2nd Advent “B” / 5
I’ve always been fascinated by the character of John the Baptist. In the Gospels he’s depicted as a sort of primitive: coming out of the desert, wearing camel hair and leather, eating what he can scavenge. These are all the marks of a prophet, and John is very much cut from the mold of the ancient Hebrews, like the author of this section of Isaiah.
The function of the prophets is not to lay down a trail of cryptic textual bread crumbs for us to follow 2500 years later. Their function was to speak to their own people about immediate events. The author of this section of Isaiah, (who was not actually Isaiah, by the way) is writing about his hope for the restoration of Israel after their exile in Babylon. His hope is for a gentle land where God reigns, and the people are at peace. When he talks about a voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s talking about himself.
Of course, we read that passage knowing about the life and accomplishments of Jesus, so we see a foreshadowing of those later events. Through the centuries, Isaiah continues to speak to us of events he himself never saw. In Mark’s Gospel, John’s cries to prepare the way of the Lord pick up Isaiah’s message. If you read a little further in the Gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus, when he arrived, was not at all what John expected. John expected the Messiah to come with judgment, not with salvation. Later in life, John, from prison, sends his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one. Jesus answers that the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor have the Good News preached to them. Again, salvation, and not judgment.
The character of John the Baptist fascinates me, because his purpose in life was to foretell the coming of Christ. The baptism of repentance he preached was to prepare people for Christ’s coming. It’s hard for me to imagine spending your whole life just preparing for someone else to step in and do the real work. Maybe that’s just my ego. Everything John did pointed away from himself, and toward Christ.
But that’s really how we should still be preparing for Christ’s coming. When every valley is filled in, and every mountain is leveled, there’s no room for ego. In these days, we’re preparing for the coming of the Savior that we celebrate at Christmas, and more importantly, for the return of Christ at the end of time. That preparation isn’t just about us. John the Baptist wasn’t concerned about preparing just himself, his mission was to prepare his people for Christ. Our mission ought to be to prepare our people for Christ as well. And to do that we have to give our own egos a rest, and simply serve. Take care of each other. Take care of the poor. Take care of the sick and the lonely. People need to be able to look at our lives and see that we point to Christ, Christ in the poor and the broken.
Someone pointed out to me recently that all this raising the valleys and leveling the hills and straightening the roads is what we’d call infrastructure work. This preparation isn’t about color schemes and window treatments. It’s infrastructure– changing lives and changing our culture.
And the hard workof changing lives and changing culture is still before us. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be prophetic today. For Isaiah and John the Baptist, their culture was mostly unified, and uniformly in need of reform. Today, it seems to me that our culture is characterized by division, partisanship, and a simplistic desire to divide every question and ever issue into two camps. The destructive consequences of these divisions are all around us, especially in our inability to accomplish anything for the common good, or even agree on what that might be. Where once the prophetic position was to stand on the margins and speak to the mass of people in the middle, I think that today the prophetic position is to stand in the center, and refuse the cultural and ideological pull that wants everyone to choose sides. I believe that the prophetic call to prepare the way of the Lord, today, asks us to make level the valleys and hills, to resist the extremes, and work toward the peace of God’s kingdom that can only begin in the center, not the fringes.
In the midst of the mad dash to Christmas, don’t forget to prepare the way of the Lord. While you’re preparing your cards, shopping for gifts, taking your exams, and preparing to travel, make sure your heart’s prepared as well. Give yourself some quiet time and space for prayer and reflection. Do something for someone in need of assistance or company. Level some hills, and fill in some valleys. And find your prophetic voice not by choosing sides, but by insisting that truth and peace will be found in the middle.