God is about to show up in a new and marvellous way! And the evidence is in, that people generally are not all that enthusiastic about a God who is so persistent in getting all tangled up with us. Generally we'd like a god that stays at a safe and heavenly distance, maybe a god that provides the occasional spiritual flare. We'd generally like a god that matches our lifestyle and blesses our choices, and otherwise keeps to his or her vague and divine self. A God who calls and claims, whose way is prepared by folks like John and us, a God who is Lord--that's a different thing altogether.
We don't mind a god that can be appealed to abstractly with thoughts and prayers for the things around us that we wish weren't so. But the evidence suggests we'd prefer if that god let us continue to grope around in the darkness under our own guidance and power, even if we stumble a bit now and then, rather than showing up as life-revealing light that guides us in a wildly different direction.
I think we're never quite ready for God to show up in sandals, and transform the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the prophet says: Among you stands one whom you do not know. That's what John says, and (in spite of myself) I think it's wonderful. It's a little unsettling, to be sure; but at the end of the day, I think it's awfully good. First of all, it's clear that what God is concerned with is not off in some more interesting, rarified and heavenly realm, but right here. Among you. Among us. That's where God will do what God will do. This God of covenant and gospel, the God who speaks light and oceans and forests and all manner of creatures, never has been and never will be a God apart. This God has a peculiar and passionate commitment to being with and for us. This God has an unstoppable desire for this broken and beloved creation. Amongst the seekers and the certain, righteous and sinners, folks with authority and folks with none, that's where the unexpected One shows up.
Which brings us to part two of what John says: this One, this God whose word calls us out from distractions and security, into the wilderness is not the One we expect. Frederick Buechner says, the gospel is bad news before it's good news, and this has got to be one of the reasons for that. The God we're dealing with and who is dealing with us is not the projection of our deepest needs and desires. Not the One we could have chosen, even if we'd had the sense to. Not the One sanctioned by the appropriate authorities and having the right "as-far-as-we're-concerned" god-credentials.
This is an unsettling truth! And John calls us to lean through the disruption and into what marvellously good news that it is. The One we're waiting for is more than the sum total of our best hopes and dreams, far more than our greatest efforts and wills. The One we're waiting for, the One who has come and will come, is the One who is able to do abundantly far more than we could ever ask or imagine--not elsewhere and someday, but here and now.
Among you stands one you do not know. When this wilderness, gospel God shows up, we're in for a surprise. The sorts of things that we tend to be concerned about--identity and authority, permission and plans, market shares and church growth strategies--these things become "strangely dim" in the light of the One who has come and is coming. We, the people (especially we religious people), want to know just what John thinks he's up to, who he is and by what authority and what are all these crowds doing here, what's all the fuss about. And John says (I like to think, with bit of a wink), "You ain't seen nothing yet."
I suspect that's why he has to call us into the wilderness. The wilderness is where we remember that God does things, that God is living and active. The wilderness is where we remember that God's ways and thoughts aren't ours. The wilderness is where God draws us into the rhythms of a world-changing, world-loving, light-to-the-nations holiness. It's where we remember the promise that the God who made the heavens and the earth is pleased to be ours, and to have us for a people. It's where we remember that in cahoots with this God we are no longer slaves to the greedy, arrogant, violent ways and means of empires, but free citizens of God's kingdom of justice and love and righteousness, on earth as in heaven. It's where we remember that we are created in the image of the One who made us and blessed us and called us good. It's where we encounter the God who will guide us through certain death and into abundant life.
The wilderness is where those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness--those who are yearning, even starving, for a new way, for a new and renewed relationship with God and neighbor--can find time and space to remember, as another has put it, that God hasn't forgotten the recipe for manna, that God is still in the business of new-world nourishment, still in the business of surprising blessing. The wilderness is where we are far enough away from the things that stunt our imagination and stifle our freedom--the institutions that collapse the possibilities of life into what is permissible and controllable; away from identities that limit and restrain--so that we can imagine new possibilities, so that we can hear God's call to something else, something more. The wilderness is where we are vulnerable enough to let God be God, and to let ourselves be nothing less than God's people.
The wilderness is where we are made ready to meet this one whom we haven't known. It's where we can hear the prophet clearly--where he can grab our attention not because he draws a crowd, but because he points us to the One who is drawing the whole world to himself.
And the beautiful promise is that when we heed John's call, the One we haven't known becomes the One who claims us and calls us friends. In the wilderness, where everything is possible, we might find ourselves no less surprised, but a little more ready, when God shows up in sandals and says "Come, follow me. Come and see. I'm going to light you a new way."
People often talk about the Church being in a kind of wilderness time, these days. Things have not turned out quite like we thought they might. And unfortunately, our response is often not John's, but the response of the religious folks who interrogate him: we get concerned with what's permissible, rather than what's possible; we grab hold of what we know, rather than waiting for the One we don't--the One who comes unexpectedly and beautifully to us. But I say: if the Church is in this wilderness time, let's lean into it. Let's trust. Let's follow. Let's move into the world open and attentive to the One who can and will do more in us and through us than we can imagine. Let's pray all the more. Let's listen all the more. Let's confess and repent and get rid of the junk that crushes our imagination for another world--a God-saved, God-blessed, God-alive world! Let's obey John's call to prepare the way for this surprising God, who never ceases to exceed our expectations of his faithfulness, peace, joy, and love. Let's let the Holy Spirit bring all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven to life in these wonderfully made bodies of ours.
Let's begin by asking where this needs to happen in our own lives--where are the dark and shady corners in our lives that we keep fruitlessly guarded from the light that no darkness can resist? What do you need to let go of, where do you need to repent--to go a completely different direction? What do you need to do to allow you to hear John's call, to allow for baptismal refreshment, to let him point you away from every other distraction and to the One who lights the true way? Jesus often returned to the wilderness to pray, to listen, to remember his true identity, away from any distortion. If Jesus needed to do that, it's a safe bet that we do, too.
And then we can start to really ask these things, not just of ourselves, but about our life together. In the wilderness, God's project isn't to create a bunch of spiritual individualists, but a new people. Is it fair to say that U Hill is in a bit of a wilderness time? Probably. There's some uncertainty, some vulnerability, we've got some questions about just what is going on, the structures we thought would protect us are showing signs of weakness.
And, if we have ears to hear, John tells us that's, unexpectedly and wonderfully, glorious good news--a kind of gospel place to be.
And so, to our wild and wilderness God, who does more and is more and will do more in us than we could ever expect--more than we'd ask or imagine--to God be all honour and glory and praise, in Christ Jesus, in our lives, in the Church, now and forever.
God give us grace and guts.