Sunday, December 10, 2023 – Second Sunday of Advent
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
How do you make something if you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like?
This question comes up pretty regularly in the technical challenge of Bake Off. (What is a lardy cake, anyway?) But I’m pondering this question now, not because of Bake Off, but because of John the Baptizer.
Advent is dominated by two figures…a pregnant teenager…Mary, Theotokos, the God-bearer…And John, this enigmatic figure calling people to repentance and baptizing them out in the wilderness.
All four gospels and even the (loosely) historical account of Josephus acknowledge that John was a real person who was imprisoned and killed by Herod Antipas (4BCE-39CE)…They all agree that people were drawn to him and that he baptized them, but that’s about all they can agree on.
Why Herod arrested and executed John is disputed…was it because he was critical of Herod marrying his brother’s wife…or was it because Herod was afraid that John was about to raise a rebellion against his rule? We don’t know.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all claim that John baptized Jesus…but in John’s gospel John the Baptist testifies that he sees a dove descend on Jesus, but he never explicitly says he baptized Jesus.
Luke is the only one who claims that John is related to Jesus…in every other gospel John simply “appears.” Matthew and Mark are the only ones to highlight his odd dress…and his even odder diet.
But all the gospels see him as The One “crying out in the wilderness,” “preparing the way of the Lord.” And because he is always seen as a precursor, it’s very easy to view his whole story as simply “a prequel”—which we all know is never as good as the main, original story.
But something about this prequel made me stop this year, and not want to just fast forward to the baby, and the star, and the “peace on earth” part. This year I stopped and started thinking about the story from another point of view…from the point of view of someone in the community gathered around him. Not someone on the inside—a relative of Jesus who knows where all this is going—but someone who doesn’t know anything about Mary, or mangers, or Magi… someone who just feels called and connected to this mysterious figure out in the wilderness and the community that forms around him…Someone who has a whole lotta faith, but NO real clue where any of this is going…or what it will look like when we get there.
John himself doesn’t even really know what’s coming. Matthew says that when John is in prison and hears what Jesus is doing, he sends disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
So if John isn’t in on the plot…if his costumes and his diet and his baptizing aren’t just an elaborate set of MacGuffins to get the main Jesus plot started…then what is going on? What are they doing out there in the wilderness? How are they preparing for someone, or something, they can’t actually envision? And what’s so compelling about it? Why are so many people drawn to it?What’s he building out there?
We do have some clues…The first is where he is…He’s calling people out to the wilderness…which means calling them out of their routines…out of daily lives…out of their comfort zone…out of their hard, self-protective shells and he is inviting them into a daring landscape…into a space that requires some courage…some resilience…a lot of humility… He’s inviting them back into a closer relationship with Mother Earth, and the water, and plants and animals…and…a closer relationship with one another.
And then, what is he teaching them? There are images of John haranguing the “brood of vipers” who come out to the desert…but if that was all he did, no one would hang around for long. What he’s really teaching them are things like: “if you have two blankets, give one to someone who has none…and the ones with food should share it”…Don’t take more than is due to you…don’t use fear or violence to force people to do things…Don’t falsely accuse them…”Prove to others by the way you live that you have” repented (Luke 3:10-14—First Nations version).
That’s a big word…”repent.” It can mean a lot of things…turn around…or change your mind, or to actually to go “beyond the mind” or “into a larger mind” [Cynthia Bourgault, Centering Prayer]. The First Nations version says it means, “to return to the good road,” another translation says “change of heart,” [David Bentley Hart, The New Testament]. I think of it as returning to the center…returning home…returning to your true place in the community of creation.
That’s what he’s teaching them…and what he’s calling them back to…and reminding them of…and baptizing them into…is a community grounded in—and trying to remember how to trust in—God’s love…They’re building a community committed to helping one another turn from the destructive influences around them, and turn towards the generosity, and caring, and creativity that actually builds diverse, vibrant, and beloved communities.
John is so much more than just a lone wild voice crying in the wilderness, “Jesus is coming…look busy!” He’s a prophet calling us back to our true self…our true purpose…our true reason for being. We are here to be for God, and for one another…and a blessing to all creation. In all the ways in which we fail to do any of those things…John calls us to repent…turn around…experience a change of heart. In all the way in which we are generous, and creative, and open, and vulnerable, and brave…we join with John’s community in preparing the way for God’s reign of justice and peace.
Even Jesus can’t describe clearly what “the Kingdom” looks like or when it’s coming…that’s why he uses parables all the time…but both John and Jesus know that God’s reign is not built following a divine blueprint…on some celestial timeline…It emerges one community…one conversation…one small act of worship…one generous act of kindness at a time. And even if I don’t know what it will ultimately look like…I still want all of us to be part of the process that brings it about. Amen.