Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2011
The way I imagine it, John the Baptist had a wide and hospitable grin. And when he smiled, you could often spot a locust leg sticking out between his teeth, leftover from dinner. He would shake hands with enthusiasm (his hand was wide, the skin was rough) and your smaller hand, once swallowed by his, would kind of stick there—honey residue from lunch. His clothes emitted an unusual odor like the mix of wind, wild flowers, and sunshine. His hair went every which way, his beard was scraggly and unkempt. The sound of his voice was like rushing water—powerful, yet soothing.
Yes, indeed, John was wild, unconventional, not quite convincingly sane. Compelling, yet mildly terrifying. You never knew whether to run out into the wilderness and join him, or run away as fast as you can. At first you felt uncomfortable in his eccentric presence—you’d never met anyone like him before (and you were unlikely to ever meet someone like him again). But after awhile you warmed up and felt more at home with John than you’d ever felt with anyone because you just knew there wasn’t a thing about your appearance, your smell, or your talk that John was going to judge.
Oh sure, he could preach one fiery sermon on repentance, but John let God do the judging. He just did the preachin’ and the baptizing. John liked to keep things simple. Whatever guilt you might harbor—that was between you and God, and John was not going to be a third wheel. Some preachers have themselves convinced its their job to insert their presence into other people’s business; John had the mind to run out into the wilderness and preach from the desert, where people would only hear him if God brought them there.
Now we don’t hear much in the Bible about John’s childhood, but you wonder how a perfectly respectable son-of-a-priest ends up wearing camelhair skirts and pillaging the desert sands for locust morsels. Maybe he had the guts to believe what his mother, Elizabeth, told him about himself and his calling. Maybe he spent one too many days at the feet of Mary, listening to outlandish tales about miraculous births, visiting angels, and traveling wise men. Maybe John grew up playing pretend with a rather unusual cousin, where the lines between imagination and reality were strangely and divinely blurred. Maybe the other kids in the neighborhood made fun of John, so he decided early on he might as well be himself rather than cater to what others expected of him.
As far as I can tell, you don’t get that crazy by choice, at least, not by one choice alone. You start on a path, trusting where the path leads. You don’t look back; you put one foot in front of the other and make up your mind to enjoy the journey, no matter where it leads.
The text says John “appeared” in the wilderness, as if he didn’t exactly mean to end up there, but it’s where he found himself. And since many people who struggle in life end up wandering into some type of wilderness, I suppose John felt this was as good a place as any to start preaching. The people who needed his message would end up in the wilderness eventually, thinking they had finally stumbled into pure God-forsaken territory and John would already be there, preaching and baptizing, living off locusts and honey just to show that life is sustainable in the lands of draught and desert. Lo and behold, the desert can be the birthplace of transformation.
I imagine John didn’t have to do much persuading. He just greeted people when they arrived, and the look in his eyes told them all they needed to hear, “I see you’ve come to repent.” Most people didn’t know that was why they had stumbled there, but once John put words to it, things came into focus, “Yes, of course, I’ve come here to repent.”
In today’s world, we’ve sort of butchered the word “repent,” as if repenting meant to feel sorry for your sins, and maybe do a little begging for forgiveness. In John’s day, people went out into the wilderness to find a whole new way of life. John lowered their bodies under ice cold river water—water to wash the old away, ice-cold to reawaken their senses, open air to pump oxygen into new life.
And then, then, John would proclaim the ultimate promise—a Savior was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit! So really, the people were more than repenting, they were preparing themselves for something even greater—the very Advent of God.
That is, after all, how the prophets depict the ministry of John—“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight paths for him.’”
This picture of John’s ministry in Scripture, I find utterly compelling. I have long loved the image of making pathways in the wilderness, and here at Covenant, the image hits closer to home than ever. We know what it is like to clear paths in a wilderness, move rocks around, find the path hidden beneath the stones. John’s ministry reminds me of Covenant, this unique place in the wilderness of San Antonio.
We may at times, wonder, should our church be in the heart of the city, where the people are? God knows we need churches in there, but God also needs churches out here. For people who need to come out to the wilderness if they are to find God.
And like John, we prepare their way. We don’t deliver God on a platter. We don’t insert ourselves where we do not belong. We simply call out into the wilderness, and proclaim good news among the trees and the cactus, which sometimes feels like a fruitless task. Who is even out there who would hear us?
But like John, we’ve simply found ourselves here, so we trust our location, and we start preaching. We preach as we make the paths straighter, more accessible. We remove rubble that stands between people and God, but we do it quietly so as not to disturb the courtship. A lot of our work goes unnoticed, but that keeps us humble, the grounds sacred, and the people who visit here, undisturbed.
I mean, this place can disturb you, from the gut of your insides to the toes of your socks, but only if it is God’s doing. We generally don’t interfere when we see a miracle off in the distance, building high like a wave; we do try to position ourselves just so, that we might feel the wave of God’s mercy pass over and around, like a baptism.
The way we create prayer paths, parking lots, and labyrinths around here speaks to me about the Covenant way of evangelism. We embrace the wild mess of the world, and we refuse to coerce it. We accept what’s there—the rocks that belong, the trees that were here before we were, the land that has a history longer than we can imagine, and we simply and very, very gently, so as not to disrupt any sacred stirrings, help curve paths that make a straighter way for people to find God.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to meet him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”