It was a Thursday morning, and I was preoccupied with writing this article and considering the words of John the Baptist from the passage in Luke 3. John seems so out of place in Advent, I thought to myself. He speaks such harsh words of judgment and repentance when what we truly want to hear is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us everyone” to put us in the Christmas spirit.
John the Baptist is an acquired taste, like roquefort. He’s complex. He is an amalgamation of unanswered questions: Is he a zealot acting out the Exodus as a kind of political comedy sketch? Is he the leader of a rival faith community, a serious threat to the fledgeling Jesus movement? Is he a kind of Enkidu figure—a fugitive of our collective consciousness from the epic Gilgamesh—who crawls out of the wilderness, learns our ways well enough and then attempts to wrestle and pin our society to the ground, only to be admired briefly and then destroyed?
Whatever John is, he’s not easy to put on a cracker.
These are days of harsh political rhetoric. Political factions insist not only on the goodness of their own ideas but also on the dramatic failure of their opponents' ideas. We might be in Advent, but this is no season for understanding or for mutual forbearance in our civil discourse.
I saw Danny this week. He was walking down Church Street in downtown New Haven, pretending he had somewhere to go. I knew better. Luckily I saw him in time and could slow my pace so that he didn't catch my eye. I didn't want to hear it from him again. Not yet.
I am often at a loss for words when people ask me what I think. To me, thinking—making clear and linear progress through my mental swamp—is drudgery that I perform only when it is necessary. But if someone says, “Tell me a story,” I am in my element.
Several years ago I was invited to preach on this gospel passage from Matthew at the National Cathedral on the Sunday designated to honor the state of Hawaii. I struggled with the subject of Jesus’ baptism, partly because baptism is not an easy concept to explain, and this story seemed strange indeed.
Few know blindness so profoundly as prisoners who once could see the whole world but now find the universe shrunk to the size of a cell. Inmates hear only what jailers allow, most often some version of “We own you.” As for music, the rhythm of one’s own pulse must suffice, and that hardly leads to dancing. One can even forget how to walk.
Isaiah and the Baptizer conspire to give us animal dreams in this dark season of Advent. The earlier prophet’s vision warms our hearts. Who among us hasn’t yearned for a world in which lambs could hang out with wolves and adders behave as though Mr. Rogers had taught them how to play with children? A strange political critter appears in the dream as well, one that’s not the puppet of pollsters and the powerful, but a leader with the heart and Spirit of God.
People who introduce themselves as bearing a message from God do not commend themselves to us easily. If we do turn an ear to them out of curiosity, or perhaps out of an amused and sometimes horrified fascination, they tend to wear out their welcome quickly. We have learned only too well that such self-styled messengers of God can carry out deeds of unimaginable ferocity in the name of their particular vision of God.
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