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From the Deep of the Desert:
The Subversion of Politics and Religion

For Sunday December 6, 2009
Second Sunday in Advent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Malachi 3:1–4 or Baruch 5:1–9

Luke 1:68–79

Philippians 1:3–11

Luke 3:1–6

           When our kids were younger and still lived at home, our family celebrated the four Sundays of Advent by lighting candles on a wreath. In our unofficial version, each week we lit one pink candle each for the prophets, the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds. On Christmas Eve we then lit the purple candle for Jesus, the light of the world. The readings this week point us to the prophets as central to the Christmas message.

           The Biblical prophets do more "forth-telling" about the present than "fore-telling" about the future. Their specialty is prognosis rather than prediction. Prophets discern with unusual clarity the significance of current events and the circumstances of God's people. Based upon their diagnosis, they speak a word from God to provoke his people to change. By speaking God's word to our world, prophets call us to radical transformation.

John the Baptist in the desert.
John the Baptist in the desert.

           For about a thousand years, from Moses to Malachi, God spoke to Israel by sending them prophets. As Israel's first prophet, Moses outlined the criteria for true and false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:9–22), and was himself called a prophet without peer (Deuteronomy 34:10). God sent significant women prophets like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14). Jeremiah summarized Israel's prophetic history after they had been exiled to Babylon: “From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets” (Jeremiah 7:25).

           Malachi was Israel's last prophet. His book is placed last in the Old Testament. He was also chronologically the last, writing about a hundred years after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon (c. 450 BC). This dates him the closest in time to the birth of Jesus.

           After Malachi there was a 450-year prophetic silence.  Why did God not speak?  What was he doing?  That long silence was finally broken with the first prophet of the New Testament period, John the Baptist. Three distinct references to John the Baptist identify him as the “forerunner” who was prophesied in Malachi 3:1–4 to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 1:17 = Malachi 4:6; Matthew 17:12–13 = Mark 9:11–13; and John 1:21). 

           Luke pinpoints the time and place when "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah." The "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" dates his story to about the year 26 AD. Luke also identifies the political context; the word of God came to John the Baptist "when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene." After naming Rome's political powers both great and small, Luke then identifies Jerusalem's religious establishment; the story takes place "during the high priesthood of Annas and [his successor] Caiaphas."

John the Baptist in the desert.
John the Baptist in the desert.

           These minor details highlight a major theme in the story of Jesus.  The “word of the Lord" through John the Baptist came neither from imperial Rome nor from Israel's religious establishment in the temple. It did not come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace, said Jesus (Luke 7:25). Nor from a business board room, university laboratory, ski lodge or power lunch.

           God's word to all humanity came from a wild and wooly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, at the periphery rather than at the epicenter. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source.  John would have been easy to ignore if you expected or wanted something normal, safe, or traditional.  But neither John nor his message was normal by any stretch of the imagination.

           John might have been part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem. At least this much is clear — he was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors said that he had a demon (Luke 7:33).  In the end, he paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to his prophetic calling.

           Whereas John's father Zechariah had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins, and ate insects and wild honey. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). The story of Jesus begins not with the celebration of his birth but with a public address announcement: “I baptize you with water for repentance.  But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with water and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

           Marcus Borg describes John’s message as one of both “indictment and invitation.” Contrary to what we might have expected from such an ascetic man with an austere message, people flocked to John: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:5).  Even in far away Ephesus people submitted to the baptism of John (Acts 19:3).

           We need to repent, said John, because in Jesus “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2).  This is the identical message that Jesus preached when he began his own public ministry:  “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17).  It’s the exact same message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:7).  And it’s the message that we today need to hear and follow if we are to experience the story of Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news, that in Jesus God’s kingdom has arrived.”

John the Baptist by Donatello (marble), c. 1450
John the Baptist by Donatello (marble), c. 1450.

           The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.  But entrance into this kingdom likewise requires a counter-cultural choice.

           John's terrible indictment to repent is a tender invitation to be our best selves. Repentance doesn't mean to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn't mean to grovel in self-hatred, morbid introspection, or pious sorrow.   It consists of both outward acts and an inward disposition. When you repent you turn around, change directions, choose a different path, and make a radical rupture. Repentance signals an abrupt end to life on auto-pilot or to business as usual.

           Why such urgency and abandonment? Why not go home and talk it over with the family? Won't friends think we're crazy, impulsive, even irresponsible? Won't you regret such a categorical decision? Why not hedge your bet?  Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to reorient their lives by following him because in his own person "the kingdom of God has arrived." Jesus announced and embodied God's rule or reign on earth, right here and right now. There was an unmistakable element of cosmic fulfillment in his preaching, teaching, and healing: "The kairos has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!"

           Genuine repentance is a deeply personal and individually unique act before God and my neighbor. Repentance has its communal aspects, and if you are lucky others might help you, but no one can repent for another; you can only repent for yourself. In this sense repentance can be quite simple, as observed by the Syrian abbot John Climacus (c. 525–605) in his The Ladder of Divine Ascent : "Let your prayer be very simple. For the tax collector and the prodigal son just one word was enough to reconcile them to God."

           John urged his listeners to prove their spiritual intentions by concrete deeds rather than by claims of religious or political affiliation. Some people took him at his word, but many in the political elite and religious establishment did not.  These political and religious leaders who rejected John got one thing right — they understood that his message was not only deceptively simple; it was deeply subversive.

           About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch.  At a party one night, Herod capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend's daughter. John was a forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a forth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother's wife (Matthew 14:1–12). But as with many perverse politicians, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, and so John was beheaded.

Caravaggio, Beheading of John the Baptist.
Caravaggio, Beheading of John the Baptist.

           As for the religious establishment, Jesus tells us that "the Pharisees and experts in the law" spurned John's call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30). The prophetic word of God from John the Baptist, then, did not originate with the state powers or the religious establishment, nor did it find a receptive audience with them.

           The claim of God’s kingdom upon my life, John preached, is ultimate.  That means that the claims of the state and religious establishments, of race, gender, culture, and money are, at best, penultimate.  The earliest and most radical Christian confession was simple: “Jesus is Lord.”  By direct implication, Caesar is not lord or god, and neither are all the other many false gods of money, sex, power, etc. With his Advent announcement John urges us to spurn anything and everything that hinders ultimate allegiance to Jesus. He invites us to make our crooked ways straight, to flatten all hilly terrain, and to prepare space for the birth of the Messiah into our own lives.

For further reflection

* In the words of the hymn, how might you "prepare him (Jesus) room" this Advent?
* Why do we dismiss divine wisdom from apparently unlikely sources? Examples?
* Why did the political powers and the religious authorities reject John the Baptist?

Image credits: (1) Inside the Mani; (2) Centro Aletti; (3); and (4)

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