Posted by Michelle Anne Schingler
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
How do our Christmas seasons begin?
Is Christmas something we do well to launch into while still lethargic from Thanksgiving turkey—a marathon Friday morning volleying between malls and smaller shops, pushing others out of the way to buy gifts, in a frenzy to find the best possible tree? Is the herald call we best recognize the tinkle of a Salvation Army bell?
Or does advent indeed begin quietly, in the Jerusalem desert, its way paved by a quiet man clothed in camel hair, feasting on locusts and honey and preparing the way?
This week’s readings are an invitation to slow down as we ride into advent. They offer respite from the madness we tend to inflict upon ourselves this season: the feverish songs, the pressure to check items off the lists of everyone we know, the baking, the joviality we’re asked to maintain throughout innumerable replayings of Frosty, concert after concert of Christmas standards….all of the distractions, the glitter, things which do, indeed, lead to our sometimes forgetting what burns at Christmas’s core: “Here is your God! See, the Lord GOD comes” (Isaiah 40:9-10).
This week’s readings are an invitation to, instead, stand with John in the wilderness.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,” Isaiah commands, in anticipation of imminent grandeur: for “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low…the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (Isaiah 40:4-5).
And so John the Baptist is said to have done. Sometimes aligned with the ascetic Essene sect, the mysterious man who the Gospels locate in the family of Jesus as the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John is an enigmatic figure.
In the rivers of the Jordan, he baptized those who expected that Elijah was coming, who expected the Messiah to appear. He helped them to cleanse themselves of their sins in anticipation of one who was sinless. He was charismatic and compelling, and so developed his own following, his own “disciples,” as it were.
But John was as humble as he was enthralling, and so, while many in Jerusalem found their attention drawn to him, his attention remained constantly on the coming God. To his fawning followers, he said “The one who is more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:7-8).
Both a warning and a promise. John’s preparations struck those who witnessed them as powerful; they moved people into deep religious renewal. But they were nothing, John assured, compared to the kingdom to come; God’s grandeur would outdo even John’s beautiful, temporal path-laying.
Psalm 85 offers us a similar wonderful and ungraspable promise: on the day of God’s appearance, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (Psalm 85:10-11).
Such poetic hopefulness—and, in its poetry, so hard to concretely imagine. The hitherto unwitnessed marriage of love and faithfulness—what would that look like? What does it mean to say that the people will both wither like grass and be tended to like sheep of God’s flock? (Isaiah 40:6, 11).
John’s message is both awe-inspiring and discomforting. Then: in the wilderness, he paves God’s way; and the cutting of unbroken ground is never work which is purely pleasant.
We are meant to enter advent trembling in anticipation of God’s glory—trembling dually, God’s glory provoking us both to love, and to recognition that we stand before what was previously unfamiliar.
2 Peter also focuses on the terrible beauty of the coming God: “the day of the Lord will come…and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3:10).
John announces a coming God who cannot be known until God comes. John prepares people for a kingdom which they will come upon only to discover themselves wholly unprepared. So it happens that John, in openly knowing so little, comes to reveal so much.
We enter the Christmas season most honorably if we elect to do so alongside John the Baptist; sans the hustle and bustle, willing to relinquish the extraneous, quiet and hopeful.
“Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” we are encouraged in 2 Peter 3:14. The baptisms in the Jordan become the perfect symbol of advent anticipation: the ablutions which John oversees wash away the things which burden human beings, and refrain from unnecessarily readorning them.
We cannot know, except to know that God is great. We cannot anticipate, except to anticipate that God will come.
We know that a star will guide the way to a manger, and that there, our hope will be born. The beauty of Christmas is this: that, even knowing that God entered history, we have yet to discover how God’s kingdom will unfold here.
We know there is a gift; we have yet to comprehend it. The miracle of the Advent season is that, even though it illuminates the way to God, it always somewhat eludes our grasp.
At John’s side, we know the kingdom is coming; at John’s side, we know that it is not yet ours.
We pave a path in the wilderness. We seek to find it in peace. We look for the patience of God. We praise. We wait.
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