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St. Paul’s – Advent 2 – 12/4/22

It’s the second Sunday of Advent, which means it’s time to brace ourselves for John the Baptist.  Dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts, the curmudgeonly prophet raises his voice and lets us have it: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.

If you’re looking for a soft, pillowy entry into the season before Christmas, John isn’t going to provide it.  There’s nothing gentle or saccharine about him.  You brood of vipers! Repent.  Wake up.  Bear fruit.

The Gospel of Matthew makes a point of telling us that John both appears and cries out in the wilderness.  This is where the crowds gather to hear him — in a landscape that is desolate and barren.  Why the wilderness?  Why the lonely desert for our Advent reflections? If you have any experience with real estate, you know the mantra: Location location location.  Location is key.  The place where we stand, the terrain we occupy, the space from which we speak — these things matter.  Photo Ops

I’ve never seen John the Baptist featured on an Advent calendar or Christmas greeting card, but all four Gospels place him front and center in Jesus’s origin story.  John’s gaunt austerity is the only gateway we have to the swaddling clothes, angel’s wings, and fleecy lambs we hold dear each December.  As baffling as it may seem, the holy drama of the season depends on the disheveled baptizer’s opening act.  So again, why the wilderness?

For starters, living out where we do, we know the wilderness is a place of vulnerability, risk, and powerlessness.  In the wilderness, for those migrants fleeing to safety, there is no safety net.  No Plan B, no rainy day savings account, no quick fix.  In the wilderness, life is raw and unsettled, and our illusions of self-sufficiency shatter fast. To locate ourselves at the outskirts of security and power is to confess our neediness in the starkest terms.  In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up.  Because they do.  And it’s into such an environment — an environment so far removed from safety as to make safety laughable — that the word of God comes.

And the Gospel of Matthew goes on.  Not only is the wilderness a place that exposes our need for God; it’s a place that calls us to repentance.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, John cries to those who seek him out.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we read that crowds stream into the wilderness to heed John’s call.  In other words, they leave the lives they know best, and venture into the unknown to save their hearts through repentance.  Something about the wilderness brings people to their knees.

Where are they going in the Wilderness to…the river…to be baptized. John borrows an ancient Jewish practice ofbaptizing Gentile converts to Judaism. To be immersed in water was a way of poetically signifying, a comprehensive conversion from head to toe. And here, John rather provocatively calls on everyone even consummatereligious insiders to undergo this baptism to. As if to say we all require conversion, not just the Gentiles. For a new day, a new era is at hand. Change your minds and hearts and lives. Come and be baptized for the sake offorgiveness of sins for God is coming near. And at the same time, on another level, through the geography of the situation, John is referencing and re-enacting the ancient Exodus story. This isn’t just any old river people are streaming to. This is the River Jordan. The water at the brink of freedom. The culmination of the journey from bondage in Egypt. Through the wilderness, wandering, and into the promised land. This baptism is nothing less than a new Exodus. A new step into a new life of freedom. Free from what? From anxiety, from self-absorption,apathy, greed. A new Exodus, open to all.  And then, John announces Jesus’ imminent arrival. And the image John pictures— well it doesn’t seem particularly open orinclusive. I mean this is Jesus with a winnowing fork in his hand. He’s going to baptize with fire, not water andseparate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff. And that’s supposed to be the good news of the Gospel?

The problem here is that this poetic image has long been read as if it’s about separating good people from bad people. But if we read more closely without that preconception, it turns out that that’s the opposite of what John has in mind. After all, every grain of wheat has a husk, right? Every single one. And farmers back then and today use wind to separate the grains of wheat from the husks. Collectively it is called old, the chaff and the goal of all this of course is to save every grain not to separate the good grain from the bad grain. This is a poetic figure of preservation and refinement and liberation not division. It is what the wind & fire remove. It is our husks that get in the way, the anxieties, self-absorption, apathy greed, that make us less generous, less loving, less tactful. And sure enough later in the New Testament, this is exactly how the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit work not to destroy but to sanctify, refine, challenge, restore and empower. What’s more, this way of understanding is consistent with the rest of John’s sermon. He’s inviting all of us into the transformative, restorative liberating waters of baptism. He doesn’t then turn around and say that Jesus will baptize with exclusion and hellfire. No, he’s saying that Jesus will baptize in a transformative, restorative, liberating way. Adding to the cleansing power of water, the refining liberating power of fire burning away the husks that hold us back.

I wonder if we squirm listening to John the Baptist because we misconstrue the meaning of judgment.  I tend to equate judgment with condemnation, but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is.  In my dictionary, synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception.

What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us?  That he knows us at our very core?  Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of deep love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff.  Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give Him permission to clear us — to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and worthy.

Finally, Matthew suggests that the wilderness is a place where we can see the landscape as a whole, and participate in God’s great work of leveling inequality and oppression.  Prepare the way of the Lord, John cries, quoting the prophet Isaiah.  Make his paths straight.

Unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege, and even harder to imagine giving it up.  No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain flattened.  When we’re wandering in the wilderness, and immense, barren landscapes stretch out before us in every direction and we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure.  Suddenly, we feel the rough places beneath our feet.  We experience what it’s like to struggle down twisty, crooked paths.  We glimpse arrogance in the mountains and desolation in the valleys, and we begin to dream God’s dream of a wholly reimagined landscape.  A landscape so smooth and straight, it enables all flesh to see the salvation of God.

Where are you located during this Advent season?  Where is St. Paul’s located during this holiday season? How close are we to security and power, and how open are we to risking the wilderness to hear a word from God?  What might repentance look like for you, and this church here and now?  Where is God leveling the ground we stand on, and what will it take for us to participate in that uncomfortable but essential work?

The Prince of Peace is on the way. So bear fruit, Dive In, step onto the path of metanoia, repentance and new life. Let the spirit burn the husks away and move on from the tight fist of violence, which is the same tight fist of exclusion and move toward the open hand of hospitality evoked by the poet Isaiah. Heralding the coming day, When no one will hurt or destroy all on my Holy Mountain for the Earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

Location location location.  John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, and people stream to him there, hungry and ready.  May we stream there, too.  Like John, may we become brave voices in hard places, preparing the way of the Lord.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near and you are beautiful, beloved, and holy. AMEN+