In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who wanted you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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 to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Following Jesus is counter-cultural. In fact, being one of the people of God has always been counter-cultural. Whenever God’s people have come to resemble their surrounding culture a little too much, adopting the same values, the same way of life, the same way of being, God has always reminded us that we are to be something a little different – leaven in the bread, salt for flavor, light for seeing clearly. The people of God are called to live differently.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, while the culture around us is ho-ho-ho-ing and making rather merry, while the culture around us is engrossed in one big party that started at Halloween, ramped through Thanksgiving, and is now in the full-blown throes of the orgy of consumerism we still call “Christmas,” we in the church do something different. In churches around the world and across denominational lines, this Second Sunday of Advent is often referred to as “John the Baptist Sunday,” because the lectionary readings on this Sunday focus on his proclamation in the Judean wilderness.
And so, while the culture around us is dizzy and busy with Holiday spirit, I invite you on a journey into the wilderness, to lay aside your preconceptions, your prerogatives, and your presumptions. I invite you to leave all that behind and to come, with nothing in your hand, to hear the prophet’s message yet again, as if for the very first time. May we pray.
It has been 400 years since there was a prophet in Israel – it is a wilderness of every sort imaginable: physical, spiritual, political, social, economic. The wilderness holds special meaning to the worldview of the people of that time. Call it what you will – the desert, the wilderness, the boondocks, the sticks, Arkansas – it was the most desolate and least desirable place you could imagine. It was thought to be Satan’s playground because the people who spent too much time there often came back crazy, or, some thought, demon-possessed. Indeed, John the Baptist would have seemed crazy in his own time, with his itchy camel-hair suit and leather belt and rather odd diet of insects dipped in honey.
John appears on the scene, proclaiming a message of repentance for the kingdom of heaven has come near. As I study the character of John the Baptist, I realized prophets are not the sort of people to invite to a dinner party. There are certain rules and social norms when you go to a dinner party. You aren’t supposed to talk about religion, politics, or sex. Nor are you supposed to spend the evening promoting your blog, or giving every other guest your contact info so they can follow you on twitter. Talking about religion or politics at a dinner party is another way of saying unmitigated torture for other guests who may not share your opinion.
That’s why we probably wouldn’t invite John the Baptist to our dinner party. Because really, the prophets are sort of jerks. They are horribly pessimistic. They have the remarkable ability to be simultaneously pompous and whiny, which is just an ungodly level of annoying. And they’re rude! I mean, ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME, YELLING IN YOUR FACE RUDE.
And not only are they rude, they’re like Debbie Downer, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches. When you invited Debbie to the party, you knew that she was going to kill whatever buzz everyone else in the room was enjoying with one of her pessimistic sayings, and she was sure to turn the mood sour in a hurry.