According to Matthew, John the Baptist was the Voice in the Wilderness, the herald of the Christ. His purpose was to invite people to get ready for the coming of the Lord, in the words of Isaiah, to “make his paths straight.”
The Baptizer used a technique kind of like that of a Zen master who hits his follower with a rod to wake him up. The stick shocks the student, who comes out of the usual ways of thinking about things into a moment of thoughtless openness. In that moment enlightenment can occur – the path of the Lord’s coming is made straight.
The stick, in John’s case, is strong words. “You brood of vipers,” he hisses. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” “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.”
“Wake up,” he is saying. “What good are your schemes and dreams? What good is your life? Your religion? Your heritage? Is there anything important about what you are doing, how you are living? Does it make a difference? Repent! Repent of it all and turn around!” Whack.
These days we don’t have a prophet to help us wake up to what’s important. Instead we have world events. We have wars in which thousands of people are senselessly killed or driven from their homes and the good lives they have made for themselves to borderland refugee camps where they spend their days just trying to survive. Or there are tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes that collapse peoples’ lives, leaving them destitute. Or there is simple poverty, which makes thousands of people desperate, leaches their potential, forcing them to focus on the next meal and the next warm coat instead of on their dreams. Or innocent children are wounded and killed – in border wars in Palestine, at knife point in China, or for no reason whatsoever here in the U.S. while going to school.
We can look at all these events as evil running rampant in the world and hide away, drawing the borders of our world ever more tightly around us to keep out the bad. We want to do this. We want a strong military to protect our interests, strong border policies to keep dangerous people from coming into our country, better weapons with which to protect ourselves on the streets. We want to quit going to the mall, the theater, or the coffee shop for fear we will be murdered there, and to quit sending our children anywhere – even to school.
But if we go down this path our suspicion and fear will grow, feeding on itself like some monster. It will loom larger and larger until we finally come to see evil everywhere, in everyone except possibly our own immediate family. And when we have reached that point, we ourselves will be the most evil thing around.
A healthier response might be to see in the world events that terrify us the opportunity to be shocked awake. What the heck are we doing, that these horrible things can occur? The responsibility belongs to all of us. What good is our religion? Our heritage? If we examine our lives, individually and collectively, what difference do they really make? How is what we do like chaff that needs burning? How is the product of our efforts like trees that don’t bear fruit? Let’s repent, repent of it all and turn around!
Let’s make the path of the Lord into our hearts and into the world just a little bit straighter.
Beloved, come into our hearts and into the world. We can do nothing without you. We long to see differently, to lead lives that bear wheat and fruit. Please, O Christ, come. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado