Sunday, December 4th: In the Wilderness

Click here to read Isaiah 41:1-11, and click here to read Mark 1:1-8.

Aside from Jesus, who is obviously supposed to be every Christian’s favorite biblical character, my favorite person in the bible is John the Baptist.

Good old John doesn’t make it into many Christmas decorations. He is just too weird, too wild. He is one of those biblical characters who is described so vividly you can almost smell him, and given his reputation for roughing it in the desert, he probably didn’t smell very good.

John the Baptist plays an extraordinarily important role in the gospel. He is the one with the bullhorn, loudly proclaiming that God is about to do something altogether new.

And boy, does this guy know how to get peoples’ attention.

John the Baptist did not abide by the social mores of his day. He wore funny clothing, ate locusts and wild honey. He called people out of the safety of their towns and cities into the dangerous wilderness, and he beseeched them to repent of their sins and be dunked in the river Jordan.

Do you ever wonder how he managed to draw such crowds? So far as we know, he didn’t teach like Jesus or preach like Paul. He didn’t even claim to be anything special; he told his disciples that he was nothing compared to the one he foreshadowed. Not even worthy to untie his shoelaces.

Why do people listen to this kind of messenger? It is no wonder John the Baptist doesn’t loom large in our Christmas decorations—I can’t imagine receiving a Christmas card with his hairy mug on the front.

Yet the people flocked to him. They listened to his wild-eyed preaching, and they heard good news. According to St. Mark, the ministry of John the Baptist launched the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What John proclaimed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He called people out into the desert to change their lives, and to receive the waters of baptism as a sign of their transformation.

Is it really good news to hear that you have to change? Is it good news to be told by a locust-eating prophet that you’re living your life all wrong, and you need to exchange your old life for a new one—out in the wilderness, of all places—and get your hair completely wet in the process?

It’s good news all right.

When Ben and I were in Big Sur a few years ago, we hiked past a church group that had gathered in the wilderness by a river to perform baptisms. We stood above the group, on a cliff overlooking the river. We could hear their singing—joyful, passionate Spanish hymns. And we could see the believers descending into the emerald waters, eyes closed and arms crossed. The pastor baptized them in Spanish, and each emerged out of the river, newborn. I tried not to stare—it felt rude to watch this intimate ritual. But joy simply reverberated from those people. One young man came out of the water with a huge grin on his face. He lifted up his arms in a triumphant and celebratory pose, reveling in God’s love and the love of his community. That young man was born again, born into a life of discipleship and filled with an extraordinary peace.

The word spoken by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament scripture this morning is comfort. Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”

Leave it to our gracious and creative God to offer that comfort through a messenger like John, leading people out into the desert to die to sin in the waters of the river Jordan. The message of John is anything but comfortable—but God’s comfort isn’t always comfortable.

I am still making my way through the Chronicles of Narnia, and the images and stories of C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories are vivid in my mind. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a whiney and unpleasant boy named Eustace gets dragged into Narnia with his cousins, Lucy and Edmund. Eustace isn’t charmed by the fantastical characters of Narnia. He wants King Caspian to take him to the British Consul, pronto. When the adventures take Eustace and his traveling companions to an island, Eustace decides he would rather sulk off by himself than contribute to the labor needed to set up camp. He finds himself in a dead dragon’s lair, and ends up happily perched on the treasures the dragon had been protecting. He falls asleep thinking “dragonish” thoughts—dreaming greedy dreams about his new riches. When he awakens, he discovers his dragonish thoughts have turned him into—you guessed it—a dragon. He is immediately sorrowful, immediately filled with regret and loneliness. He realizes that his greed has turned him into a monster, set apart from other human beings. Having recognized how crummy he had been behaving, Eustace wants to change. He tries his hardest to be a kind dragon, and offers his newfound, dragonish strength and skills to help his traveling companions. After a couple days of this, Eustace the Dragon has a dream. In the dream, Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, comes to him. He leads him to a pool of water, and tells him he needs to bathe, but that first he must remove his clothes. Eustace does his best to molt his dragon skin. But it doesn’t seem to be enough for Aslan. Eustace later explains to his cousin Edmund, “Then the lion said -- but I don't know if it spoke -- 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…

…Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off -- just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt -- and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me -- I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on -- and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found … I'd turned into a boy again."

It is in baptism that the two prophetic messages we ponder on the second Sunday of Advent converge in a perfect harmony: the Comfort promised by the prophet Isaiah, and the repentance preached by John the Baptist. Just as it hurt when Aslan tore into the dragon skin that caged poor Eustace, it hurts to submit ourselves to the hard work of repentance. Looking at one’s face reflected on the baptismal pool isn’t comfortable. Before God, we have to admit our weaknesses, our meanness, our hypocrisy, our utter brokenness. And we have to let our old selves drown in the water. But then we emerge from that watery grave, renewed and reborn. Ready for anything—even the very Son of God. This, sisters and brothers, is real comfort. Real comfort, and real good news.

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