What a scene! A bit over the top, don’t you think? A guy living in the wilderness, by choice. A guy wearing crazy clothes. What camel did he skin to make his fashion statement? A guy crying out, “Repent! Repent!” as he stands in the river waiting for an audience to gather – waiting to splash or dunk (the story’s a bit vague here) those who congregate.
Word spreads and people stream into the wilderness to check him out. They find a fanatic. “The Kingdom is coming,” he shouts over and over again. “Get ready!” And is that a locust leg or two stuck in a matted, honeyed spot on his beard as he spits out his words? My goodness, just what do these people see in him that make them flock to him?
Oh, it’s Elijah, many think. And remember the Scriptures? Elijah wore funny clothes, too. And wasn’t it said that he would return just before the coming of the Messiah? And this new guy – he sounds like a prophet, too. Aren’t prophets always crying out gloom and doom and telling us to turn from our old ways, or something bad will happen? His message rings a bell. He’s a young man, but with an Old Testament voice and Old Testament clothing. Maybe we’d better take a look! Maybe we’d better listen! And so they pack their lunches and gather up their robes and put on their most comfortable sandals and head out of town to check out what’s going on.
Some are desperate; some are curious; some are threatened. Because prophets, if this guy really is one, herald change. And change can be good or bad, depending on one’s station in life and one’s relative comfort or discomfort with the status quo. As they journey forth, those on the margins of society are hopeful; those in the middle want to check out their options; those in the center want to check out the opposition who may threaten their secure place in life.
They meet this odd guy in their wilderness and his. Wilderness, in Hebrew history, is a place of testing – a place of preparation – preparation before heading into a Promised Land – whether earthly country or heavenly kingdom. And the river Jordan is a landmark for ancient Hebrews as well as those seeking this new prophet and his message. “Crossing over Jordan ,” as the beautiful spiritual offers, is a passage for both body and soul.
Prophets are neither gentle, nor soft. They’re edgy kind of guys, with eyes that seem to bore not only into the future, but into those who stand in the path of their call.
John, this passionate, new, prophet-like inhabitant of wilderness places, offers passage from old life to new to those who gather on the banks of the river Jordan. He’s a messenger. He knows what’s coming. His voice is urgent.
And many respond. They enter the water confessing their sins and repenting. They die to their old life and are baptized into new life in the cleansing waters. They are made ready and waiting for the one John says is coming after him, one more powerful, one who will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire – the ultimate energizer, the ultimate purifier.
Others on the river bank don’t move. They stand, rooted in place. Hearts hardened, they turn a quizzical ear and eye to the crazy upstart they see before them. They aren’t about to put toe to water. They sense strong currents and shifting sands just below the water’s surface. They plant themselves even more firmly on old ground, not suspecting the quake to come. John turns his wrath on them. Images spill out of John’s mouth as he warns of the wrath to come – of an axe poised to strike at the root of a tree, of chaff winnowed out and blown away by the wind, of coiled vipers with poisonous tongues. He challenges the unmoving to bear fruit that will show they repent of their old ways.
For some the waters are life giving, for others the waters are life threatening. This story marks a beginning. It ushers in a holy and life-giving rite of passage we know as the sacrament of baptism. It sets the stage for the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River , a baptism marked not only by water, but by the Holy Spirit breaking into the event and a voice from heaven thundering, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Do you remember your baptism? Have you ever focused, really focused with your whole heart and mind, on the words in our sacrament of Holy Baptism? On the demands this sacrament makes on us? On what it lifts up as the way to new life with Christ and in community? If you haven’t read it recently, do. Check out what you and I, by virtue of our baptism, are committed to do.
If John’s thundering demand “Repent” made you cringe, as it did me, in today’s gospel story, just take a look at some of the words that jump out at us in our service of Holy Baptism: Satan, evil, sin, wickedness, evil powers, sinful desires. These are not pretty, popular or comfortable words. These are words preachers try to avoid in their sermons. These are not topics folks want to talk or think about. I certainly don’t want to pull them out and consider them in relation to myself, my motivations, my behaviors, past or present. I’d really rather not label some of the things I’ve said and done and been with such dark and sinister terms. I really don’t want to have to focus right now on my sins, as John demands in this second Sunday of Advent. I’d rather put together my Christmas list. I’d rather plan Christmas night dinner with the grandchildren. I’d rather arrange greens and votive candles around the serene Mary, Joseph and chubby baby Jesus resting peacefully on my hall table.
How about you? Don’t you agree? Can’t we just lay aside these dark and dangerous words? Can’t we just consider them archaic? And since most of our baptisms here involve babies – isn’t it easier to just brush off these words as non-applicable when we hear them read? Simply not applicable to such precious, innocent little ones who are dressed in antique white garments, who are mesmerized by the cool, light shimmering water trickling through the priest’s hands and who coo or cry only briefly as the priest marks their heads with water and oil.
But, remember, we, like them, are marked. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism. We were marked as Christ’s own, for ever. We can’t brush off His marks. Nor can we brush aside the words that seal our Baptismal covenant. We must remember them – with a remembering that is not relegated to our past, but which strengthens us to live into our Baptismal covenant each passing year, each day, each moment.
Our baptism required each of us, not as a one- time event but on an ongoing basis, to renounce all that draws us away from God. To renounce our sinful ways. To turn our backs on Satan and the evil powers of this world. To renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness. Yes, I am quoting the Book of Common Prayer. Wow! Sounds like scenes from “The Highlander”.
Are there really forces that want to erase Christ’s mark from our foreheads? Are we really in a world that is engaged in a cosmic battle for our souls?
John the Baptist thought so. His voice echoes in the wilderness times of our lives when we are most vulnerable to the powers and enticements that try to separate us from God. He cries out, “Repent!” He cries out as if our lives depended on it. They do.
Are we really in a world that is engaged in a cosmic battle for our souls? Christ thought so. He went to the cross to save them.
And now let us pray in the words prayed over us at Baptism:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon us your servants, the forgiveness of sin, and have raised us to the new life of grace. Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen