The reading from Isaiah brings Handel’s Messiah ringing in my head. Now we are getting to the good stuff. It is hard not to feel joy in those prophesies which were seen to foretell the coming of Jesus. The joy of anticipation, the thrill of preparing, Advent is really here. Yes, keep watch. Remember who you are in the midst of the commercial glitch and glitter. But remember the promise yet to come. And then, here comes John, the baptizer, yelling at everybody to repent. Would any of us stop and listen to a strange, half naked, hairy guy, clean only because he spends a lot of his time in the river? We would look away, with catlike caution slowly pass, then, our pace increasing, run. Followed by Tweets and Facebook posts about the lack of funding for the mentally unstable, if not dangerous.
Life isn’t easy for prophets, and often short. John was the big name in that confused world of first century Judea. Messiahs came and went by the dozens. Jews under the Roman yoke yearned, prepared, prayed for something, anything, to bring back their God and their freedom. Being an observant Jew was a hard row to hoe. Hundreds of difficult rules, many of which seem not only senseless but expensive in the eyes of the average holding-down-two-jobs householder. No wonder that prophet after prophet arose chiding the people for their lack of obedience to the law, for becoming secularized, to Babylon, to Greece, to Rome. In the time of John, once again the Jewish people were feeling an Advent, but waiting for Whom? John seemed like a good idea. John baptized and pronounced forgiveness of sins. He also preached his own form of the Beatitudes. He seemed like a very good idea.
John serves the narrative purpose of fulfilling the promise of a new Elijah to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. But he also had a ministry of his own. He fought for a moral code, granted, one heavily indebted to the legalities of Jewish law, one that made him stand up to power. He didn’t like Herod’s marriage, not one little bit. He called Herod six kinds of adulterer, in an incestuous marriage. He called Herod’s wife six kinds of whore. King Herod may have been afraid of John, partly, we may hope, out of guilt, but probably because John had popular support, and an uprising wouldn’t have sat well with Herod’s Roman masters. John stood up to power, and died for it. He died as an amusement and item of hot gossip at a dinner party. Remember, this was a world where bloody heads weren’t such a shock. And nothing changed.
Diminished, but not gone, the small Mandaean community in Baghdad still follow John, not Jesus. And we don’t know why John never went to Jesus and joined him. The call from God is beyond powerful, and John believed he was doing his Father’s will. The writers of the Gospels made it clear that John was baptizing with water, although he was driven by God’s spirit to preach the law and morality. He took on a secular authority, the Herodians, who were in bed with the Roman occupation. Jesus, in his human life, growing into the fullness of the Second Person of the Trinity, not only was with us to bestow the Spirit which we receive in baptism, but to access it in ministry in his name. He did not just preach be generous to the poor. Judaism already knew that. He preached be one with the poor, poor in wealth, health, or spirit, as he was and is one with us in the Spirit of God. He took on the corruption of God’s temple authorities, those entrusted with God’s law and will. There is a difference.
When we practice social justice, we must constantly ask ourselves are we being John or Jesus? Even the most un-churched atheist can do good works. But we have been given the gift of Grace, and we are judged not by our good works, but if our good works come from prayer and the movement of the Spirit within us. That is being Jesus in the world. The lesson here in that preaching God’s laws is not the same as living God’s love. Don’t be the messenger. Don’t be John. Be Jesus.
Advent is about waiting. We are learning to be patient. We are learning the difference between being nice and being in God’s love. We are practicing trust, which in many ways is another word for faith. We are trusting that Jesus will be born and the Incarnation will be real, in our time, and in our world, and in our lives. We can use this as a time to practice listening for the Spirit. Feeling the difference between secular love and happiness, all good but not good enough, and being one with Our Father as Christ came to teach us and baptism not only permitted us, but required of us. We are learning to recognize and embrace a different kind of Joy.
On the first Sunday of Advent my parish, all in blue in anticipation of the dawn of God’s reign, pulled out all the stops. The Eucharist was celebrated with solemn grandeur to glorify God. The Advent Festival (prayer, music, a new children’s choir, readings, making wreaths, cookies and hot drinks) was beyond wonderful. I went home, after an almost twelve hour day at the church, for Eucharist, some prep work for Advent, and the Advent Festival, and lit the first candle on my newly made Advent wreath, and prayed. The light of Christ was imminent in the flame, and my heart almost burst with gratitude, overwhelmed with the joy of the kingdom, of Christ who was and is and will be. But I too often am like John, crying in the wilderness. When I do, it is time for me to stop, be silent, and listen.
Only in faith, practice, prayer, feeling the quickening of our hearts in Christ, sometimes hanging on with bloody finger tips when assaulted with the injustice of the incarnate world, only then can we live in Christ Jesus. Now we wait, wait for the birth of the Holy Child, the Incarnation.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.