Sometimes I think that the circumstances that we hear about in the Bible are simply lost on us because we weren’t there. The atmosphere and history of a place can enrich a story or occurrence that happened in that place. It can also open our eyes to new and different meanings. John the Baptist is really “with us” in the readings of this Advent. Most people get the idea that he was the precursor to Jesus and that he was the one preparing his cousin’s way. I don’t think however that many people are really in touch by how the whole Baptist situation riled the entire population around Jerusalem. He was definitely unconventional and, by all reports, just a little crazy.
The circumstances of John’s appearance and prominence had nothing to do with safety, comfort or logic. He preached in an area just west of the Dead Sea. This is a harsh environment. If you have ever been there you know that you freeze in morning temps of 50’s and by Noon it can reach over one-hundred. Dry, parched, unpleasant. He was a yeller. His preaching included admonitions to admit sin and completely retool thinking, not simply say you’re sorry. This was light-years from temple teaching and was something people had never heard before. In order to experience him people needed to get themselves to an unpleasant place with no promise of comfort or relief. They had to stand and hear a rather odd character ramble on and on. The experience might have included a dip in a tacky, muddy little puddle that would most likely have left you not as tidy as you were before you started out. His teaching was permanently disorienting. Yet people came, by the score. When was the last time that you labeled some teacher or situation as odd or annoying and just passed them off? For many in the time of Jesus, John the Baptist was that guy! John was the wilderness dweller who many laughed at. But many were drawn to the wilderness by him in a way they couldn’t explain.
Have you ever been disoriented by something you thought the Lord wanted you to do? Have you got what it takes to look the wilderness in the eye? To allow yourself to be challenged, disoriented and turned inside out is what it takes. John was correct. To honestly follow Jesus it takes the courage to be uncomfortable. In an ironic twist, John himself had that kind of experience. Jesus was God. Did he need to be cleansed of sin? In order to be baptized by his cousin, Jesus had to literally mingle, elbow to elbow, with a group of repentant sinners. At the Jordan the spot where baptisms happen is a narrow, dirty patch of river and not as pristine as one might imagine. Next, Jesus had to humble himself; immersion is not a very dignified action especially in front of a bunch of strangers and gawkers. Even Jesus’ cousin tells him: “It is I who need baptism from you.” (Mt.3:14 Jerusalem Bible). In that same moment Jesus instructs John: “Leave it like this for the time being.” (Mt. 3:15 Ibid.). The passage concludes and says that John finally “gave in” to the Master. You can almost picture the two of them, standing waist deep in the river and arguing. John says no, Jesus says yes and whispers in John’s ear; “just do this cousin” or something like that. Even John had to completely change his way of being and thinking.
To really ground Jesus in your life, you must spend a little time in the wilderness, first. Experience a little discomfort, something that forces you to completely change your way of thinking and your way of being. So, if God is moving you toward a place that is uncomfortable, maybe unpleasant and perhaps somewhere that you can get no relief from, don’t be so sure that you don’t belong there.
“Where will we find the saving word [that we are so desperately seeking]? Where and how will God speak to us? The world will tell us to look in all the wrong places. Today, we are still in the thrall to the politically powerful and to those who use religion in a flashy way…. Seek the truth in unexpected places; in the lowly, in those who suffer, in those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in the non-violent. Who are the homeless wilderness-dwellers today? Perhaps you should prick your ears and listen to them.” (Father Robert Barron, Magnificat December 2016, p.79)
Copyright© 2015, Kathryn M. Cunningham