Today’s gospel swings open and we find ourselves standing face-to-face with a man whose image is disarmingly stark. It is John the Baptist, or John the Forerunner as he is called by the Eastern Church. He greets us from the center of this second week in Advent, petitioning us to prepare ourselves for God’s imminent arrival. Because of John’s special significance for this season of anticipation and preparation… and the fact that his shadow still looms so large for us today, I’d like to take a few moments to look closer at this figure, before considering his message and its meaning for us.
John is remembered perhaps as much for his almost dangerous looking appearance as his role in Christ’s unfolding drama. He is described as roaming the wilderness, while clothed in camel’s hair, with little more than a leather belt about his waist. We can tell this left an indelible mark in the memories of the gospel writers because rarely in scripture are we given descriptions of people’s fashion sense… or lack thereof.
When depicted in paintings or icons, John appears predictably wild, with lots of hair… all bunched up… protruding in every direction. His eyes burn with fervor, while simultaneously conveying a heart that truly cares about the welfare of others. One glance and we know that John was not one to shy away from saying difficult things, especially when someone’s greater good was at stake. And, if we had time to delve into other stories about John, we’d find that this holds true… for he was always speaking out against injustice and calling people to repentance.
His startling outward appearance reminds us that looks matter—they are a means (albeit not the only means!) for communication. And this is especially true when considering icons or scripture! So, whether we like it or not, what others see when they look at us does help them understand some about who we are. And so, John doubly inspires us to take a reflective look at ourselves… first with his message of repentance, but also by his strange means of wearing it. And so, let us linger for a moment on the oddities that are John’s clothing, diet, and where he made his home.
John is often referred to as the last of Old Testament prophets… and his “camel’s hair get-up” would have hinted at this in a not-so-subtle way… To his contemporaries, his appearance would have immediately brought to mind associations with the prophet Elijah, who also wore camel’s hair… and made it the “industry standard” for any would-be prophets!
John also roamed the wilderness, which not only symbolized a place of challenge and utter dependence upon God, but also underlined connections with his people’s history and struggle. This gave him “street cred” with those he sought to awaken.
Everything about John screams dedication. He was “all in”… “gung-ho.” Unlike smaller pelts which required time spent sewing them together, a camel’s pelt could be quickly slapped on and secured with a belt, so he wasted no time primping and preening. His menu of locusts and wild honey was simple, while conforming to Jewish dietary laws, so he spent no time hunting or gardening. John simply ate whatever was “at hand,” for he was a man with a mission.
And that mission, not unlike the angel Gabriel, was heralding the coming Messiah—Jesus, the long-awaited savior who would baptize not with mere water, but the Holy Spirit! And so this heralding is exactly what John is remembered for. It’s why, in icons of the Eastern Church, John is often depicted as having angel’s wings to further emphasize his role as Christ’s messenger. John’s life was a trumpet’s blast sounding the message, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Words that rang out in our reading from Isaiah, that John so aptly re-appropriates. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” Words that are both at once comforting, but also motivating—disturbing, but also hopeful… But what do these words mean? For how does one prepare to receive the Living God? And how are paths made straight?
And so, just as our outward appearance can reveal things about us, so too can inward looks at ourselves. But such searching is so often the very thing that we love to resist! Especially during this month’s busyness, with all its parties, shopping, and trying to get the family Christmas cards in the mail on time! Setting aside time for prayer and reflection can appear far down on our list of priorities.
But… if we’re serious about wanting to prepare ourselves for Christ’s Advent… if you long to experience Christ anew in this coming year… if you hunger to truly understand what it means to make straight God’s paths… and if you’re inspired by John’s “all in” fervor and want to engage life with the same heralding vigor… then we are encouraged to set aside some time this Advent season for searching. What will God show you? Has any complacency crept in? Are there distractions to be dealt with? Any distortions of God’s perfect image within you that God wishes to set right? Or belief structures that have outlived their usefulness? (P)
What are the things that would prevent you from experiencing Christ’s birth with newness in this coming year? And how might God, even now, be laying the groundwork for a new season of harvest that lies just beyond you field of sight? Today, John reminds us of the importance of engaging our inner lives and health with the same vigor and care that we exercise outwardly… with our friendships… and our work… John reminds us to ask ourselves the question of whether or not we are putting this sacred season, to good use… Are we preparing the way for the Lord and making straight God’s path?
Today, the Church remembers John the Baptist for his role in proclaiming the good news of the coming Messiah, but also as one who, through his Old Testament styling’s, links Christ to God’s historic revelations throughout human history. John then looks forward foretelling of how Christ will usher in an age of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. In this way, John helps us look to the past, the present, and the future—to see the God who was, who is, and who is to come.
And in doing so, we are invited to consider the same for ourselves… How, from our lives and experience, do we account for the God we’ve known, we know, and the one yet to be revealed? And how are we preparing ourselves to greet that newness which awaits us, so we can with reckless abandon and fervor herald whatever hope is revealed?