Walking by the Lord’s Light: Peace

Dec. 4, 2022 — Rev. Brent Gundlah

For about fifteen years before the pandemic screwed-up absolutely everything I always had a dental check-up during this first week of December. I’d make the appointment way back in June — you know how they always ask you right as you’re getting up from the chair and wiping drool off your face if they can schedule your next visit?

“What about Monday, December 5th at 3:00?

“Sure, that works for me.” As if I knew whether I’d actually be free on that specific date and time six months hence.

Because I’d go to the dentist every year in early December like clockwork it shouldn’t ever have been a surprise to get a call from the office a few days prior confirming my upcoming appointment, but it always startled me.

So much time had passed since I’d last sat in that chair, so many things had happened in the intervening one hundred and eighty days, that I forgot all about it; I failed to remember that this thing I always did when the page on the calendar said “December” was looming on the horizon.

It’s not altogether surprising that I might have wanted to put it out of my mind; I mean there aren’t too many people who actually enjoy going to the dentist, and I’m definitely one of the people who doesn’t. I know that I need to go, I know that I have to go, and so I go, but there are definitely things I’d rather do.

It’s necessary, but it’s not pleasant; it’s inconvenient, it’s uncomfortable, it’s kind of gross; it sometimes means hearing things about myself that I really don’t want to hear (that I have cavities or that I should drink less coffee and tea), and every single year it stood directly between me and my enjoyment of the Christmas season. In other words, it’s much like our annual meeting in the wilderness with John the Baptist. But we always need to deal with John before we get to Jesus.

John shows up by the banks of the Jordan River in Judea every second Sunday in Advent wearing his camel hair coat (that had to be itchy), eating locusts and wild honey (the food of the poorest of the poor), and screaming at people about repentance. All four Gospels include a version of John’s arrival on the scene, and Matthew’s (which I just read) is the most elaborate of the bunch.

Both Matthew and Mark make a point of telling us about John’s unappealing wardrobe and his unappetizing dining habits, but Matthew’s depiction of him is particularly unflattering; in today’s passage John is also downright rude to all of these people who have traveled a long way to hear what he has to say.

According to Matthew, John greets the Pharisees and Sadducees by referring to them “a brood of vipers” before yelling at them to repent. John tells them that their gold card memberships at the temple and their family connections to Abraham don’t mean squat; he informs them that God will cut them down like fruitless trees, that God will clear them off the granary floor like useless chaff and throw them into the fire to burn. And that’s not very Christmasy.

The Pharisees and Sadducees never get the opportunity to defend themselves here; heck, they never even get a chance to speak. This is no way to make friends and influence people, it’s no way to win over these pillars of society who actually seem interested in finding out what you’re all about.

And yet, as unappealing and inhospitable as John might be, people are still drawn to him like moths to a flame. All four Gospel writers describe John’s early ministry (which is interesting when you stop to consider that only Matthew and Luke actually talk about Jesus’s birth); the crowds keep showing up by the banks of the Jordan to see John; the Pharisees and Sadducees come to the desert from the big city just to be baptized by John; and two thousand years into this whole Christianity thing we continue to talk about John in Advent every year. But why is he so important to the story?

Advent, of course, marks the beginning of the church year but it is also a period of transition — the time in which we linger in the old age awaiting the birth of a new age. John finds himself in similar circumstances — with one foot in the world of old and the other foot in a world that is just being born. And even John isn’t sure what to make of it all.

It’s no accident that our story for today takes place in the wilderness because, throughout the long and complicated history of the Jewish people, the path of change has always gone right through the wilderness. It was where God revealed the Torah to the people, and it was where a generation was punished for its lack of faith.

During Jesus’s time, and throughout most of history, cities have been seen as the locations of power. Places like Jerusalem, with it’s magnificent temple and all the movers and shakers who occupied it, were where the action was. If people from the hinterlands needed something or needed to get something done, they came to the city; that was the way things worked. In many ways, it still is.

But when John landed in the wilderness breathing fire and baptizing with water, the people from Jerusalem actually came to him. Instead of people from the margins heading to the center, the people from the center were now heading to the margins. And the people at the center — the Pharisees and Sadducees who ran the religious establishment must have found this pretty threatening, which is probably why they decided to go out there and size-up John the Baptist. John is shaking things up; his arrival indicates that things might be different. And people with a vested interest in the status quo don’t tend to like things to be different.

And yet, in some ways, things really weren’t all that different — at this point anyway. Like I said, the Jewish people had (literally) been here before;

they had spent years in the wilderness;

they had experienced countless prophets who spewed fire and brimstone, who lived on society’s outskirts, and who called the people to repent;

they had confessed their myriad sins to the priests at the temple.

And Baptism — ritual cleansing with water — had long been a part of the prophet’s toolkit. Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of today’s passage is no accident; it’s meant to remind us that this is familiar territory.

If we didn’t know the rest of the gospel story, we might simply think “Here we go again,” another prophet beginning another cycle of sin and confession and repentance and a slide back into sin and punishment doled out by an angry God.

But we do know the rest of the story. And so when John calls for repentance and tells the people about the judgment that is to come from God via the one whose sandals he’s not fit to carry, we have to wonder whether he really understands what’s going to happen with and to and because of Jesus.

I say this because John seems to get it only partially right here. Sure, the people are sinful; yeah, they need to repent (by which he means they need to change their relationships with each other, with creation and with God). And if they don’t repent, well, then look out.

Matthew’s John the Baptist seems a little too eager to jump right into all of the destruction and hellfire. He never mentions the one thing that will set Jesus apart from the long line of prophets who came before him: Forgiveness.

Mark and Luke tell us that John the Baptist came to the wilderness preaching the need for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but did John understand what repentance and forgiveness actually meant with the arrival of Jesus?

What did John — this intentional eater of locusts and wearer of hair shirts — think when Jesus chose to dine with sinners and tax collectors? Could such people ever have received God’s grace in John’s eyes?

What did John think when he heard Jesus’s story about the father who forgave his wayward, disrespectful son and welcomed him home with open arms and a lavish party? Could such a person ever have received God’s grace in John’s eyes?

Well, if Luke is to be believed, John definitely had his doubts about Jesus and his message. In the seventh chapter of the Third Gospel, John actually sends a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is, in fact, the messiah they’ve all been waiting for because of all the crazy graceful and forgiving things that Jesus has been saying and teaching and doing.

So when did John figure out that repentance wasn’t about earning one’s way into God’s favor by being righteous, but rather about accepting God’s love and God’s grace?

When did John figure out that Jesus came to live among us, as one of us, in order to show us that God’s capacity to forgive us is boundless and that God’s love for us is infinite?

When did John figure out that forgiveness isn’t about who we are, but rather about who God is?

I don’t really know. But the perhaps the more important question is when are we going to figure it out?