Brief Synopsis of the Readings: Today we begin with the Old Testament Isaiah. Speaking after their return from exile, where their punishment has ended, Isaiah speaks of consolation. He speaks of the need to “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord.” Isaiah talks about making a place worthy where “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we learn about Jesus reading from that same passage from Isaiah. We then learn about John the Baptist who proclaimed “a baptism of repentance and for the forgiveness of sins.” John then told is followers that he comes ahead of someone much greater than him.
So if you know that your redeemer is coming soon, what would you do? Many years ago, when I was a seminarian, I was told that the elderly mother of one of our priests was coming to our home. It was winter in Boston it should surprise nobody that the front walkway was covered in snow. We immediately ran out and shoveled the walkway and poured sand to make sure that she didn’t slip coming into our home. One of the older priests in the house complimented us for treating this old woman as royalty.
When we live our life as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to understand that we’re a pretty unusual bunch. Our Bible (and the Bible of our Jewish brothers and sisters) began by describing how our world began; we read in Genesis the six days it took for God to create the universe where we belong. This is not unusual: many world religions describe what we call “creation myths” that describe how we got to be who we are and where we are.
But Christianity makes a unique claim. Many faiths claim a Supreme Deity who watches us from afar, and others claim there in no deity, but nobody else claims a deity who came to us and lived among us. When Jesus’ disciples (decades after his resurrection) attempted to write his story they had no playbook. As the searched their memories and conferred with others whose parents and grandparents actually witnessed the events we read, they recognized the difficulty of their job. They needed to describe how God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
They read the Book of Isaiah and found a great deal of material, and we’ll be reading these passages for the next few weeks. Today Isaiah looked forward to a Messiah, someone sent from God to make all things right. And those who followed Jesus must have looked at these chapters with both hope and anticipation.
But I think it’s fair to say that nobody imagined someone like John the Baptist. I confess by bias: in 1972 I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. There wasn’t much to this sacrament that I valued at the time, but I did appreciate the ability to choose my confirmation name. At that time in my life I appreciated the role of John the Baptist and to this day John is my confirmation name. At the time I appreciated John’s willingness to go outside the establishment and make his claim.
In the 45 years since my decision I’ve recognized John’s bravery. We don’t know much about him, but we do know that he and Jesus were related. The Gospels are unclear but many of us were told that Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Elizabeth (John’s mother) were cousins. In the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter but I think we can safely say that Jesus and John were aware of each other and probably grew up together.
And what little we know about John tells us this: none of us would have chosen him for the job of proclaiming the Messiah. When we think about someone we want to proclaim good news, when we want a messenger to send an unusual message we’re pretty clear about the type of person we want. We would want someone who connects well with others, who can explain difficult concepts in simple ways. We would want someone who (using an old cliche) can sell ice cubes to Eskimos.
We would not want John the Baptist. He was, I think we can say, crazy. Our readings tell us that he lived on locusts and wild honey. There is reason to believe that John belonged to a group called the “Essenes” a group of Jews of the time who went off by themselves and practiced a harsh form of Judaism. They practiced celibacy, separation, and piety and most Jews of the time thought they were lunatics. If we chose someone to proclaim the Messiah, John wouldn’t even make it to the first interview.
But, as we’ve learned, God’s ways are not always (or even often) our ways. God teaches us, again and again, to listen to the voices we’re not likely to listen to. Jesus’ phrase “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” continues throughout history even to this day.
We continue to need to read these readings because we continue to not get the message. In 1991 many of us viewed the movie Grand Canyon. If you haven’t seen this movie I suggest you do. The movie gives us several plot lines, but I think one of them speaks to this reading. Claire, one of the characters, goes on her daily jog and finds a baby who has been abandoned. She picked up the baby and felt that she and her husband should adopt this baby over her husband’s objections. During their negotiations she goes on another run and passes a clearly homeless and schizophrenic man who was muttering unintelligible words but as Claire passed he clearly said: “keep the baby.” She stopped and turned toward him but he was back to being unintelligible. Claire sees this as proof that they are intended to be this baby’s adoptive parents. He certainly didn’t look (or smell) like a messenger but his words spoke powerfully to her.
I love this movie and this scene because I suggest this informs us of these readings. I think we need to listen to people who we ordinarily ignore. When we listen to people who tell us what to do we often think less about their message and more about who they are.
John the Baptist tell us that we need to switch. Wisdom does not track with income and God does not reach us through people we respect. We are a few weeks from Christmas and we should focus our attention not on who speaks to us but instead on what they tell us.