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Wilderness Guide

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on December 9, 2012.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 3:1-6

Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11     

(Walking to the pulpit, shouting) “I have a word from God this morning! Repent of your wicked ways and return to God! Repent and come to the water’s edge to be baptized for your sins and to set your hearts right with God!”

Søren Kierkegaard compared the end of the world to a theater which had caught fire backstage. One of the actors dressed as a clown ran out to warn the audience but they only laughed and applauded at his manic actions. After all, he was a clown and they thought what he was doing was hilarious. The clown shouted all the louder and that made the crowds laugh even harder. It was all a joke to them until they smelled the smoke and saw the flames, but, of course, by then it was too late.[1]

When you read closely, most of God’s messengers in the Bible are clowns shouting out a warning few seem to hear. There’s something odd or offbeat about them that makes normal people look askance at them discounting their message.

Perhaps you hear this story as another of those messengers. It would be easy to look upon John the Baptizer as just another clown from God.

Pastor Nancy Rockwell reflected upon the appearance of John with these thoughts: “Wildman John leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below. His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees. He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, and the brink of doom. 

John is a wilderness man now. And John roars because the crowds that come out to hear him are immense, multi-national, multi-lingual, and even multi-faithed, according to the Roman historian for the region. They come because the Wildman speaks the truth they long to hear.”[2]

When it comes to John the Baptizer, no doubt we think of the Judean wilderness and the fiery personality of someone so wild and untamed, living in a place so stark one is hard pressed to label it sustainable. Anytime you visit the wilderness area along the River Jordan, one can’t help but imagine John the Baptist’s preaching the throngs of people who trekked down to the river to hear him proclaim preparation. He was an outlier that warned people to get themselves ready for the appearance of “one who was coming.”

Most of us in this season are ambling along peacefully toward the manger scene when on the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptizer jumps out and scares the bejeebers out of us.

John’s only occasion in Scripture to reside in the city is in a prison cell where he gets his head cut off and presented on a platter for saying to the king what no one else would challenge the king’s wrath to say. Raised in a little village just outside Jerusalem and in the shadow of the Temple, John left the city to save his soul. He lived instead as an outsider to Judaism. Yet the people of the cities eagerly sought him out on his turf – away from the bright lights and the carnality of city-life. John preached out in the wilderness where it was harsh and arid. It was a place where his message made sense.

Poet-storyteller John Shea described John the Baptizer this way:

There is another pointer of the way, a map of a man,

who when you try to read him, reads you.

Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion,

A roar that once overrode Judea.

You may not heed but you will hear his insistent, intruding, unsoothing voice.

Some say this thunder is because his father stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies,

Tongue tied by an angel who was peeved by the old man’s allegiance to biological laws.

The priest was silenced by the temple because he thought flesh could stop God.

The son of the priest shouted in the wilderness

because he feared God would stop flesh.

His open mouth was an open warning.[3]

Jesus and John were the sun and moon to one another. One paved the way; the other came as promised from ancient days. They argued on the river’s edge over who should baptize whom and Jesus pressed John with Hebrew prophecy of centuries before. They were the oddest of couples, this sun and moon in orbit together.

Shea describes the two as linked in the holy story:

Opposite of the sought-after child in every way.

The child is round, this one has edges;

The child nurses on virgin’s milk, this one crunches on locusts;

The child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, this one is rubbed raw by camel hair.

Yet they know one another, even exchange smiles.

They share a mystery, this hairy man and smooth child.

Jesus came out of John as surely as he came out of Mary.

John was the desert soil in which the flower of Jesus grew.

John was the voice in the wilderness who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.

John would push sinners beneath the water

and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.

John was the fast who prepared for Jesus the feast.[4]

The man John was formed and haunted by the Judean wilderness east and south of Jerusalem. The wilderness spoken of in the Bible was a desert. Not a desert like the sands of the Sahara in Northern Africa but a desert more like of the southern border of the United States, a wilderness marked by arid and rocky terrain. In the wilderness, the voice of God came and spoke to many of the Bible’s main characters. It was the place where God had been creatively at work through the silence and the waiting. Will Willimon described the desert as, “the place where Israel lost its way; lost its way and bowed before alien gods … (The) wilderness is not a place … it’s a state of mind … a metaphor to describe a terrifying situation where wild beasts lurk. There are no clear paths, and chaos, temptation and bewilderment reign.”

John encountered the God of his fathers out in the wide and silent desert. Out there, the calling of God for his life became clear. The wildness of the desert became for him a place of revelation. It was a place of conversion and a place of transformation. And like all revelations, it was a disturbing event because it demanded a response from him. In a sense, it was disturbing because if called for an inner revolution. It involved being “made over,” in being made new, in being “born again,” if you don’t mind me using that kind of language.

For John, the transformation had to go down into his bones, into the marrow of how his life was being lived in order for him to fulfill his calling as a messenger. John had to be the message in order to deliver the message. The message of the desert is that all of us must submit to the revolution and submit to the transformation God has in store for us.

To make sense of this, Richard Swanson reminds us of an ancient and deep truth about the world, something John’s tough message carries, the world is upside down and needs righting. What God is up to in our time, John claims, is that One is coming who will establish a new world where the wrongs of the world will be turned around. Did you hear John’s prophetic warning? “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.”

Swanson rightly points out that this is a central and insistent perception of Jewish faith, namely, that the world is upside down. Richard Wilson reminds us, “Peace is not about maintaining the status quo. Peace is about striving to be empowered and transformed by the presence of God in our midst. To speak in favor of peace always is to find a dissenting voice, a voice that articulates what could be – what should be – for followers of Jesus.”[5]

On the promise side of John’s preaching, we can recall the history of the ancient Jews who had received God’s promises long before John came along, the people “who sang the song” as they held onto those promises. So John began his career by singing the old song again, by holding out the old hopes, even six hundred years after those words were first delivered by prophets of another era.[6]

Our work today, is to sing another verse of that ancient promise clinging to the possibility that God is still at work laboring to make the promise come true. Jesus came to us with a purpose and during Christmas, our temptation overcomes us every time we live as though there’s another purpose.

Our calling this season is to prepare the way of the Lord. So put on your gaudy polka-dot tie and silly hat. Put a big red nose on your own nose and break out those huge floppy shoes and join the circus. Take your place in the parade of circus clowns who are bringing the word to the world. So what if no one listens? So what if most people won’t listen to our message, because we are so many clowns in a burning theater. Take heart, some will. Some will indeed.

By our life in God’s grace, by our repentance, by our love in treating people justly, by our message of hope, by our encouragement to those around us, by our generosity in sending people around the world to share the message everywhere. Anytime we do those things, we are lighting a candle in the darkness and proclaiming the coming dawn.[7]

[1] Story from Larry Bethune, “The Advance Team,” University Baptist Church, Austin TX, 12/4/94

[2] Nancy Rockwell, “Advent 2,” The Bite in the Apple, http://biteintheapple.com/wildmanjohn/, 12/2/12

[3] John Shea, “The Man Who Was a Lamp,” Starlight, Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long, NY: Crossroad, 1995, 175

[4] Shea, 176

[5] Richard Wilson, The Impertinence of Peace, The Baptist Center for Ethics, 12/8/06, https://ethicsdaily.com/article_detail.cfm?AID=8256

[6] Adapted from Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds, An in-depth reflection on next Sunday’s Bible reading” from the United Church of Christ, http://i.ucc.org/StretchYourMind/OpeningtheBible/WeeklySeeds/tabid/81/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/258/Make-Ready-Nov-30-Dec-6.aspx

[7] Adapted from Bethune, Ibid.