I wonder if John was micro-dosing out there in the desert. If he was, it would make perfect sense that he would see this odd collection of society slithering through the sand seeking something, seeking some kind of refreshment, some kind of balm for their wounds, some relief from their unfulfilled lives. Still, it sounds so harsh, like blaming the victims for their plight. Tough love, maybe. But love, just the same.
John is a bridge from prophetic Judaism to evangelistic Christianity. He embodies the Old Testament prophet even as he lifts up his cousin Jesus to be the One who will bring a new way for God’s people to live.
Like any good evangelist he gets specific with his audience. “You with two coats, give one away to someone who has none, and do the same with your extra food. You, tax collectors, stop adding a surcharge to your bill. You are fattening yourselves at the expense of your neighbor. You police, stop abusing your power. Remember your role to protect people and maintain law and order. Do it peacefully.”
And the people came and they had hope. They had expectations. Was this the One for whom they yearned? Was this the One who would fulfill the promises of the prophets of old? Was this the One who would bring them the peace they desperately sought?
John answers them with words about baptism, how he used water but the One for whom they sought, who was far more powerful than he, would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And then we have those cryptic words about a threshing floor and the separation of the wheat from the chaff and the burning of the chaff in unquenchable fire. Did he really have to use those images? It takes us down so many unproductive pathways. We listeners of today are skeptical enough, paranoid enough without having threats of doom thrown at us. We need words of love, encouragement, hope. We already have the fear language in our heads. The threat of some part of us burning in unquenchable fire brings neither comfort nor counsel.
I am reading a book right now called “How Not to Be Afraid” by Gareth Higgins. Higgins was brought up in northern Ireland during the “Troubles” and lived with the threat of violence on a daily basis. His book is a witness to how each of us is shaped by our stories, the stories of our names, our families, our groups, even our country. Along with these stories comes the “we/they” messages. To be “we” means not to be “they.” And to be “we” means to fear “they.” And these fear stories grow and linger and fester. The only way to counteract these fear stories is to tell a new story, a bigger story. I am reminded of the short poem by Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
A new story. A bigger story. A story that moves beyond our fears and takes us into places of hope, peace, joy and love, those themes we lift up in Advent.
The apostle Paul tells a bigger story to the church in the Roman colony of Philippi:
Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Pretty simple, don’t you think? Rejoice in God. Ah, but then we get caught up in the weeds. Who is God for us, anyway? Where was God when we were hurting and alone, afraid and suffering? Am I only fooling myself to think there is a God?
One of my favorite stories to this point was told by Marcus Borg. He was in a conversation with a man who said he did not believe in God. Borg asked the man to describe the God he did not believe in. The man did. Borg replied, I don’t believe in that God either.
Who is God for you? In your heart of hearts? What story do you need to have for who God is for you?
I would imagine it needs to be a story of acceptance. You need to know, deep down, that you are accepted, just as you are. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote:
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
I would add something to what Tillich wrote. I believe it is not only important to accept the fact that we accepted, it is also important for us to accept ourselves. All of ourselves. We are not naughty or nice, like the Santa Claus song says. We are both naughty and nice. To re-word the Transactional Analysis phrase: “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay.” Accepting ourselves, as God accepts us, is being brutally and lovingly honest with who we really are, not just who we would like to be.
Which brings me back to Higgins’ book about fear. We all have fears - some are realistic, many are not. We fear being alone, having done something that can’t be fixed, having a meaningless life, not having enough, pain, abuse, death. Fear can protect us and it can paralyze us. To face our fears can be a pathway to a new way of living. We are stronger than we think.
In facing our fears, we may discover that beneath them are the emotions of sadness and anger, and beneath those is compassion and beneath compassion is joy.
Yes, like the song says, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart.” It is down there, down pretty deep it would seem, especially when we are confronted with concerns for our health, the health of our loved ones, the homeless, the widening divide between segments of society, the reality of global warming, the challenges of refugees and immigration, the oppression of people of color and the poor in places near and far, and a host of other specific worries. Even with all of these, joy is down in our hearts. Not the kind of joy that colors everything with a rosy hue, not the kind of joy that thinks everything is going to work out right, not the kind of joy that pretends nothing is wrong with us, but the joy, like peace, that passes understanding, passes explanation, passes the need to have everything right. The joy Paul was talking about, as he wrote from prison to the struggling church in Philippi, is a joy which trusts in something beyond ourselves and yet within ourselves. Rejoice, again I will say, Rejoice!
The God who loves you does not require your belief in hoops or litmus tests. There is no final exam, no pop quiz. Grace has happened. We are good. We have what we need. We are accepted! Life is hard, but also full of love and possibility. Our stories are not finished. We are still writing them, with God’s help and encouragement. Rejoice for the chance to write our stories in ways that connect us, that build beloved community, and assure others they are not alone. Rejoice that we have the chance this day to bring healing and hope into places where they are so desperately needed.
It’s not that complicated. Rejoice. Amen.