Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8
The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist. He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter. There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert. Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself. He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.
The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him. In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within. He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions. He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time. In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ.
We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead. We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place. It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours. If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy. Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways. They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them. They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves. As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within. Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.
Then there is the Baptist. As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him. More often than not they don’t like what he has to say. They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading. Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from. That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though. It’s what they never understood about him. His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place. It was coming from deep within his very foundation. What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul. That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified. For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about. John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ. One mightier than I is to come. I must decrease and he must increase. It’s the mantra of the season.
And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal. The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert. Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”. Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience. Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within. Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time. It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within. Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal. This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are. It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day. It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.
Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation. The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that. Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way. Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God. Be eager for peace.
As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated. God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less. When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever. We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything. This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way. No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.