You might well wonder what on earth we’re doing here on this Sunday morning, listening to a story about a fellow dressed in camel hair, surviving in the desert on a diet of locusts and wild honey. It’s the stuff of TV reality shows, Bear Grills would eat him him for his Survival in the Wild series. Bear Grills eats anything.
But camel hair coats? That’s what nice girls from church schools and good families used to wear with pearls and pigskin gloves. And smart young male executives, with a paisley scarf.
This is a culturally dislocating passage of Scripture, hard to market three weeks before Christmas. A smart church would skip over it and find something more suitable for the season.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of leaving out the bits of the Jesus story that don’t fit our profile. There is a good reason for every passage appointed for every Sunday and every season. And Advent would not be complete without this rampaging, noisy firebrand of a prophet called John the Baptist.
He comes out of nowhere in the gospel, we know little about him up front, but there is a well buried back story behind this man. He may well have been linked to the Qumran Community: monastic, hard core, devout. He certainly had many followers of his own and Jesus clearly knew him and respected him. Herod the puppet Jewish king in the pay of the Roman Empire, was terrified of him and had him executed.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees, the politically important and morally righteous religious leaders of the day, couldn’t stand him. Understandably so. If someone denounced you as a snake and a fraud in front of a crowd, what would you think of him? These days he’d be facing more defamation suits than he had hot dinners, not that he had many hot dinners.
We don’t know much about John but we know he is so pivotal to the Jesus story that he gets pride of place in the first chapters, in Matthews gospel, right up there after the birth in Bethlehem and wise men coming. So why is his message so important?
For a start, it’s all part of this Advent exercise in preparing us for the coming of the Christ child and raising our expectations of what this might mean, breaking us out of our routine keeping on keeping on.
What John promises, just as Isaiah did eight centuries before him, and Elijah did later (John was believed by many to be the new Elijah) is that this messiah figure would literally reorder the landscape. Raise the temple mountain in Jerusalem, as Isaiah vowed last week, and cut a highway through the desert as John promises will happen this week. These are engineering jobs that make the new northern motorway or Waterview tunnel look like child’s play.
Now as it happens the height of the hills in Jerusalem haven’t changed much, and desert highways are still in short supply, but these are metaphors not blueprints, to shake us into awareness of how huge a change is coming in our spiritual landscape.
And whereas earlier Advent readings point us to the future God holds for us, this story is about how to engage in the present, how we might live now in order to enjoy that future assurance.
John shows us a way to meet God here and now. Step by step.
Assume nothing. Whatever privilege you have been given, whatever background you take for granted, even if you have earned rather than simply inherit it, whatever rights you claim because of what you own or where you went to school, or live or work, or most of all because of what you believe, don’t count on any of that giving you a head start when it comes to meeting God.
And if that sounds tough, then imagine how the Pharisees felt when John says to them, after they had spent lifetimes praying and practising and studying the faith, sorry boys, don’t presume all this counts for anything.
You claim to be the chosen ones, Abrahams ancestor’s, well let me tell you, God can replace you in the blink of an eye from the stones beneath my feet.
The Advent journey begins by discarding all the notions that we have of any inside track, any privileged place, any special advantages over others in the search for God.
We start with empty hands, the emptier the “betterer”, and we ask God to fill them in whatever way God chooses.
And starting empty handed, John then tells us to be open to a change of heart, a spring clean. The building is going to get one of those next Saturday morning at 9am (volunteeers still needed) but we each need one as well. Letting go the things that hold us back from each other and from God, the old resentments, the over stewed anxieties about ourselves and how well we’re accepted, the stereotypes we hold to keep people who are not like us, don’t like us, at a distance, the self protections we wear like layers of clothing to ensure our advantage. The old word for that is repent, it simply means a willingness to turn around.
It’s hard to do that alone, so we usually need someone to turn us around through their example or inspiration. It can be a person like John who acts as a circuit breaker to our complacency with ourselves. These change agents are hard to find, and when we do find them they are often uncomfortable, difficult people that you wouldn’t want to live with for too long. James K Baxter was such a person, and I could add a number of artists, teachers, writers, monks and nuns that I was greatly indebted to meet and glad to say goodbye to, such was their intensity.
It can be a moment that literally comes out of the blue, an epiphany awakening through a snatch of music or dialogue, a dazzling image, a sudden silence in which we find something beyond words.
However these turn around prompts arrive, they open up new territory. John the Baptist tells us to take advantage of these times and use them to do good, fill these spaces with something worthwhile.
The metaphor of bearing fruit while you can, even when the ax is lying at the root of the tree, is a call to revel in the urgency of the present time, filled as it is with opportunity and new beginnings. It is not too late, regardless of how self absorbed and complacent we might have been.
When John tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is near, he is saying the present is drenched full, saturated with potency and possibility for new life, renewed relationships, the chance to start over again.
Albert Eistein tells us there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.
There is no question which option Advent is calling us to take.
This Advent turning around is not only about what we do for others and for ourselves, it’s equally about how we see others and ourselves and the world around us. This is a season for pushing out horizons and expanding visions. Few poets in the English language captured that better than Gerard Manly Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who lived a fairly tortured life but was able to see the potency and possibility of creation with great clarity, in the smallest details. Do you know his poem Pied Beauty?
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple colour as a brinded cow
Fresh fire coal… finches wings
Landscape plotted and pieced
All trades, their gear and tackle and trim
All things counter, original, spare strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckles (who knows how)
Advent is a season for reclaiming that kind of way of seeing the world
And finding God waiting for us in everything
Swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim.
This can happen when we least expect it or are least prepared for it.
But it can also happen when we trust stories like this morning’s gospel and figures like John the Baptist to prompt us into pausing, taking stock, repenting.
Letting ourselves be turned around to see again the luminosity of the world and the potency of what we could be, what our relationships could be, what this community of St Matthews could be if we really were open to let God work in us and through us.
Have you heard about the darkness park in the South Island’s McKenzie Country? Centred on Lake Tekapo and the Mt John Observatory, there is now an International Dark Sky Reserve across that region where light pollution of any kind is kept to a minimum at night so that visitors, who come in their tens of thousands, can see the sky and the stars more vividly than almost anywhere else in the world. Visible there like few other places are meteor showers and aurorae and zodiac lights, and all the other wonders we know are out there but rarely take the time or know how to look for.
As a place for turning around to get ready for the coming of the Christ child, and the opening of the heavens and the hearing of the angels singing, I couldn’t imagine a better place to be. And even if we can’t get down there this season, we might continue this Advent journey by looking up at the night sky tonight and to think again what it might mean to say the Kingdom of God is near.