Mark 1: 1-8; Isaiah 40: 1-11 / Norman B. Bendroth / December 11, 2011
This letter recently came to my attention from two devout parents who wrote about the anguish that their son brought to them. I thought I would share it and see if it gives us any perspective on the anticipation and promise the Advent season brings.
“When Johnny was first born to us we had such high hopes for him. We had been trying to have children for years with no luck. Since we were in our twilight years we assumed that our lot was to be childless. Zeke was a pastor and I spent my time doing volunteer work. We were content growing old together. But all that changed when, suddenly and unexpectedly, the news came that we were pregnant. We had such confidence that this child was a gift from God. We had prayed for him. We had, what we thought, were signs from God that this child was special. Johnny grew up just like any other boy playing stick ball and running with his friends. He enjoyed church and seemed to be receptive to spiritual truth. He said he wanted to be just like dad when he grew up. But all that changed.
“Johnny started becoming more distant, more intense, more of a loner during his teenage years. His mind always seemed to be someplace else–preoccupied with some great sense of urgency–when other boys were going to school, playing sports, dating, or learning a trade. He became quite an embarrassment to us, especially since his father was a minister in a large, well-respected church. His father had so bragged about his boy when he was young, about how he would do great things for God one day. What a disappointment instead.
“Johnny never seemed to be particularly rebellious growing up, but then he began to challenge authority and accepted ways. He grew his hair out shoulder length and never seemed to comb it. He began spending a lot of time in the country. He needed to be by himself, he said. His clothes were atrocious–unkempt and of ‘natural fibers,’ as he put it. He was rather immodest as well. He also ate this ‘natural food’ diet of legumes and foods he found in the wild. We wondered aloud, ‘why couldn’t he be like his cousin of the same age? He learned his father’s trade, was content to stay home, and respected the traditions of his elders. Where did we go wrong?”
“What was most disconcerting was his brand of radical politics. He joined the Occupy Jerusalem movment. He began publicly opposing every established authority in stable society. He criticized the economy. He criticized the government. He baited the soldiers in the military. He even screamed publicly at several ministers from some of the largest, most prestigious down town churches. We were mortified. Then he seemed to become delusional. He kept talking about some utopian society which would be led in by a revolutionary new leader.
“He even attracted quite a following which made the local officials nervous. He crossed the line, however, when he openly condemned the governor for the way he conducted his family life. Shortly thereafter Johnny was arrested and couldn’t post bail. We had such high hopes for him. He had such promise. But now we are so heartsick and confused. What can you do with a boy like ours, with a boy who calls himself John the Baptist.”
From the outset John the Baptist was an unlikely hero. Using a little imaginativeness we can see how John might have appeared to his parents and to polite society in his day. From that perspective he shows little promise that he might be the messianic messenger, the harbinger of the coming kingdom. Yet every gospel writer saw John as such.
The gospel writers understood John to be the one spoken of in our old testament reading from Isaiah 40 this morning. “comfort, o comfort my people, says your God…in the wilderness prepare the way of the lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.”
It’s the announcement of a divine highway construction program through the wilderness. Isaiah was writing during the period when Israel had been conquered and carried away to Babylon. The Israelites had all but given up hope. But here is a promise that God would not leave them in this wilderness. God would lead them out of this slavery, just as God had led them out of Egyptian slavery.
Surely, the wilderness experience that followed their liberation would have to come to mind. Between Egyptian slavery and the freedom of the promised land lay a vast wilderness. Wilderness for Israel was, not a back-to-nature adventure in the White Mountains, but wild beasts, temptation, sin, and bewildered wandering with no star to guide. It took Israel forty years of wandering in the wilderness finally to find their way home.
While wilderness as Isaiah and John perceived it was a geographical and political reality, it is also a metaphor. Wilderness is a metaphor for lostness, exile, homelessness. Wilderness is that place where we lose our way, wander from the path, get lost. Exile is that time when we become enslaved to false Gods, serve an alien empire, sell out, forget.
Not too flattering an image of where we live, is it? Wilderness. Desert. And yet, if you will honestly look at our business mores, our sexual habits, life in this nation’s inner cities, or even calculate the millions spent on mind-numbing drugs and alcohol, the words wilderness, and desert, don’t seem to be too much of an overstatement of our situation.
The captivity in Babylon was one of those wilderness times, but Isaiah promised a way out, a highway. Note that it’s a straight road. Ordinarily, the way back from Babylon to Israel followed the fertile crescent, going out of the way to avoid the desert wilderness. But this road is “straight in the desert.” notice also that it is the lord who will be traveling that road, leading Israel homeward. It’s an announcement of homecoming.
Then John unexpectedly appears. Suddenly, to a people chafing under the rule of pagan Rome–a rule that belonged to God alone–who were yearning for the coming of God’s kingdom, and yet who felt God had become silent, appeared a new prophet with the announcement, “the kingdom of God is near.” Here was someone who would call them out of their wilderness. Ironically, John does just the opposite. John is calling Israel back out into the wilderness to repent. The prophets had spoken of a time when Israel, separated and alienated from God would be once again gathered and then united to God. John invites Israel back into the wilderness, like a new exodus, a regathering of the scattered, despairing people.
The dominant theology in Judaism when John was active was if the nation repented then the kingdom would come. There was a cause and effect relationship between repentance and fulfillment. But John’s message was different. He said, repent because the kingdom is coming–like it or not, it is coming and you had better be prepared. This is God’s doing, not your doing.
In ancient times in the east the roads were bad. They were no more than tracks and were never surfaced. Travel was always an adventure. There were, nevertheless, a few surfaced and well-made roads. Josephus the Jewish historian, for instance, tells us that Solomon laid a causeway of black basalt stone along the roads that lead to Jerusalem to make them easier for the pilgrims. These roads were built originally by the king and for the use of the king. They were called “the king’s highway” and they were kept in repair only when the king needed them for a journey. Before the king was due to arrive in any area, a message was sent out to the people to get the king’s roads in order for the king’s journey.
Hear the good news, my friends, that this is God’s highway. God brings homeless people back home. But note that it’s not so much that we were searching for God, but that God is searching for us. A people separated from God due to their sin cannot come back to God unless they are summoned, unless God is willing to forgive, to let go of God’s justifiable case against Israel and receive the chosen people back. These texts tells us of what God will do, where God is going. God is dragging Israel along, down the straight road home.
Marks says that this is happening again in John the Baptist and his preaching. Israel is being summoned back to God. That way back, that straight highway through the desert, comes about through confession and forgiveness. Thus, John proclaims a baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The way out of the wilderness is initiated and led by God.
Often applications are made from this text, and I’ve done it myself, about what are you going to do about the ruts and crevices in the highway of your life? How are you preparing the highway into your life to welcome the king of kings? While those are worthwhile questions, I want to put it differently, since we’ve seen that this is work God is doing in our lives. The question for us is “What road is God building toward you today?” What voice, what smoothed way has beckoned you back home to God? What has gotten your attention lately that makes you feel “looked after”? Have you ever been sitting in church and felt like a prayer, or a hymn or the anthem was spoken just for you, maybe only for you? Or you’ve had a vaguely felt, but gnawing sense of yearning in your heart. Maybe an echo that is evoked from deep within your soul’s memory upon hearing again a carol not heard since childhood. Those coincidences might not be merely coincidental. Maybe it’s a call to come home.
Dan Wakefield wrote a book a few years ago called Returning, which is an account of his own wilderness wandering for forty years before he returned home. He describes how he wandered away from God, how his life as an adult became chaotic and confused. Then, he says, “I cannot pinpoint any particular time when I suddenly believed in God again. I only know that such belief came to seem as natural as for…twenty-five or more years before it had been inconceivable. I realized this while looking at fish.
“I had gone with my girlfriend to the New England aquarium, and as we gazed at the astonishingly brilliant colors of some of the small tropical fish–reds and yellows and oranges–and watched the amazing lights of the flashlight fish that blinked on like the beacons of some creature of a sci-fi epic, I wondered how anyone could think that all this was the result of some chain of accidental explosions! Yet…to try to convince me otherwise five years before would have been hopeless. Was this what they called ‘conversion’?
“The term bothered me because it suggested being ‘born again’ and, like many of my contemporaries, I had been put off by the melodramatic nature of that label, as well as the current political beliefs that seemed to go along with it. Besides, I didn’t feel ‘reborn.’ No voice came out of the sky nor did a thunderclap strike me…I was relieved when our minister explained that the literal translation of ‘conversion’…is not ‘rebirth’ but ‘turning.’ that’s what my own experience felt like–as if I’d been walking in one direction and then, in response to some inner pull, I turned,” (pp. 23-24).
Christmas is a time for homecoming. Look out on any late to mid-December congregation and you will see faces home for the holidays that we don’t normally see. Wise relatives from the east come bearing gifts. And always there are “exiles” who come back this time of year. This season, why not come home to the God who loves you and cared to send the very best?