Tonight as we mark the second Sunday in the season of Advent, we are met by the intriguing and rather wild character of John the Baptist. Last Sunday as we moved into this season, we read words spoken by an adult Jesus close to the end of his life and ministry. This week the lectionary has begun to back us toward Christmas by having us consider a story that precedes the beginning of that ministry; a story that takes place before the Jesus “goes public.”
To listen to the sermon press play:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”; this is how Mark launches into his version of the gospel story. “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” No infancy story, no annunciation to Mary, none of those long genealogies found in Luke and Matthew, no mention of Bethlehem. That’s typical of Mark’s brief version of things, which moves along at a steady clip—Mark’s favourite word is “immediately”—and keeps a sharp focus on the things he believes his readers most need to hear. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah—“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”—and then without taking a breath Mark trains his lens on John the baptizer.
In past years I’ve sometimes made the observation that John is engaged in something not unlike street theatre or performance art. “[C]lothed with camel’s hair… a leather belt around his waist,” he’s dressed himself like one of the prophets of old. What’s more, John has moved well outside of the city walls, to locate himself in the wilderness by the River Jordan. As the biblical scholar Mark Allan Powell notes, in the Hebrew scriptures the Jordan is “the boundary marker for what came to be called ‘the Promised Land.’” For the freed slaves who had followed Moses out of Egypt and into the Sinai Desert, the Jordan River marked the end of the wilderness and the beginning of life as Israel. “When they entered these waters, they knew their wandering was over and that God’s promises were about to be fulfilled.” For John to call people to wade into that river with him and to immerse themselves in those waters as a sign of confession and repentance is to symbolically connect them to that long and deep story. God’s promises are about to be fulfilled.
Yet even in Mark’s clipped account, you get a sense of the urgency of John’s message. People need to really prepare themselves, for “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” and for John that is very serious business indeed. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” and you get this sense that John believes that if you’ve not got your life in order, being immersed in the presence of the Spirit will be akin to being plunged into fire. That’s certainly the picture that emerges in Matthew’s version of things, in which John proclaims that this coming one will arrive with a “winnowing-fork is in his hand” “He will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:12)
When Jesus does arrive at the Jordan, though, he does something that rather surprises John; Jesus asks to be baptized. According to Matthew, John is so thrown by this request that he attempts to defer; “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14) And yes, Jesus does come to John, and does undergo his baptism, which probably left John shaking his head in confusion. It won’t be the last time John will struggle to understand the nature of Jesus’ life and work.
You see when John had held out his image of the wheat being separated from the chaff, he’d have had a pretty clear picture of which was which, and yet as Jesus launched into his ministry, he kept drawing in some very “chaff-like” people. In fact, Jesus seemed to have almost endless patience for the people deemed outsiders or unclean, and when he did lose patience it tended to be with those who had very tightly drawn definitions of who was “out” and who was “in.” Jesus’ expansive vision and enormous compassion didn’t fit John’s picture of a messiah coming with a winnowing fork, and in Luke’s telling John eventually sends a couple of his own disciples to Jesus to check if he might not have been mistaken about Jesus’ identity. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard,” Jesus said to them, and then basically citing Isaiah he adds, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke7:22) Tell John he wasn’t mistaken about me, in other words, even if I’m not quite what he’d expected.
Not that Jesus himself couldn’t be rather tough-edged. His call from the Gospel reading last week to wake up and to be alert and watchful shares some real common ground with the message of John, and he didn’t shy away from using imagery of harvest, even of fire. Yet the long-view of the New Testament is one that promises that Jesus’ life and work ultimately mean restoration, wholeness, completion, and culmination, even for the very created order.
There are rumours of that long-view in the verses of Psalm 85 that we heard read this evening. Quite probably writing from the context of exile in Babylon, the psalmist is speaking out of the experience of having been badly dis-located and dis-oriented. Yet there are signs that perhaps Babylon has had its day, and that a return home to familiar land is in the works, and so this writer calls the people to sing. “Surely God’s salvation is at hand”; surely the iron hand of Babylon is losing its grip. And then this:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before the Lord,
and will make a path for God’s steps.
As the biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson notes, this psalm takes the qualities of steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace, and embodies them as rather concrete and all but personal entities. “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet,” and righteousness and peace are said to greet one another in a kiss. Faithfulness comes springing up from the earth, while righteousness is pictured as both looking down from the sky and marking a path along the ground that God will walk. And so, Jacobson continues, “
The psalm poetically promises that these abstract qualities of the Creator are, in fact, as real as the more obviously tangible material creations that surround us. Within creation, God’s love is really present and incarnate for us in God’s faithfulness, steadfast love, righteousness, and peace.
And where, asks Jacobson, “Where are these qualities [of faithfulness, steadfast love, righteousness, and peace] more present and incarnate, than in the one who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem’s stall?” But that’s to get ahead of ourselves, isn’t it? We’ll get to that story, by way of this path called Advent. We’ll get there.
In the meantime, heed this Advent call to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And dare to have the kind of biblical imagination to believe that steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace might yet kiss. Our beautiful yet oh-so-wounded world sorely needs such imagination.