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Advent 2 2014: How do you know?

John the Baptist is an interesting character. He was second cousin to Jesus and a preacher’s kid. His diet was strange even for the desert nomads: honey and bugs, organic to say the least. He was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the same Elizabeth who sang out the Magnificat when Mary was pregnant with Jesus. John knew the Hebrew Scriptures well. He understood that the prophet Isiah named the sins of the covenant people and the consequence of sin as being their exile but he also understood that God is loving and forgiving and that was why the people would be comforted and brought home from exile.

John did a very brave and dangerous thing: he foretold what God would do before God did it. Making a promise for yourself if one thing but making a promise for God is quite another. What would you be willing to say God will do in any given situation? And let’s remember that the situation for John was difficult. The temple has been destroyed and the people sent into exile. John knows the message of comfort given by Isaiah. No doubt when we read, comfort, o comfort ye my people we hear Handel’s Messiah in our heads but that music would not be composed for another thousand plus years. It is just hard for us to not know what we know and that makes it hard to attempt to put our feet in John’s sandals.

I have never been robed in camel’s hair or lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey but I have a new sweater that my grandson brought from New Zealand made of possum fur: does that qualify?  I have wading boots and staff because I am too old to wade the rivers with the slick rocks and fast currents without help. When I wade in the water it is to fly fish for trout but when John waded in the water he had baptism on his mind and a commanding sermon on repentance. John was a man who believed that God punishes sin because God is just, and he also knew that God is merciful and forgiving. John based this view on the Hebrew Scriptures. He warned the hypocrites to turn from their wrong doing, and turn to God for forgiveness. He used vivid imagery: God would/will raise up those who are down trodden, God will put down those who think they are in control and are too impressed with themselves. God who is awesome, metaphysical, unknowable communicates God’s relational attributes in terms we mortals can understand and know: in the image of the good shepherd who comforts and rescues, forgives, and loves.

Teaching people who are beaten down, oppressed by political domination, working till they drop as near slaves to look to God for comfort is no easy task. When people feel oppressed, are overworked and underpaid, they begin to feel unworthy of anything different. When people are separated from home and family and exposed to trauma and violence, they feel abandoned by the God who could if he would do something for them. It is hard to get a person’s attention who is in great pain. It is hard to teach someone who has been denied loving care, comfort and forgiveness that they are deserving of love and care and forgiveness. We have an amazing way of blaming ourselves or others when things go wrong. We rarely immediate begin to examine our conscious to see what sin we have committed and how to seek comforting forgiveness.   Isaiah prophesies that everyone under oppression of any and every kind will be comforted, they will see God.

What about us today? Are we willing to let the message of God’s comforting presence and readiness to forgive our sin remain in a reading from long ago for a people long removed from us? Are we so sure that John was just an eccentric unlike us?

I suggest that we and many we know need comfort today! I suggest that we are often too busy doing what we want or must do to entertain ourselves or earn a living to notice those who need comfort. I suggest that there are millions of people in our world who are suffering exile caused by war, poverty and disease who need comfort. Whether their conditions are the product of individual or corporate sin I can’t say for sure, but that they suffer is clear. I believe God sees them where they are, in their suffering. I believe in every generation there is a John who will wade into the water and pronounce injustice before people who are more privileged and insensitive to the needs of such people. I believe today we would not want John to come here or speak to us about our sins: things we have done or left undone.

Faithful people in every generation need to find their voices in the midst of indifference and injustice. We need to find a way to speak of a God who is more compassionate than judgmental. We need to turn to the God who will forgive and comfort and is more powerful than the gods that we allow to control our attitudes, our investments, and our relationships.

Mark knew that the good news he had to offer in his gospel was like the message of Isaiah 40:3: “A voice cries out: in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”  The people to whom Mark wrote were also under occupation by Roman military might. So as not to insight a rebellion, Mark added to the Isaiah passage one from Malachi drawing forth the image of Elijah, calling the people to repentance as an analogy with John the Baptist.

John is clearly a transition figure. John openly acknowledges that the one coming after him is greater than he. John has prepared his mind and spirit by prayer, reading and studying scripture, and deep reflection about God.  If you are like me, you wonder how John knew Jesus when he approached him. Was Jesus a member of John’s community? Had Jesus studied with John as some scholars suggest? Or was John so filled with the spirit of the living God that he could see with spiritual insight the revelation unfolding as Jesus walked toward him to be baptized?

Advent is a time set apart to hear the promises of God, to take heart, and receive the good news of comfort offered by our forgiving God. It is a time of assurance that we who repent of our sin and turn to the Lord will be comforted. It is time for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord, this year, in this place, in our hearts and minds and spirits. It is time for us to do as John asks of the crowd at the Jordan, to repent and receive comfort.

Like John we should decide where to place our hope. Like John we are called to bear witness to Jesus, now. We are all John. He is coming to us. Can you see him?

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