John the Baptist enters the Advent season like a bull in a china closet. Amid the jingling of bells and carolers singing “Joy to the world,” we hear a cry that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The grating voice of the Baptist disturbs our tender thoughts of a cooing baby in a makeshift crib. His ragged message of repentance seems as out of place as a wild eyed soup box preacher interrupting a presentation of Handel’s Messiah. John the Baptist brings strange gifts to our Advent table. Instead of a golden brown turkey, we get locusts with wild honey dip. In place of a new night robe and warm cotton lined slippers, we get scratchy camel’s hair with a leather belt.
Even so, if we are going to welcome the good news from the sweet voices of angels from on high, we will need to first listen to the raspy voice of John the Baptist crying out down there in the wilderness.
Listen…listen carefully to that distant voice crying out in the wilderness. The Baptist cries out for us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. His voice echoes through the wilderness canyons. His apocalyptic cry has political overtones. In John’s day there were other prophets, like the one known as the Egyptian and is referred to in the book of Acts, who called the people of Israel out into the wilderness. It wasn’t because these prophets thought the desert might be a good place to spread their message. They cried out in the wilderness in a type of ritual reenactment of Moses’ deliverance of the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness and Joshua’s crossing the Jordan river in conquest of the Promised Land. Wilderness and river represented places of liberation from their oppressors and the possession of their land.
This may be the background of John’s prophetic wail in the wilderness. As Israel moans under the heavy weight of Roman imperialism, John the Baptist calls her out over the wilderness and through the river, the places where Israel was once liberated from the bonds of Egypt and took the land as their own. His cry in the wilderness may have been heard as an anticipation or preparation for liberation from Roman domination as the beginning of the coming reign of God. The symbolism of the setting was probably not lost on the politicians of the day, particularly king Herod. It wouldn’t be long for Herod to end a dinner date with John’s head on a dinner plate.
Words like “politics” “oppression,” “imperialism” and “liberation” are not words we necessarily want intruding into our Advent meditations. Who wants to hear the harsh voice of the Baptist howling, “Prepare the Way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”? We might more readily welcome his words if his announcement was akin to “O, you better watch out. You better not cry. Jesus Christ is coming to town!” You know what, when the words John quoted were first uttered, they did come as welcomed words. John was quoting the prophet Isaiah, who first spoke those words in the days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The imagery Isaiah uses is from the practice of clearing the pathway of a potentate or god in preparation for the ruler’s procession to the city in order to be inaugurated as the sovereign of the people.
Bumps were leveled. Potholes were filled. Rocks were removed. Weeds were pulled up. Crooked places were straightened for the ruler’s procession to his people. Isaiah uses this imagery to proclaim a word of hope to his people sitting with drooping faces and arms limp at their sides in Babylonian captivity. “Prepare the way for God, who comes to liberate you and lead you across the wilderness, where God will reign among you in your own land,” cries the prophet Isaiah. Now, that’s a welcome Advent message.
John uses Isaiah’s imagery to tell his people to prepare the pathway for the One who comes bringing salvation and liberation to the people. Prepare the way! Remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those valleys sunken by despair and despondency. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the messiah.
I remember picking up an edition of The Marketplace, a Mennonite business magazine, and seeing on the cover a roadway full of poor, barefoot Haitians clearing stones from a dirt road. With hoes and hands they removed rocks, filled in holes, and knocked down bumps in the roadway. These roadways are the only route for bringing in food supplies, gaining access to medical facilities, and transporting products to market. The new smooth roads are a vein pumping life blood to some of the poorest people in the world. These roads are highways of hope. Mennonite business people have been about the business of preparing the way. They have helped the Haitian people fill in their valleys with fruit trees and improved springs of water. They have assisted them in smoothing out the rough places of 125 roads and 5 dilapidated bridges. The glory of the Lord has been revealed in the form of food, livelihood, and healing medicines coming down those smooth roadways. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!
This may not be the Advent message we were hoping to hear amid the consumerist clamor. It is the season to buy and consume, not to care for the poor and hungry. ‘Tis is the season to be jolly and to trample someone to death in order to be the first to get a bargain at the department store! We don’t need no sermons on liberation and caring for the poor, preacher. It’s not something we like to hear. Even my 4 year old grandson, Gavin, knows that. What we need is a more cheery message during Advent.
The other evening coming home from school Iris asked Gavin if he had a good day at school. Gavin cheerfully said, “Everyone in the world had a good day.” Iris responded, “Well, not everyone had a good day. Some people are poor and don’t have anything to eat. You would’nt want to be without anything to eat, would you? Gavin came back, “I don’t need no sermon talk!” In other words, “Don’t preach to me your pious moralisms!” ‘Tis the season to be jolly! Who wants to hear “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” during Advent? We don’t need no sermon talk.
Many did not want to hear this kind of “sermon talk” from another Baptist of our own day---Martin Luther King, Jr. We resisted his prophetic words, because it meant changing our way of life. And it still does. Martin used the very words of Isaiah in his I have a Dream speech in at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. (Get the symbolism of the setting?) He was not there just to create a warm, fuzzy Kum-Ba-Yah moment with blacks and whites holding hands and singing in harmony. His speech was both a sharpened prophetic vision of the reign of God and a concrete political and spiritual call for an end to white racism, discrimination, and segregation.
Like the prophets Isaiah and John, Martin stood in the wilderness of racial inequality and proclaimed:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
Every hill and mountain shall be made low,
The rough places shall be made plain,
And the crooked places shall be made straight
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh will see it together.
I have a dream…
And for the messenger, like John the Baptist Martin would end up with his head on a platter, so to speak. Prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! Do we really want to hear this harsh message during Advent? Do we want to listen to some cranky old voice denouncing racism after we have heard the joyful cheers around the world as Barack Obama, an African-American, was elected to the highest office in our land? Is the old sad song of antiracism what we want to hear when white racism seems to many people to be an anachronism, a thing of the past? Aren’t we now a post-racial nation?
Do we really need an open letter from Jim Schrag going out to Mennonite Church USA congregations during this Advent season about racism? Isn’t it just another “sermon talk,” pious platitudes amid the joyful sounds of “peace on earth, good will to all’? Doesn’t it sound too political? Doesn’t it just leave a sour taste in the church’s mouth? Isn’t Jim just “preaching to the choir”? Listen to this voice crying out in the wilderness of Mennonite Church USA:
Whether you voted or not in the recent election, or who you voted for, is not the issue about which I am writing. The issue is that the election of an African-American brings hope to our nation with its past record of discrimination and racism. At the same time it brings danger to our president-elect in threats of harm based on the color of his skin. People of color throughout our nation, some who may be our fellow church members, close neighbors, are experiencing new harassment and threats from some whites who are fearful, resentful or feel threatened by the election of President-Elect Obama.
Now we face a time when we must give witness to what we have said we believe. We are not dependent upon the political process to witness for justice and equality; these are not mere ideals of our nation, they are part of our witness of faith in Jesus and the power of His Gospel.
We are called to give witness that the healing of nations comes when Christians live up to the teachings of Christ in our daily lives. Now in this historic time of opportunity and danger, we must speak and act in witness of life, not fear and death. When we see oppression born of fear, we will speak against it. When we observe racist behavior, or hear racist language or stories, we will not silently ignore it, especially when we see and hear this among Christians, even in our own congregations. We have an active role to play in our congregations, community, at our places of employment, and in our social interactions. We can help to turn around a conversation from something negative and frightening by witnessing with our positive listening and speaking.
We are all created in God’s image. We will live our lives in witness of this truth from scripture. Now is a particularly important time to offer this clear and certain witness for the “one new humanity” in Christ. (1)
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! It’s seems such an intrusive message into this Advent season.
What makes the message so intrusive is that it calls for us to change. Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand! Change the direction of your lives! It sounds so guilt-producing. It seems such a negative message for Advent. In our seeker-sensitive-megachurch-consumer-oriented-self-absorbed-war-is-okay-until-it-becomes-inconvenient-culture words like “sin” and “repent” and “redemption” go over like a lead balloon.
This attitude is reflected in a Doonesbury comic strip. The “Reverend” is explaining to a couple inquiring about church membership about the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden:
Reverend: I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, its about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.
Wife: Wait a minute---sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?
Husband: I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.
Wife: That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.
Husband: On the other hand, you do offer racketball.
Wife: So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more .
Wife: So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more .
There you have it--- John’s abrasive message for Advent. Do we have Advent ears open to hear what he is really saying? Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The dominion of heaven is near! The age of God’s reign is just around the corner. The time is coming when God will cut down the trees of self-centeredness and injustice at the root. The season is at hand when peace and hope will bud and bloom. The day when war and violence shall forever cease is upon us. The hour when we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character is at the doorstep.
As the streets are decorated with wreaths and fake snow is prayed on windows, the time is close at hand. As we make our shopping list and check it twice, the kingdom is coming! As we decorate the tree with lights and get out the Christmas recipes, the reign of God has a foot in the door. So, prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!
If we’re going to prepare the way for the coming reign of God, we better get started now. Grab a hoe. Get a shovel. Fill in a pothole. Level the road. Pick up a rock. Pull up a weed. Volunteer to feed the hungry. Work on a project for peace. Dismantle white racism. Let go of some of your privileges and possessions. Welcome a stranger. Visit a prisoner. For God’s dominion has already begun. God is coming down the highway of this wilderness world. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!
The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas reminds us that the coming reign of God we prepare the way for is already here:
(Jesus’) disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather the kingdom (of God) is spread out upon the earth, and (people) do not see it.”
From the baptismal waters John cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” It was nearer than even John could imagine. But, thanks be to God, he had Advent eyes to see. For the road sign pointing to God’s reign stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan river right next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at Jesus, stepping into the muddy Jordan river and said, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The Messiah of God’s dominion has come. Do we have Advent eyes to see even now God’s reign is spread out across this wilderness world?
Look. An older man kneels in the front to the church. He has just found faith. The water drips from his head and mingles with his tears. His smile is brighter than the Advent candles. Look. Soldiers are packing their camouflage duffle bags in Iraq and unloading their weapons. An army helicopter hums outside their tent. It’s taking them home. Listen. The chatter of people waiting in line sounds like a Christmas carol. A doctor is spooning some stuffing into the plate of a homeless woman at the shelter. He does this every year during his vacation time. Listen. Children shout and laugh as water gushes from a newly built pump just finished in their village. Listen….listen closely…can you hear it? A distant coyote is howling in the wilderness and a faint voice is crying out…Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.
(1) Jim Shrag, An Open Letter to Congregations: http://www.mennoniteusa.org/Home/News/tabid/65/EntryID/24/Default.aspx