“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.
In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.
John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.
But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.
Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.
We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.
Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.
Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.
His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)
It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:
> Get close to those who are marginalized,
> Change false narratives that are out there,
> Stay hopeful, and
> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.
And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.
Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?
From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”
Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.
We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.