Mr. Allen, the school principal, called the home of one of his teachers to find out why he wasn’t at school. Mr. Allen was greeted by a small child’s voice that whispered, “Hello?”
“Is your Daddy home?” asked the principal.
“Yes,” the child whispered.
“May I speak with him?”
“No,” the small voice replied.
“Is your mommy there?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the answer.
“May I speak with her?”
Again the small voice whispered, “No.”
“All right,” said principal Allen. “Is there anyone else there besides your mommy and daddy and you?”
“Yes,” whispered the child. “A policeman.”
“A policeman? May I speak with the policeman?”
“No, he’s busy,” whispered the child.
“Busy doing what?” asked the principal.
“Talking to Daddy and Mommy and the fireman,” came the child’s answer.
“The fireman? Has there been a fire in the house or something?” asked the worried principal.
“No,” whispered the child.
“Then what are the policeman and the fireman doing there?”
Still whispering, the young voice replied with a soft giggle, “They’re looking for me.”
This is the second Sunday in Advent, and we are in the “looking for” mode; Advent, a word that comes from Latin, meaning to (that’s the ad) and coming (the vent part). Liturgically worshiping Christians know Advent as a season of preparation for the coming to us of Christ. We kind of know what we are preparing for, although as we learned in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, we don’t know when it will happen. Like in the story of the little child, we don’t know the where of it, either.
In each of the three years of our liturgical cycle, we begin Advent with a different Gospel. This year, it’s Mark. Mark’s Gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear. There are no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, no wise men from the East following a star, no big-eyed animals standing around a straw-filled manger. Mark either doesn’t know about these things, or else they’re not important enough for him to chronicle them. For him, the good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness of Judea with a character named John, the first real prophet to turn up in Israel in 300 years.
He sports a single accessory, a leather belt that he uses to cinch up his camel’s hair garment (makes me itch just to think about it). It’s the exact same outfit Elijah wore 800 years before him. His hair and his beard look as if they have never been cut -- and rarely washed. He’s skinny. Scrawny. Surely his appearance is a statement of some kind. Were we to encounter him today, we might not be able to interpret his appearance, but those standing around him in the wilderness certainly could. The man was a messenger – predicted by Isaiah, dressed like Elijah, sent by God – a prophet in the classic sense.
Maybe that’s why people flocked to him; it’s hard to figure out though. Everything I know about John makes me think I would have gone out of my way not to see him, assuming that I hadn’t known then what I know now. He sounds too much like those street evangelists who threaten you with their Bibles, screaming at you that you’re going straight to hell if you don’t repent right now – and, of course, they and only they are the judges of how you are to repent and whether or not you have succeeded in doing so, and, by the way, whether you have made a large enough donation to their cause.
There is, to be sure, a universe of differences between street-corner self-appointed prophets and John the Baptist. One difference is that self-appointed prophets tend to plant themselves right in your way so that you have to cross to the other side of the street if you’re going to avoid them. They get in your face and dare you to ignore them.
John, on the other hand, plants himself in the middle of nowhere.
It’s funny. As you prepare to write sermons, you read. And read. And read. And you realize things that you had never considered before. That’s part of the fun of this job. John’s appearance and his attitude and his preaching are old hat for me. But it hadn’t really hit me until this time around that he has set up shop in the middle of nowhere. Don’t ask me why; I’d said and read and sung about the voice crying in the wilderness, and “wilderness” went in one ear and out the other. But John is in the middle of the wilderness, and anyone who wants to hear what he has to say has to go to a lot of trouble to get there, borrowing a neighbor’s donkey or setting off on foot with enough water and bread for the journey along rocky, lonely trails with bandits lurking behind boulders.
You have to wonder why someone would set off on such a journey, especially someone from Jerusalem, which was where the temple was, and the rabbis, and all the accumulated wisdom of the religious establishment. If someone wanted to hear from God, then why not stay in the city, maybe attend some extra services, or make an appointment with one of the chief priests? Anyone who would turn away from all that and set off through the rugged and dangerous wilderness was looking for something else, something the temple could not or would not supply.
John apparently had that something else. He looked as scary as someone from an alien culture, but when he spoke, it was as if he were repeating what God was saying to him right at that moment, one sentence at a time. He didn’t have many details. He didn’t know the name of the one who was coming, for instance, or what he would look like, but he did know that the old world was about to end, and a new world was somehow spinning toward them all, carrying God’s chosen one.
It was a world that would be built of new materials, not the rearranged sticks and stones of the old religion. The old was being made new. It wasn’t a remodeling. It was a building new. The Holy Spirit had gotten all but covered up in Jerusalem with pretended piety and temple taxes and priestly hocus-pocus. The flame was all but snuffed out under the weight of all that fol-de-rol. So God moved that flame out into the wilderness, where the air was sharp and clean; out under the stars where that flame was fanned by the most socially unacceptable character anyone could imagine. Dressed in animal hair, his breath heavy with locusts and wild honey – well – maybe the honey wouldn’t be so bad. But what does locust breath smell like?
Anyway, John proclaimed that someone was coming, someone so notable that it wasn’t enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to be pro-active. To get ready, to prepare the way, so that when He did come, He could walk easily right to their doors.
What John doesn’t say is as important as when he does say. Someone is coming, someone whose shoes John says he is unworthy to untie (unbuckle) (unlatch). In spite of the lack of details, we can infer some things. If we are going to undertake the preparations of repentance and smoothing the rough places and straightening the crooked, we can infer that He who is coming is worthy of reverence, of veneration.
John, for all his tangled hair and rough clothing and, I suspect, grimy feet and nails, must have been aglow with the enthusiasm of his message about this person of great promise. Although I did come to the realization while working on this sermon that actually John’s hands and feet must have been clean; he’s been standing in the river – past his knees in water -- for who knows how long, baptizing. I once baptized a bunch of kids in the lake at Camp Michael, and my fingers ended up wrinkled (and really clean).
People were drawn to John, apparently not only because of who he was and what he said, but also because of what he offered them – a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and to start over again, by allowing him to wash them off. There weren’t any rules about how baptism was supposed to be done then – no printed liturgy in a Book of Common Prayer. The rabbis hadn’t prescribed anything specific. It was just something John offered to those who came to him – even women (!) who were never allowed in the inner precincts of the temple; even well-known sinners who would never have dreamed of trying to get inside the temple. He thus implied that He who was coming would accept everyone, even women, even sinners, in his embrace.
John calls people to wake up, to turn around, so that they won’t miss these new things that God is doing right before their eyes. But remember, John doesn’t tell us very much about what God’s doing. John’s wise. He doesn’t confine God to a box.
Remember Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Queequeg is a Pacific Islander harpooner who carries his god with him. He keeps this god, a black figure of solid ebony, in a box. On a regular basis Queequeg takes him out of his box, sets him in a fireplace if one is available, and on the bare floor if one is not. He builds a little fire around the figure, worships him, and listens to his advice. Then he puts it back in its box. I worry that we, too, might try to confine God to a box.
We live in an age that demands answers, don’t we? An age that searches for answers. That searches the internet for answers and definitions and more answers. Answers and definitions can act like boxes, satisfying boxes. And when we have a question satisfactorily answered, we look no further.
Imagine for a moment that you are a mitochondrion in a cell in your own body. (Let’s pretend that we’re in a biology class.) Mitochondria are organelles inside cells that produce the energy that’s needed to carry out all the life functions that define a cell as a living thing. If you were an organelle in a single cell that is part of, say, one of the knuckles on your right hand, would you be able to imagine, to fathom, that you were part of something as huge as the knuckle itself, and that that knuckle was part of a hand which was part of your body, and that your body was only one of many [several] in this room? The population of Montesano would boggle your little mitochondrial mind. Not to mention the population of the world. That would be beyond your comprehension.
OK. That’s a little far-fetched. But there was a time when the civilized Western world did believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. In reality we’re like a mitochondrion in a cell in this knuckle on my right hand. We are not the center of the universe.
When I was little, I had God in a box. I prayed to him dutifully, and gratefully accepted his protection. I may already have shared with you that trusting in God allowed me to ride without total panic in a car. I owed God the duty of prayer, and in turn, he protected me from crazy drivers (including my step-father) on the Redwood Highway -- the old 1950’s Redwood Highway, which was a narrow two lanes among huge trees that edged right up to the road. It was nothing but curves.
When I was 10, I learned my catechism and was confirmed. I had to push out the sides of my box as I learned more about what God had done. I can picture myself pushing up the flaps of that box (because I was in it with God) and looking around at the world. Today, as knowledge increases with unbelievable speed in incredible amounts, the concept of God in a box becomes absurd. God created me. Right down to the mitochondria in the cells of my knuckles. And He created the Earth. The Solar System. The Universe. And the universe, they tell me, is expanding. Still being created.
I remember taking World History in my freshman year in college. One of the things we studied were the Eighteenth Century deists who thought of God as a watchmaker who created the world (that’s the watch), wound it up, and then sat back in a detached fashion to see what would happen. Boy, does that put God in a box!
How about creation itself? How Do we put creation in a box? I hope not. Creation is still happening -- are we not all being created still? Is any of us through growing spiritually? Maybe that’s why the universe is expanding.
I remember having a conversation with someone about this topic.
Me: I’m not sure when it occurred to me to realize that God created more than just this planet earth. He created the whole solar system. And beyond. Way beyond. How wonderful that God, who created such vastness, also created the miniscule intricacies of DNA. And that He created you and me. Our God who created such vastness and still cares about you and me is a God too big for me to wrap my mind around, let alone put in a box.
Her: Oh, I think there are other gods out there. It would be interesting to learn about them.
Apparently she feels that each system has its individual god. I was taken aback. It was like reverting to Greek mythology. She speculated about how the gods of other systems might interact with ours. I wanted to put all of her gods in boxes in a museum and help her see that our God is an awesome God, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.
The form of the Eucharist that we used through Pentecost we sometimes think of as the Star Wars, or Battlestar Gallactica form of the Eucharist. It vaporizes the box. It beams us firmly into the incredible vastness of creation. How wonderful that God, who created – and is still creating – the universe, cares enough to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from our sin. And what a relief it is that I don’t have to dress in itchy camel’s hair and eat locusts to remind you, as John does, that Christ is coming again.