What to do with John?
We hear from him every Advent season as he comes to us, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
I don’t think it is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” part that befuddles us.
We get that part all too well, for the world seems to us a vast wilderness these days, and it is filled with people crying out in it.
There are climate scientists crying out warning that something must be done! Carbon levels must be reduced, the ice caps are melting, the climate is changing, and the oceans are dying!
There are others who cry that climate change is all a hoax. The earth has warmed and cooled in the past, and it will again. We need not be reactionary or alarmist. What is more important, and what must be paid attention to is economic growth and maintaining the quality of life and the standard of living!
There are voices that call for impeachment because of abuse of power and conduct unbecoming a President of the United States, and on the other side there are voices that defend the President’s actions. They cry “witch hunt” and “hoax” and point to what appears to be an obsession with the opposition to undo lawful elections.
There are voices in the wilderness of this world that cry out for justice, and others that cry out for a keeping of the status quo, –a cry to not upset the order of things as they are and have always been.
We hear voices that decry the policies on immigration that separate families, build useless walls, and ignore the suffering of neighbors. ‘
At the same time, we hear counter voices that speak of securing borders and maintaining sovereignty, and the right of every nation to determine their population.
We hear voices that cry out about racial inequality, and voices that respond that they are tired of hearing the “race card” being played for what appears to be every societal ill.
We hear voices crying out about income inequality, and voices that respond that the stock market has never been higher!
No, there are no shortage of voices crying out in the wilderness of this wide and wild world!
We cringe at the cacophony. We shudder at the sheer number of voices crying for our attention and even cringe a bit when we hear this story read again, for it is a story of dividing and judging.
John asserts that a time is coming when accounts will be called for, an axe is already laid at the roots of the tree, a time for fire, and winnowing and sorting out of things.
We feel the polarizing echoes of his words, recognize them in our own time.
So, when John shows up “crying in the wilderness” once again in our Advent journey, we are tempted to just tune him out and turn him off just as we are tempted to do with all such cries that are confusing to us these days.
Who is one to listen to?
What to do with John?
“He is just one more inciter of controversy. I really don’t need John in my life, another person stirring up the water right before Christmas.”
All of Judea and Jerusalem are going out to see John, (so we are told).
It might have been because he was a bit of a curiosity, what with his strange dress and diet and all.
Or it might have been because when someone cries in the wilderness, you can’t help but wonder a little bit about what it is they have to say.
We will, (after all) watch people, listen to them, follow their tweets and posts just to see what it is that they come up with next.
If John wasn’t baptizing the repentant, he was cussing out the unrepentant.
“You brood of Vipers” is not the standard greeting that one is supposed to give the otherwise respectable leaders and Temple authorities.
I suppose if it were the modern day and the President of the United States had gone out to see John, the Secret Service would have been quickly dispatched to assess John’s threat level.
Certainly, that is what Herod did.
He found John to be a high enough credible threat that he had him arrested, bringing an end to all of this “crying in the wilderness” business once and for all.
And truth be told, we’d likely be in favor of that ourselves.
We’d like someone to shut up the talking heads.
We’d like someone to cut through the controversy, to give us a definitive answer to things, and to lift us once and for all out of this fog of competing voices and shouts.
I imagine that at least half of all Jerusalem and Judea were relieved when Herod arrested John and imprisoned him.
“There. That puts an end to that nonsense!”
Except, it didn’t, and it doesn’t.
Jesus comes in the wake of John’s preparation, and it is the same set of controversies and the same players all over again.
It appears that you don’t silence the voices crying out by stifling them, one side or the other.
That’s why the “voice of one crying” part of this gospel reading doesn’t baffle us. We are quite confident that those who shout (whatever it is they happen to be shouting) will keep on doing just that….shouting!
No, what baffles us is what John calls for, and what we find hardest to believe in this story, and in our own wilderness experiences these days.
That is the matter of repentance.
For, if John is crying out, he is not doing so for his own health and well-being. John cries out to call people to repentance in advance of the coming Kingdom, and he is doing so because he firmly believes in the promise that God can transform people’s lives.
The baptism he provides is one that leads to repentance, which is all about people changing their minds, or their direction.
John firmly believes that the changing of hearts and minds is possible as the Kingdom of God draws near.
Do we believe that?
I think that this is the question for Advent with which we struggle, the question that we’re not so sure about in the cacophony of shouts in our own world and wilderness today.
Can people truly change, or be changed?
Is repentance even possible anymore?
Do we believe that of others?
More importantly, do we believe it of ourselves? Do we think that we can change, or do we just write others and ourselves off as lost causes in the wilderness of this world?
This is the Advent question that John comes to address.
In dramatic fashion, with the plunging of people down into the waters of the river Jordan, John says, “you CAN be transformed!”
In dramatic fashion, with wild cries in the wilderness, John proclaims “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven as come near!”
God is getting close, cozying up to this world again, and that will bring change, and you are invited into that change. It’s already coming close, look hills are going to be leveled, paths are going to be made straight, nothing gets in the way of God… not even you!
Not you, you brood of vipers, who come out here so smug and self-assured in your power and your own authority. Who warned you? Bear fruit that befits repentance!
Not you, people of Judea and Jerusalem who come out here amidst the shouting inquiring about curiosities.
If all God wanted was children of Abraham? Well, heck, God could make those from the rocks littering the ground.
No, what God wants is you! Which means, that repentance is possible!
If God could do the impossible (turning stones into children) then don’t you think God could also help you change your mind? Change your neighbor’s mind? Change the direction of this world from incessant shouting to one voice, one people, one Kingdom?
This is the message that John wants us to hear, the one we aren’t so sure we believe in ourselves.
Transformation is real!
God can take the dead and make them live again! He will do so through Jesus, show us that.
God can change the heart of the most recalcitrant cynic!
God can give hope to the most despondent of individuals!
God can bring in a Kingdom based not on the noise of this world but rather on the harmonies of heaven, and it starts right here, right now, with a call to repentance!
No, not just a call… an invitation.
You can change!
You can be changed!
The world can be changed, transformed, every valley lifted up, every hill brought low, and all of it so that God can come near and transform — you!
Even you, you brood of vipers, the ones who weren’t supposed to hear the warning, you come down here and be baptized and God can transform you from those who will oppose to those who will follow.
We will see that in Nicodemus, and in Joseph of Arimithea, and in countless others who are cut to the quick when Peter preaches after Jesus’ ascension and pleads with him, “What must we do?”
What to do with John?
Listen to him, not so much for the words he says as for the message he brings.
God is not done with this world, and you can be redeemed.
Take the plunge!
Turn the heart!
Look for the coming!
Judgment has already been made about you, and the judgment is this: “You are worth God sending his only Son for….”
Get ready for it. The Kingdom of heaven has come near, and this Kingdom is for you.