December 9, 2012
William G. Carter
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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.’”
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Advent signals more than the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent is the coming of John the Baptist. This strange prophet calls out from the desert. He is a throw-back to the Old Testament, one more demanding desert preacher. God gives him a Word to speak that differs from the emperor, governor, and rulers of the day. John works the region on both sides of the river, out beyond the cities and the towns. He speaks a Holy Word when the official religious leaders apparently had little to say.
All the Gospels say the people were ready for him. Of course, they were ready. When John the Baptist opened his mouth, God came out. God was on his lips. God was in his voice. And what people want more than anything else is to be in the presence of God.
I remember when my parents were invited by some neighbors to go and hear a traveling preacher. My sister and I were taken along, as I recall. We squeezed into the neighbors’ car, all six of us, and went over the hills to the country church that our neighbors attended. I don’t know where it was. I was little. From what I can piece together from that night, it must have been a revival. The old country folk in that church needed to be revived.
And when the preacher came out in a black suit and a glistening brow, he revived as many of those folk as he could. He worked pretty hard at it. I can’t remember what he said, but I remember he was loud. He blew our hair straight back. He raised the temperature in the room. I was just a child, but I remember it was loud and scary – and I didn’t want to leave.
Luke says there were crowds. Large numbers of people! They came to be washed by John. He didn’t care who they were. He didn’t waste any time reading their resumes. John yelled at whoever showed up. ‘Who do you think you are, to show your face or tout your credentials?” he screamed. “Do you think God is going to give you a free pass to glory? Oh no, it’s not free. It’s going to cost you everything!”
And with that, the people came. They wanted to be in the presence of somebody who took God seriously. They wanted somebody who could cut through the nonsense and talk about something real. They came out to experience John the Baptist because it was just like experiencing God.
Now, I hesitate to say much about this. We are a long way from John. We sit on cushioned seats in a temperature-controlled room. Our music is well rehearsed. Everybody looks so respectable. This is such a contrast from John’s sanctuary! In the desert there are no seats and certainly no thermostats. There was no music other than the scream of animals and the cry of human hearts. John spoke in such a situation of extremity. We can speak of him only from a distance. We are a long way from his desert.
But maybe not. Advent invites us to close the gap, to reflect on the same human hunger to experience God. When I consider John the Baptist and his habitat, I remember a few lines from poet T.S. Eliot. He knew there are many sorts of deserts in life, and some of them have nothing to do with sandy wastes and scorching sun. The poet says,
You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The barrenness is just that close. The howling wind, the wild exposure, the rawness of the elements – it is all right here, so close to so many of us. Every human heart knows the desert.
A few years ago, I felt the tug to spend a little desert time. A plane ticket took me to Albuquerque, a bus took me to Santa Fe, and a borrowed car took me to a red rock canyon. There is a monastery in the canyon, thirteen miles from nowhere. I wanted to know: what does it mean to go to the desert? To confront the barren wasteland that is all too familiar? I asked the brothers in the monastery; they smiled and kept their vow of silence. They waited a week before any of them said a word. They watched to see if I was serious – or if I was merely a tourist passing through.
On my final day, they told me what they gave up to go to the desert. One of them had been an engineer. He gave up a job researching solar energy in a laboratory. Another left behind a career as the development director of a major arts organization. A third didn’t really have a job, he said, just drifted from one employment to another, and the impulse to join the desert monastery seemed to set him free from years of fumbling from one meaningless job to another. The engineer spoke up and said, “I was very good at my job, but the stress was killing me.” The development officer said, “I raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for my organization, but it left me empty and hollow.”
All of them gave up lives that had become numb, empty, and suffocating. Each one moved away from a life that paying very well but killing them in the process. They walked away – to seek life together in the desert. They pray, they share the chores, and they contribute their skills for the life of their small community.
That’s what came to mind as I reflected on the words of John the Baptist, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It is a real picture from first century agriculture. A vineyard owner would cull the grapevines that were not producing fruit by killing them. On the day when vines were to be dressed, the farmer would visit the field with a sharp axe. He would hack up the vine that produced nothing, that took up space and soil. It was smothering the other vines, taking away valuable resources, so it needed to go.
And when I recount the story of those three monks, they were confessing there was some part of their lives that was unproductive. It didn’t amount to anything. It was dragging them down. It needed to go. And that gives me some insight into a very practical way for us to prepare the way of God to come to us.
For Advent, I suggest that we spend a little time doing an inventory of our souls. Is there a part of our lives that is dead and has no use? Maybe it’s an ability that once we had, but we have let it wither, and all that remains is a faint trace. Or we encounter the young person who does it far better than we ever could; it may be time to let it go.
Or perhaps it is a memory that lingers with us. Say, for instance, a picture is fixed in our heads: “This is how Christmas is supposed to look. This is who should be there. This is how we are going to decorate. This is how we are going to dress. This is what we are going to do.” But if we are truthful, Christmas has not been like that for a number of years. We are hanging onto a memory that does not work anymore; it may be time to let it go.
Or it might be an opinion that we hold of ourselves. We look into the mirror to say, “This is who I am, this is what I am about.” But if we are completely honest, that is not who we are or what we are about. And it hasn’t been, for a while. A small distortion has grown to be a delusion, and our reinforced messages are only holding us hostage. It may be time to let this go.
Or maybe, just maybe, there is some voice, a tempting voice, that repeats that we are now worthy of the love of God or the love of anybody else. The desert is a place of testing, of sorting through the voices that bombard us. Sometimes we may hear the parent or the teacher or the critic denouncing us, restricting us, reducing us, declaring, “You are nothing. Nobody loves you. You are a cosmic mistake.” And if you give into that voice long enough, you will start to believe it. The voice of self-negation needs to be cut off. We have to let it go.
If Advent calls us to prepare a way for God to come, it calls us to the honesty of the desert. Is there some deadness in our branches, some withering piece of our spirit that we simply need to let go?
Maybe it’s time to let go of the manufactured holiday. You know, the heavy burden of having to do all the shopping, go to all the parties, put up all the lights, bake up all the goodies, hang all the ornaments, send all the cards, get in touch with all the friends, and maintain all the traditions. Is there some part of this that doesn’t give us any joy anymore? The old Christmas train carries a lot of freight, doesn’t it? And if some part of this is smothering us, John the Baptist says, “Let me get my axe and bring it to that old dead vine.”
Or maybe it’s time to let go of the incessant spending. I’m the first one to get caught up in it. On Friday afternoon, I found myself with the first free hours of my week, so I swung into the parking lot of the Junk Emporium. That’s the name of the store: the Junk Emporium. It has aisles and aisles of Christmas stuff. I piled my shopping cart full of stuff that I didn’t want and do not need but planned to give to other people. I picked up gifts for some friends, a goofy gift for my dad, an even more ridiculous gift for my mother, and some very special gifts for my household that do not appear on their wish lists.
I labored to push my laden shopping cart out the door. It was so full that it was hard to push, and a man had to help me get the cart over the door frame. Then I realized who he was: he was the bell ringer from the Salvation Army that I had ignored on my way into the Junk Emporium. He, in turn, gazed into my loaded shopping cart, and looked up with disappointed eyes, as if to silently say, “Do you really need all this stuff? I’m ringing the bell for hungry people here. Do you really need all this stuff?”
Well, I pushed by him without saying a word, loaded up my sleigh, and flew home. And as I am carrying the bags into my house, I looked at what I bought, and asked, “Do I really need all this stuff?”
That’s a good question for the desert. Having a shopping cart full of unnecessary stuff is not the same thing as being a tree with good fruit. Not at all.
John the Baptist runs the checkpoint on the road to God. He will not let any casual travelers pass. In fact, he directs us to the weighing station to check if we are carrying any unnecessary burdens that we need to drop. God sends John to make us pare down, to push us to focus, to claim the life that really is life. If there is something that holds us back from experiencing the simple joy of God, we have to let it go.
I’m thinking of my friend Carlos. He lives in the desert of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, a town damaged greatly by the hurricane. The Presbyterian Church that he serves as pastor will be housing up to thirty-six volunteers a day for the next four years. The volunteers will be helping that community to rebuild its life.
Carlos is well read. He suggests that Henry David Thoreau is a helpful guide for understanding John the Baptist and the call of the desert. Thoreau wrote a book called Walden, to reflect on some time he spent living in the Massachusetts desert. Here’s what Thoreau says of his journey:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.
Don’t be afraid of the desert. That is where God meets us.