In the Beginning: John in the Desert

desertWho are we waiting for in Advent?

This is surely an odd question, you may be thinking, since we surely know that we are waiting for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. More than any other image but the crucifixion, the images of the birth of Christ are so familiar we take them for granted: Bethlehem, shepherds, angels, mother and child…

Yet these images were not always taken for granted. St. Paul, the first writer in the New Testament, refers to the birth of Jesus only in the vaguest sense without dwelling on the fact. But more relevant to this moment, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, is the fact that St. Mark, the first of the Gospel-writers, does not mention the birth of Jesus at all. In his Gospel, St. John may take it for granted that readers know the Christmas stories told in Matthew and Luke. But Mark comes first, takes nothing for granted, and starts right in the middle of things:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. (Mark 1.1)

To appreciate Mark, we need for a moment to un-learn what we know by heart about the birth of Jesus, that we may watch and wait differently, eyes on the desert whence a new voice will be heard, a voice which Mark takes to have been predicted by the prophet Malachi,

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3.1)

And so too the prophet Isaiah, as we hear in today’s first reading,

“A voice of one calling:
‘In the desert prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40.3-5)

Mark combines the quotes, a little of each:

“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ (1.2-3)

John the BaptistAnd who is this messenger? None but the unforgettable figure of John, perhaps the oddest person in the Gospels, the man from nowhere:

“And so John the Baptist appeared in the desert… John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (1.4a, 6)

This is one of the great and unforgettable images in the Bible, the man of the desert, raw and wild, living off the land, half-naked and, we can imagine, ascetic and gaunt. He is no man of the city, no priest or temple official, no good citizen of the community. (Luke of course tells a different story, later on, but forget that too for now). John has no credentials at all, nothing on his side but the fact that he is a messenger from God, racing to prepare the way for the Messiah who is to come. He is nothing but that voice crying in the desert, a pure sounding of God's Word in human words, simple, clear, uncluttered by the culture or even the religion of the city. Yet he is also someone not to be forgotten: later on in Mark, people twice speculate: perhaps Jesus is John come back to us after his death? (6.14, 8.28) In next week's Gospel, from John 1, the point is asserted over and over, because people had to be convinced: John is not the Messiah — despite what many of you think.

Once arrived, John offers a message that is rather simple, but wildly successful:

“He came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. (4b-5)

baptizing the peopleRepentance, forgiveness, purification — in Advent? We rightly insist that Advent is not the same as Lent, even if priests wear the same purple vestments. We rightly say that Advent is about hope, expectation, waiting, while Lent is the time of repentance and purification. All that is clear. But Mark seems not to know all that. When the Messiah is coming, Mark tells us, confess your sins, be plunged into the waters of the Jordan, become clean again — and in that way the Story begins.

But in all this, most powerful are the only words of John quoted by Mark:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. (1.7)

John is gathering large crowds, people attracted to his uncompromisingly simple, spare voice; he is a person who is nothing like anyone they’ve known before. The men of power in the city, the religious and political elites, are surely uneasy, uncertain what this strange visitor from the desert might do next. But John is not uncertain. After all those years in the desert he has humbled his pride, slain his ego, stripped away all that is superfluous, and emptied himself. God’s wide road runs right through him, and that is why he can promise, there is One coming after me, and he will get inside you, he will plunge you into the Spirit of God:

“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (1.8)

Thus Mark’s telling of the beginning of the Good News, a very different Advent story. You will not see this scene on Christmas cards, but we need to close our eyes and see it. And better, we need to hear John, learning who he is and who he is not — who we are and who we are not.

John and JesusYou and I are unlikely to be a John the Baptist. But if we can be a bit like Jesus, surely we can be a little more like John by the time Advent is over: simpler, quieter, steeped in the silence of that desert where God speaks directly to our hearts; living not off the stuff we save up for ourselves, but only by the small gifts God gives us, locusts and wild honey sufficient unto the day; speaking not because we love to hear the sound of our own voice, but because we are a little more ready to say to people yearning for God: I am not the one you seek — hear and look right through me — the Lord is near, about to arrive.

Indeed, Jesus was already there at the Jordan, watching John, listening to John.