Sunday, December 5, 2021
In this season of Advent when we reflect on and hope for the second and final coming of the Messiah to restore all things in God’s good plan, it is helpful to remember that we are not the only ones who possess a Messianic hope. Indeed, our brothers and sisters of the Jewish tradition have--before Jesus was even born--hoped for one to restore Israel to power and bring peace to the world. As well, our Muslim brothers and sisters recognize al-Madhi as one who will defeat evil in the end. Yet, the following caught my eye as a reminder that all things Messiah may not be equal.
In a recent Guardian newspaper article, Christopher Lord describes the ironic Messianism playing out in the island archipelago of Vanuatu. Frustrated with the colonization that took place on the island in the 18th century, a prophecy developed among the people. A Messiah would come from afar to rule. The irony is that Vanuatu has experienced any number of Western men who feel that they are the fulfillment of such prophecy. As Christopher Lord notes, “In anthropological parlance, such beliefs are often labelled cargo cults – a term fraught with condescension, framing these spiritual movements as religions constructed around the material wealth, the “cargo”, of the western world. Over the past 50 years, though, a steady stream of westerners have acted out such prophecies in the hope of gathering believers.” As one local activist told Lord, “We have these crackpots showing up all the time.”
And while John the Baptist might appear as a certain type of crackpot to modern sensibilities (e.g. he lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair clothes, eats locusts, etc.), his story in today’s gospel may be a helpful corrective to the cargo cult movement created by any number of hucksters. Indeed, John resembles more the crazed street-corner preacher found in any urban center than a rational and reasonable prophet-type. In next week’s lesson he will rail against the respectable religious leaders of his day as, “a brood of vipers.” Not the type of things you do if you want to curry favor and lead a nation.
Which really is the point that John the Baptist underscores and the awaited Messiah of the first century fulfills. God’s work of preparing the way of the Lord and the Messiah are not beauty or popularity contests. In fact, one way of understanding how God comes to us through these historical figures is what some have referred to in Christian theology as the Great Reversal. You know the first shall be last, the rich will be poor, the weak will be strong. There is a tiny phrase from today’s text that betrays this. Luke clearly sees John the Baptist as the fulfiller of the prophet Malachi’s vision: the messenger who prepares the way. However, Luke misquotes the prophet Isaiah. Luke writes, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord.’” And that is where John hung out. In the wilderness. Thus, this rendering proves Luke’s point. Yet, the prophet Isaiah’s actual declaration was, “The voice of one crying out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’”
It is a small distinction, but, perhaps, an important one as well. What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness? Why would one do it there? Recognizing this difference impacts how we see a prophet like John and a Messiah like Jesus and a bunch of cargo cult hucksters who want to bilk people for all that they can. What the prophet Isaiah forces us to consider is that God doesn’t desire all the lavish and attractive places in the world, but God actually will enter into our stories in the places that most of us dislike or downright disdain. Really. Who sets up their vacation plans for THE WILDERNESS? That place that is barren, dry, hard, harsh and hardly inhabitable? No one. Well, or only a few crackpots like John and Jesus.
Yet, these themes--the Great Reversal, God coming to us where we least expect it, the divine entering into the place that we abhor--are the bread and butter of the biblical narrative. Why the wilderness? Who knows. Maybe it is the place that is so hostile to life that it forces us to know in a deep way our dependence upon God? Maybe it is the sign that no place is bereft of the presence of God, and, indeed, God desires all places and people to be a part of the fulfillment of God’s plan? Maybe it is that we all reside at various times and places in wilderness moments in life? Times and places that are barren, dry, hard, harsh, and hardly inhabitable. And it is precisely in those times that we need to be reminded that even there we can prepare a place for the Holy, and the Holy will not reject us but will actually meet us in that time and place in the wilderness.
The cargo cult hucksters follow a code that sees the world and others as means to their end. They manipulate and spin so that they may gain advantage and power and wealth. Yet, they have no real concern for those who may be impacted by their actions, surely not the most vulnerable and innocent. God, however, offers a decidedly different vision. The world and its people are not pawns to be used for benefit and pleasure. They are the beginning and the end of divine desire. Beloved. Loved. Of inestimable worth. Therefore, it is to any place in the world--even the wilderness--that God would deign to come to preserve and save God’s people.
As we welcome Adalyn Houle into the family of God, there is no greater confirmation of how true this is. Again, we do not welcome a child into the world and wish upon her a life of wilderness wandering. We want security. Opportunity. Stability. Access. And, yet, we also know that Adalyn and each of us--try however we might to avoid it--will experience moments of wilderness in life. And it is in those moments that we remember this moment. Adalyn’s baptism and our own. It is a sign to her and to us that there is no place that God is not, and in this sacrament God seals us as God’s own so that wherever we go in life--even in the wilderness--God will be there with us. It’s what Isaiah foretold at the end of today’s prophecy, “an all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Indeed. Not just at the end of all time, but even now as we prepare the way of the Lord.