On this Second Sunday in Advent prophets come to visit us. We hear from Isaiah and John the Baptist, both big names in religious history. Isaiah is the first book that contains the writings of the prophets of the Bible. His mastery of the language, his rich and vast vocabulary, and his poetic skill have earned him the title, "Shakespeare of the Bible." He was educated, distinguished, and privileged, yet remained a deeply spiritual man throughout his 60-year ministry as a prophet. Isaiah foretold the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of the Lord.
John was an itinerant preacher and a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism. John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold. John is known as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces his coming.
The word prophet is derived from the Greek προφήτης (profeetis) which means "a foreteller,” someone who claims to have been contacted by God, and serves as an intermediary with humanity, delivering some specific message to people. Prophets are regarded as having a
role in society that promotes change. They are “truth tellers” and usually their message is one that brings some level of discomfort and points us in an entirely new direction from the way we are going. And prophets often don’t survive the movement and message they carry. John the Baptist literally lost his head which was served up on a plate to Herod.
Prophets often instigate and lead a movement and movements are rarely considered opportune when they begin. This was no less true of the Jesus Movement or the Peace Movement than it was for the Civil Rights Movement. We may sympathize. We may agree that someone should address injustice. We may even think that we should become involved, but often our interest fades because we tell ourselves it is just not the right time.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this phenomenon in his “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” A lot of people told him they believed in his cause but that it was just not the right time to start pushing for such social change. King points out that “not now” always translates into “never.” Like John the Baptist, Dr. King didn’t survive the movement.
The movement of John we encounter in today’s text stands out because it comes to us in the wilderness. The wilderness: that place outside of civilized life. It is life on the fringes. The wilderness is a place that has not been tamed by civilization and exists outside the structure and maneuverings of human beings. One can get lost in the wilderness very easily. The monotony of the terrain mile after mile and the blowing dust and wind are disorienting. You may find yourself hiking in circles. Eventually, you may wander around and around and think that you are so lost that you’ll never find a way out. Some years ago, I had that experience in the dunes in Provincetown on Cape Cod. It’s scary, even though you know there is an exit somewhere.
The wilderness is the place where you feel totally lost and alone. It was an experience most familiar to the Hebrews who wandered there for forty years. They knew its desolation and hazards and the forsaken feeling it elicited. To these people, discovering a highway to follow, a thoroughfare to lead them home would have been a gift of unbelievable proportions.
While the wilderness of which the prophets speak is a physical and literal reality, it is also a metaphor for our lives. How many of us have experienced a personal wilderness, or are living through one now, in whatever part of our lives we it may exist? I wonder how disturbing events in our country and in the world send us metaphorically into the wasteland, generating feelings of exile, exclusion, sadness, and disorientation.
Who among us does not know the personal experience of wilderness time and its dark, frightening side? Wherever and whenever we do battle with it, our wilderness time prods us to recognize that we need a new pathway, a super highway, to show us where to go.
The wide-eyed, wild haired John the Baptist is telling us that we won’t necessarily escape the wilderness on our own. If the prophets are doing their job, they are going to make us uncomfortable because they will be challenging us to face what may be a difficult truth: it is the wilderness times in our lives that open our inner being to God’s comforting and healing presence so that the Holy Spirit can transform that rough country and make a new creation of us.
When God speaks, often it is in a place and time we least expect. This is what Mark’s Gospel today is attempting to tell us about how God works. God's movement is often abrupt and unsettling rather than predictable and settling. In God’s country, really good news sometimes arrives with an honest, searching and hard look at the whole and expansive landscape of our lives.
What would John the Baptist say to us this morning? What truths about our perspective on life, our relationships with others, our hopes and dreams, our feelings about social justice, our generosity in the use of what God has given us? What valleys in our life need to be lifted up and what mountains made low? Where in our day to day comings and goings do we need a change of direction, to get on a different footing, and find the highway of God?
In all of it, there is one hard and fast certainty on which we can count: Comfort—a most welcome word to the human heart. In our wilderness moments, God brings us comfort and asks us to meet the God who believes in us. In spite of all our warts and imperfections, God loves us enough to gently carry us like lambs in God’s bosom, preparing the way, making open our paths.
On this Second Sunday in Advent prophets come to visit us. Having heard their message, we offer a prayer of hope: Open our eyes, Holy One, to the coming of your light, lifting the burden of darkness from our lives. Cherish our hearts, Lord, oppressed by wintriness, assure us of your coming, of your call to new life. We wait in the wilderness for new heavens and a new earth where righteousness and justice and integrity are at home and we are one with you. Amen.