3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
I dream that someone has rung the doorbell. I race through a large, unfamiliar house trying to find the door to answer the bell. I finally wrench open the door and wave to the people who have rung the bell, who by now are in their car, about to pull away, but I catch them just in time. Then I realize, too late, that they are door-to-door evangelists. You know the type. I wish I had pretended that I was not at home. The dream evangelists corner me; they are aggressive, strident, and insistent- and they want me to give them money. I say no, but they just step up their tactics, trying to scare me with threats, something terrible will happen, they say, if I don’t support their cause. I wake up, feeling frightened and anxious, my heart pounding in the wee hours of the morning, unable to go back to sleep. And in the strange logic of dreams, the first thought I have upon waking is “What do these door to door evangelists have to do with John the Baptist?”
And then I remember him. The man used to roam the downtown streets of my hometown, especially during the holiday season. He would wear either a burlap sack tied with a rope or something that looked like animal skins. He carried a large walking stick. His hair was long and wild and matted as was his beard. He had a crazed look in his eye and an angry expression on his face. He would walk around thrusting religious tracts on unsuspecting shoppers and shouting: “Repent you brood of vipers!” at the backs of those who walked away. There was no doubt about it; this man thought he was John the Baptist. No wonder I start to have anxiety dreams about John the Baptist around the second Sunday in Advent.
Even though he doesn’t quite fit in with our cultural “Holly Jolly,” John the Baptist sails into view every Advent, “as unwelcome a sight as a sanitation truck,”* looking like some figure straight out of a biblical nightmare. You won’t find a Hallmark Christmas card bearing John’s picture or proclaiming his rasping holiday salutation: “Christmas Greetings From Our Brood of Vipers to Yours.” John is blunt, direct, confrontational, colorful, unsettling and slightly mad. And it seems that I just can’t get enough of him. John has moved into my unconscious and set up camp there, stirring the pot of my dreams, and festering away in my religious imagination.
I lie there recovering from the anxiety of my dream, heart racing, and I realize the answer to my question: “What do these door to door evangelists have to do with John the Baptist?” In a sense, the answer is “Nothing.” Because of the odd character from my childhood, I think of John as the kind of evangelist who would go door to door. But it occurred to me in the wake of my dream that John the Baptist didn’t ring doorbells, literally or figuratively. According to the gospel accounts, John did not track people down or pursue them. In fact it was just the opposite: the people came to John. He was not blocking their path on the street corner, but rather, he was in the wilderness. You had to go out of your way to hear what John had to say. John could only be found in the wilderness; that haunted place of waste and desolation, holy in the extreme.
Why on earth would people seek out someone who dressed in camel skins and who reportedly ate bugs for lunch? John was dressed like a prophet in the classic sense, one who could challenge the perceptions of the status quo. Why would people walk for days to hear this man preach? What was the attraction? And why do we think of such a character as a harbinger of good news?
John offered a glorious vision; a vision of an amazing highway being built through the desert. The highway would be broad and smooth and it would be a direct connecting route between God and humanity. But anyone who has ever seen a highway being built knows the bitter truth: that roadwork is disruptive, messy, sometimes dangerous, and always time consuming. Building a new highway almost always takes more time and resources that one originally expects. The vision John offered was one of God’s roadwork: upheaval, transition, and transformation. But instead of being put off by the possibility of disruptive change, people were hankering for more; they couldn’t get enough of John. Why were they willing to experience upheaval? What did they want from God?
What do you want from God? Is it something compelling enough to make you willing to experience upheaval and disruption in order to get it? Why would you get up in the middle of your life and wander into a place that feels for all the world like a wilderness in order to find God? Why might you be hammering on the door of heaven asking for things to be radically different from the way they always have been in this world, in your life? When you lie awake in the middle of the night wondering about your life, your future, what is it that you want from God? Perhaps you realize that you are in a wilderness, and you don’t know how you got there. But you find growing within you a longing for a different future. In those stark desert nights it occurs to you that life could be different, that you can live in a more meaningful, just, or peaceful way. And you wonder if it is possible for God to come to you in this time and this place- not in judgment but in love- to show you a way forward, to build a highway into the future.
Luke locates his listeners firmly in their time and place. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The wilderness is that fierce landscape of challenge and despair, the place where everything that can go wrong does, where hopes and dreams and expectations go to die. Like the people of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for forty years after leaving slavery, we know wilderness as that place between a hard time and an uncertain, fearful future. But then we notice construction signs and evidence of a new pathway being tunneled through an impassible mountain. A way forward is suddenly revealed to us, and we tentatively step out into the future.
Or rather, in the fourth year of the first term of President Obama, in the third year of being out of work or in the sixth month of being homeless, or in the second year of being ill, or in the tenth year of slogging through grief, or the second Sunday of Advent the word of God came to the people in Cambridge… “See, a way forward is being constructed in the most unexpected of places. The past is behind you and the way forward is being created as you go.”
And John the Baptist says, this is barely the beginning. “There is one who will come after me,” John says, gazing off into the middle distance. And we turn to see what John sees. We see the highway he has described, an amazing thoroughfare that makes a Roman road look like a cow path. And we suspect, we know, that this road will lead us to God. We know that we have come here to find God, and to our astonishment, we see God’s future coming toward us, God is racing to meet us. God is knocking on our door, ringing the doorbell, not with judgment or rejection but with grace, mercy, and love. And the wilderness has burst into bloom all around us.
*I heard someone use this expression once on NPR and it stuck firmly in my mind. I have a vague memory that it might have been Gore Vidal, but I’m not sure.