A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
Synopsis: Couldn’t we skip the lectionary focus on John the Baptist during this Advent season? John has this penchant for making comfortable people like me uncomfortable. Why is it that God’s word bypasses civil religion, heads out to the wilderness, and seizes a man like John? John’s call to repentance involves more than personal piety and morality; he’s calling for the world to change spiritually, economically, politically, and socially.
I need to begin with a confession. John the Baptist makes me uncomfortable. We recently celebrated Thanksgiving Day, we then put up our Christmas tree, I baked a batch of gingersnaps, and my head is filled with some of my favorite Christmas carols. Now as I turn to our lectionary Scriptures for the second Sunday of Advent, I encounter this controversial, roughhewn prophet out there in the wilderness by the Jordan. Could we perhaps quietly skip over him for just one Christmas season? Would anybody notice?
You see, I’m a pretty comfortable guy. I live in a nice townhouse in a good neighborhood. Life is good! I’m the pastor of this rather sweet little church here in the City of Fairfax. Sure, we’re fairly progressive and we care about growing justice and caring for the poor and disenfranchised. But we don’t hang out with unkept and strangely clad prophets with even stranger dietary proclivities. Above all, we don’t make people in power so hopping mad that they plot murder.
I’d rather get back to my garden, spend the winter browsing through gardening magazines and making lists of vegetables to order from my seed catalogues as I sip a cup of tea and much one of those delicious gingersnaps. I rather spend time with Ruth designing our retirement house. I’d rather make plans to go visit my grandchildren. And could I please work on a nice, uplifting Christmas sermon?
All these things are good but I know John would not be satisfied. I can’t shake my sense that life and God are asking for more. I can’t do it by myself. I find the help I need in the lectionary reflection of William Lamar, the African American pastor of the Metropolitan AME church in Washington DC. He notices that the word of God bypasses the power of the state and the influence of established religion. It instead heads out to the wilderness and seizes a man like John.
This week we have seen the power of the state and established religion, perhaps in one of its better moments, in the state funeral of former president George H. W. Bush at the National Cathedral. Speaker after speaker said that he had been a decent, honorable, and humble man. What I remember and appreciate the most about him was his call for a kinder and gentler America. He honored our spirit of volunteerism as "a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” He also had the ability to make friends across the isle and to work collaboratively in a divided government—something that’s so missing in our more divisive era.
Yet, as I watched the funeral on the evening news, I was struck by the patrician power and privilege that exuded from the people gathered there. I also noticed how they glossed over some of the more troubling aspects of Bush’s career. I became especially uncomfortable when they sang the Lord’s Prayer. Do these people have any sense of how radical it will be for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven? Do we understand that when we pray it in our church? John the Baptist (that prophet crying in the wilderness) knew, but do we?
Notice how Luke’s Gospel begins with a precise delineation of the political structures of power with Tiberius as Emperor, Pilate as governor, and continuing to Annas and Caiaphas as high priests. The contrast between them and John is enough to snap our heads around. How do we translate that list of political power into our day? In the second year of Donald Trump as president, when Ralph Northam was governor of Virginia. Who do we include as the religious leaders of our American civil religion? I can think of various prominent preachers who are all too happy to cozy up to those in power. I ask because according to William Lamar:
We should be concerned when well-heeled folk engage in God-talk or God-work without the benefit of the wisdom of the Johns of this world. Theology and ministry born of the Tiberiuses and Trumps reinscribe privilege, power, and a vision of God that tramples those in the wilderness. We must not bypass John in the interest of imperial theology. To bypass John is to bypass God.
He asks, “What if you don’t qualify as a wilderness dweller? Will God’s word bypass you this Second Sunday of Advent?” Will God’s word really come to a relatively comfortable, theologically trained pastor like me? An even bigger question is if I’ll be able to recognize it when it comes—as it certainly will. It appears that, for those of us situated in privilege, being able to hear God’s world requires a deep connection to those who live on the wrong side of power. Just being a good person isn’t enough if we’re completely comfortable with the social status quo. William Lamar explains:
John’s baptism of repentance is not simply a call for piety and morality. It’s nothing short of the labor pains preceding the inauguration of God’s reign. John is calling for the world to change—spiritually, economically, politically, and socially—in anticipation of the advent of the Human One. John is a direct threat to imperial theology and power. Enlightened spiritual gurus who transform spirits and leave the social order uninterrupted don’t get beheaded by the state.
Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah’s soaring poetry to cast the vision. “A voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.’”
Dream with me about what this will look like. Last week, during our sermon response time, Wivine talked about a refugee child holding its mother’s hand as they walk and not being old enough to understand what’s happening. All the tired child wants is food and a place to curl up and sleep. The mother is very aware and wants the best for her child but it seems so far out of her reach.
Another part of the refugee story is the many people in our country with temporary or no documentation and constantly under threat of being deported. This week Jeff Saferite, the pastor of Hill City church sent me an article claiming that there are more than 12,037 people from Fairfax County under ICE detention. This is much higher than in other areas. For instance there are only 4,438 people in ICE detention in the city of Philadelphia.
How do I as a concerned citizen or how do we as a church respond to this? It makes me feel helpless. What will Isaiah’s soaring dream of “crooked places made straight” look like for these people and their families? I checked with Cindy Lapp, the pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church, because I know she’s active in immigrations issues. She put me in touch with someone who works with an agency that works with migrants here in Fairfax. This person responded immediately and said she’d be glad to meet with Jeff and me. Oh my! I asked Jeff to take the lead and told him that I don’t know how much energy I can give. His response was that that’s why we work together as a church community.
I have one more story and then I’ll let you respond. This week I got an email from a woman who lives at Layton Hall who I will call Jenny. She’s semi-employed and needed $20 to buy an inhaler for her daughter who has asthma. She had come with the same request about half a year ago. She’s a friendly, talkative woman who feels bad about asking for help. Jenny insisted that she wants to do some work at the church to pay us back. I had to think fast and suggested that she could rake some leaves. As I was showing her all the leaves on our church lawn, she commented on the new fence around our church garden. She said she was learning to do some container gardening on her small apartment deck. I invited her to take one of the plots in our church garden next year. She was thrilled and gave me a big hug.
Now that’s getting back to my gardening with a new twist. It’s a way to serve our community. Building community gardening relationships may be one small part of the dream that Isaiah saw.
 William H. Lamar IV, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century (November 7, 2018): 21.