Homily: The Rippling of the Spirit of Truth in a Tempting and Troubled World
Baruch 5: 1-9 Philippians 1: 46-, 8-11 Luke 3: 1-6
John the Baptist leaps into our second Sunday of Advent, taking our breath away. With his matted black tangled hair, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below. His eyes grab me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees. He roars warnings of dire times to come, of our dereliction of duty, of how we are on the brink of doom. Advent seems too small a stage to hold him.
He has abandoned the city and strode out into the wilderness. He has left the world of manicured people, where life is contrived, where truth is artificial; the wilderness, where God’s design for the world he made can still be detected and discovered.
John is a Wilderness Man now. And John roars because the crowds that come out to hear him are immense, from many nations, of many faiths, speaking many languages. And why do they come, you ask? They come because this wild man speaks the truth they long to hear.
The Bible records only two conversations in which Jesus talks about his ministry. The first is with John the Baptist. It comes as the opening event. The second is with Pilate and comes at the end. And both of them ask Jesus to tell them the truth.
Jesus tells Pilate he has come into this world to speak the truth, and people of truth will respond to him. John, too, has this purpose. And Luke, as if to underline that purpose, places John among the emperor Tiberius, Herod, Lysanias, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. It is the context of very powerful leaders, secular and religious, whose reputations are for lying, distortions, scandal, greed. This is John’s time.
In this time, when these leaders lack courage, conviction, strength of will, vision, stamina with which to lead their people, Luke writes that John is as clear as a bell about the truth. The people are walking in deep darkness, and longing for light.
So he goes into the wilderness. The wilderness is the world made by God, steeped in God’s goodness, where you can feel the rhythms that designed and created life. John, immersing himself in these rhythms, begins to speak words formed not in schools, not spun, not shaped by media, not the jabbering the mind-set of human so-called civilization. And he will pay for his voice with his life.
“To know God means to know what has to be done”, writes Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher. I find myself wanting to qualify that definition, because I’ve had days — and more than a few — when Pilate’s words, “What is truth?”; that truth is elusive and out of focus has been more real to me. But I’ve also had moments like John’s, when I’ve known what I needed to do and how to proceed, come what may. And who can say how such clarity comes into us, where it comes from within us or whether it comes from beyond us, and who can say when such moments will arrive?
But the wilderness is a good place to look for such moments, many say. Mary Oliver, the Cape Cod poet, writes “Everyday I’m still looking for God and I’m still finding him everywhere, in the dust . . . yes, in wild places and in quiet places too.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer poet, writes:
‘When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound, in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with thinking of the tragic consequences of what they do. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
That John found his truth in the wilderness, and that people heard and responded to the truth he spoke there, rings true. That the Child of Bethlehem will be born among animals, and that only shepherds who sleep in open fields among animals will get to see this Child, rings true. That all of this, the Wildman, the stable, the fields of Bethlehem, the telling of truth, is awash with angels, rings true to me, as true as dawn hovering at the edge of darkness.
Here, then, comes Wild John, his Voice crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
We know in our heart of hearts we are called ‘to bear witness to the Truth.’ And we know that telling the truth has its consequences. The good news isn’t our little secret, our private possession or privilege; it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all — big news for us all, today, just as much as two thousand years ago.
This week, in the midst of preparation of a different sort, John tells us to take a good hard look at ourselves and at our world.. Now is the time to tell ourselves the truth, he says. All of us had better get ready for what’s coming. No wonder that God didn’t choose one of those “important” people in the seats of power to deliver such a message. The Word of God came to be proclaimed by a nothing son of a nobody in a godforsaken place
The meaning of John’s message was a warning and a promise. The wilderness could be a place of death and despair, or a place of renewal and transformation. John the Baptist stands on the border between two incompatible regions, the wilderness beyond the Jordan and the land of promise on the other side.
When we meet John for the first time and listen to his own words of promise, he calls the people of Israel to a more thorough living of their identity. And then there is also the ‘warning’ part of John’s message, the part that is harder to preach to a congregation (and a world) that is immersed in festivities and fatigue. Where’s the good news in a warning of catastrophe from a wilderness prophet long ago? But it is news we have to preach, whether quietly or in rage. It is the truth.
Where is the Wild man in you? Can this be both a season of Christmas Joy and of facing the truth about ourselves and what we must say? Only time – and His coming again – will tell.