Advent Wilderness

What did you go out to the wilderness to see? What did you go out to see?

Three times today Jesus questions his followers. What did you go out to see? There is a fundamental tension in this text. Jesus is pushing the crowd. Frankly, by the time we get to this Sunday of Advent, many of us could use the push. The tension is palpable not just in the pages of the Scripture, but in the lines at the stores, in the meetings in workplaces, in the study halls at colleges. The pressure is on. That old line of the prophets can be felt on the wind: “the end is nigh.” So where is Jesus pushing? What did these folks go out to the wilderness to see?

The answer, of course, is John. They left the comforts of Jerusalem or Jericho, they wandered the dangerous road down to the lowest geographic point on earth, down to the wilderness of the Jordan, to see this camel-fur wearing, locust eating prophet. John had grown famous for his preaching, out there on the edge, for declaring “the jig is up.”

While the Roman Empire grew more oppressive. While the powers in the cities colluded with the occupying forces, a wild man appeared in the wilderness, and, by all accounts, people listened. People went to see.

Jesus asks the crowd, do you think John was just a reed in the wind? Do you think he was just full of hot air? John is in prison. I leave Julie in charge for one Sunday and she lets Herod Antipas lock him up. I’m kidding of course, Herod, the ruler of the region grew fearful of John’s popularity. He had him arrested. Does John being in prison mean his prophecy was false? If he was a true prophet, wouldn’t God have preserved him, helped him to survive?

The tension into which we have arrived this morning, and it is the tension that Jesus pushes the crowd into with his repeated question: “what did you go out to see?”

The Tension of Christmas

I want to invite you to sit a little bit with Jesus’ question this morning, because I do think we can all use this push. The build up to Christmas can be a difficult time. For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, and because we have so many subjective expectations about what this time of year is supposed to be like.

There is a lot of pressure around Christmas to conform. We are supposed to be merry and bright. We are supposed to be surrounded by loved ones. We are supposed to be enjoying holiday parties, drinking hot cocoa and egg nog. We are supposed to be caroling and wrapping presents. More than any other time of year there is pressure for our reality to correspond with some ready-made image of holiday joy, some nostalgic memory of Christmas past, some hallmark movie image of what Christmas is supposedly really about.

So what if you don’t feel like caroling? What if you are exhausted because so much of the life that was delayed over the last 3 years has happened in the last 3 months and now you’re just barely hoping to limp into the new year? What if you are barely hanging on, because you are missing someone who was a big part of your Christmas celebrations in years past? Does it make you the grinch?

Frankly, if it does, our world could use some more grinches, some more folks who are not content to let Christmas be a syrupy celebration of consumption and performative schmaltz. We could use some reminders: Christmas isn’t for those who have it all together. Christmas isn’t about the folks in the fine clothes. Christmas happens out on the edge, out in the wilderness, outside our comfort zones. Christmas is an announcement to people who are worried, harassed, and barely hanging on. Christmas isn’t about reinforcing the status quo, but about God breaking reality wide open. Christmas is about God making a new world.

What did you go out to the wilderness to see?

What does healing look like?

Those of you who were here, or who tuned in last week know Julie and I had to swap Sundays. Originally she was going to be preaching this Gospel, but last week I got waylaid by a really nasty cold. When I was feeling better, this week we started talking about this Gospel because Julie has been leading our Grace GatheringS work here at Holy Communion. She is building up a team and thinking about how we become more aware of different physical abilities and neurodiversitirs. So of course Julie was tuned into Jesus’ words:

“Tell John the blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. Those who were deaf now hear.”

We wondered together whether it would be so simple. Does the arrival of the Messiah mean that disability is erased? Is that our hope? Or, or, is it about the healing of community? In the Kingdom of God are those with sight and those without able to navigate together? In God’s reign are those who hear and those who sign able to communicate? When Messiah comes is the Christian community meant to make sure that everyone can all travel together, whether they walk or whether they roll? Julie and I wondered, what if Jesus is relaying John in prison a simple message: we aren’t leaving anyone behind. We’re not leaving anyone out. The question, I think is one worth pondering, because it helps us get at the question of hope, it helps us return to Jesus’ question today:

What did you go out to the wilderness to see?

Part of what was so powerful about John was that he pointed beyond himself. The crowds arrived to hear him preach, and John said, “it’s not about me. Another one is coming. It’s not about me.”

Today even Jesus does the same. Have you seen those cheesy signs that say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” On the one hand, I like them, because they remind us it really isn’t about candy canes and consumption. On the other, I’m not sure Jesus would agree. When John asks, “are you the one who is to come?” Jesus doesn’t point to himself. Jesus points beyond himself to the poor. Jesus points to all the people who would be left out who are brought along. Jesus points to the dead being raised up. That last one can be hard at the holidays.

This Sunday is hard, for me, because a year ago one of my favorite parishioners told me she had terminal cancer. I know, priests aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I Sondra Ellis was just about everyone’s favorite around here. Sondra died just a few weeks after Christmas. The disease was mercifully short. I’ve been thinking about her as Christmas has been coming this year.

This week its because I’ve had this song we had as part of our worship early in the pandemic stuck in my head, and it was a song I know Sondra loved. She told me so regularly. The music by Ana Hernandez mixed the words of Julian of Norwich, “All Shall Be Well and All Shall Be Well and All Manner of things Shall be Well” with a quote from Arundati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. She is on her way.” For weeks, as we listened to choir members singing these words, Sondra would comment, “I Love this song. It’s so reassuring.” The words ask us to find an inner place within us of waiting, of watching, of listening.

Advent isn’t just a countdown to December 25. Advent isn’t just opening doors with chocolate until the day. We are not just holding back for the telling of the story of a child’s birth. Rather, rather, we wait for the coming of another world, another way of being in this world, another community. We wait for the in-breaking of love, of peace, of joy. We wait and watch for the signs of a beloved community where no one is left out, because they are disabled, because they are queer, because they are grieving, because they are poor. We even dare to wait for a coming world where death does not have the last word, where we are reunited with those who have gone before us in faith. We trust they are with us even now. In Advent we go out to the wilderness, because there, at the edge, there in the hands of wild ones something new can be born. God is bringing an end to the death-dealing ways of our world.

As Christmas gets closer, as the pressure builds, don’t settle for less than the whole. Don’t settle for less than true prophecy. Don’t settle for some commercialized version of Christmas. Christmas isn’t a manufactured emotion.

What did you go out to the wilderness to see?

See the signs that God is breaking into our world, remaking our world. Dare to dream, dare to sing that another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Take some time to get quiet. Maybe go on a walk, or just sit as the dawn breaks. Dare to watch for the signs: despite all evidence to the contrary, God is remaking our world for love.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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