John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5, NRSV)
Consider today’s devotion a cautionary “killjoy” message – but one with a deep and abiding promise of hope. John the Baptizer came before Jesus as a herald and messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. A considerable portion of Luke’s Nativity story focuses on Elizabeth and Zechariah, and John’s birth narrative takes as much space as that of Jesus. John is significant to the story of God’s plan, and he comes proclaiming a message of repentance and forgiveness for sins. This sounds excellent and welcome – until we consider who this message was for.
Let’s begin with who it is NOT for. It is not for the oppressors, the powerful, the wealthy, those in control, the violent, the selfish, and those with military might. It was not addressed to, nor received by empire, by the privileged, by Rome in essence. The poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the less educated, the conquered, the downtrodden – these are the people who came in repentance to be baptized. It is a hard reality for the majority of modern Americans living in the United States to wrap their heads around the simple fact that we parallel Rome in these Advent preparation narratives rather than the simple folk of Jerusalem. At the very least, we echo the Pharisees and priestly class who would disdain old wacky "locusts-and-wild honey John" wandering in the wilderness. I will speculate that most good, faithful Christians today in Wisconsin would not willingly travel to Otter Creek or Red River to be dipped under by a dirty, ranting wild man, no matter what message he was shouting.
We struggle mightily with the Beatitude teachings and the preferential attention given to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized in our gospels. We have even sanitized and made precious the brutal and horrendous conditions of the birth of the Savior of the world. There is virtually nothing pretty, sanitary, comfortable, or cute in the story to come, yet we dress up the characters in clean, bright clothes, washed faces and hands (usually white), halo auras glowing with the glory of God, and even the animals are spotless and adorable. Shame on us!
Too often we want to jump to Christmas (much as we leap from Palm Sunday to Easter) without dwelling in the true reality, the desperate conditions that sent so many to John seeking forgiveness and hope. Those of us in Empire rarely rub elbows with those living under a crushing reality of hopelessness and despair. I am not trying to be a bummer and bring everyone down, and yet it is critically important that we wander through the dangerous wilderness of Advent to adequately prepare ourselves to receive the gift of the Christ.
The truly good news – the radical and central gospel – is that this Messiah is a promise to ALL people, not just those on the fringes, but for those among us most comfortable, most secure, most materially provided for, it is well to remember that "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." There is a place for us all, but there is a special place for those we often consider the least, the lost, the refuse, the unacceptable. For those most privileged and comfy with the world the way it is, our repentance is to acknowledge that we are not better, simply more fortunate, and that we are the exception, not the rule. Our forgiveness comes when we can truly say with our voices and in our hearts that we love whom God loves, and that includes the down, the dirty, the dispossessed, the disdained, the disreputable, and the devastated. Once we have hearts large enough for all people, then and only then do we fully realize the awesomeness and incredible scope of God’s Christ gift to us all.
Prayer: Saving and loving God, break us down during this Advent season, so that we might truly see all the ways we depend on ourselves and our resources to shape our lives instead of depending on you. Open our eyes to the reality of the whole planet, of those who live in conditions we can hardly imagine. Show us those whom we disdain in some way and help us to repent so that we might be forgiven. Transform us through this Advent time, that we might be prepared for that which is to come. We praise you, Lord. Amen.
May this devotion provide you with a moment of faithful reflection and care. You are involved in ministries of justice and witness, in ministries of standing up and standing with people working to create better systems and communities, in ministries of learning and searching and researching to become more aware and awakened, more technologically savvy and proficient, more virtually and personally present in your churches and communities and world. Each of us who serve as members of your Wisconsin Cabinet write these devotions in grateful prayer for you – for sustenance and buoyancy, for strength and courage, for safety and just actions, and for faith and love to be full and fulfilled in your daily lives. God’s grace and blessings, God’s challenge and healthy discomfort, God’s Spirit and energy be with you, in the hope Christ offers us all.