Advent II—December 8. 2019
Suddenly, without warning, the Baptist appears from the wilderness.
BAM! HERE COMES JOHN!
Out of the desert, out of the smoldering embers of the Hope of the people of Israel, out of the fading memory of prophets long dead…suddenly, without warning—there is John….
There was nothing new or unusual about baptism in Jewish practice. In fact, “ritual washing” was a part of every Jew’s daily life. Each time a devout Jew came in contact with any unclean thing, ritual washing was necessary. And since first century Israel was occupied by the foreign, Gentile Roman army the Jews could not avoid “unclean things”. “Baptism” was necessary to wash away that uncleanness—that external and ritual stain of the Gentile world.
BAM! John turned the washing inside out. His washing—his baptism—was for the forgiveness of sin. His water wasn’t to wash away the outer contamination—John came to wash away the inner darkness and death from the mind and heart and soul.
And he came just as people were losing hope. It had been 400 years since a prophet had been heard in Israel. For four centuries there had been no VOICE heard in the land and none to answer the Prophet’s call.
BAM! After generations of emptiness, a Prophet came to Israel. After centuries of silence, a Prophet’s Voice was heard in the Land. He was Isaiah. He was Ezekiel. He was Elijah.
Suddenly, without warning, John Baptist appears.
The common people streamed out to meet him. All those in Jerusalem and Judea who had longed for the Voice of a Prophet rushed to him to be baptized in the River Jordan. He was irresistible to them. He spoke powerfully into their listening. He called them to bare their souls and unburden their hearts. He called them to Forgiveness, to Grace, to the Love and Healing of God. The holy river’s waters flowed over them—restoring them, renewing them, giving them vitality and Life.
So far, so good. But then some Pharisees and Sadducees showed up and things got ugly.
“You brood of Vipers!” John raged at the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
This is what we must remember about the Pharisees and Sadducees—they weren’t bad people. In fact, the conventional wisdom of the Jewish world in the first century considered the Pharisees and Sadducees to be “good people.” The Pharisees and Sadducees devoutly studied the Torah, scrupulously obeyed the Laws of Moses and faithfully performed the rituals of their faith. The Pharisees and Sadducees talked the talk and walked the walk of Judaism. In ways too uncomfortable to reflect on deeply, the Pharisees and Sadducees were “the good Episcopalians” of their day and time.
They said their prayers, kept their pledge up to date, helped with parish functions and came regularly to services. Good “church folks”, as my Grandmother would have said—that’s what the Pharisees and Sadducees were. So what was it about them that so profoundly angered John the Baptist?
This is what he said to them: Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.
Here’s what I think John’s anger is all about….The Pharisees and Sadducees had decided that the “outward” and “visible” aspects of being faithful and following God were enough. So, they said their prayers, kept their pledge up to date, helped with parish functions and came regularly to services—and they believed that was ENOUGH.
John Baptist had other ideas.
John came out of the wilderness to talk about the hearts and souls and minds of God’s people. John appeared, suddenly and without warning, to call us to more than “outward show”. John came to suggest something audacious and astonishing. John came to tell us WE NEED TO FALL IN LOVE WITH GOD.
Advent, it seems to me, is the season of romance between our souls and the Heart of God. In the Christian year, it is Advent and not Spring that is the season of “falling in love”.
And falling in love means you will do and be what your beloved needs and wants. And what God wants is for us to work for the downtrodden, lift up the poor, be advocates for those in need, care for the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless, bring peace to those at war, care for the un-cared for.
This Advent, this time of waiting and longing and wishing and hoping for the Christ Child, consider this: how deeply are you in love with God and how completely are you “doing the work of God in this world”?
That is your Advent pondering in this time of waiting and longing and sitting in silence when the world around you is full of noise.
I pray for you as you ponder.
And I ask you to pray for me as well.