Imagine, for a second, that you are standing in the middle of the desert. You’ve been dragged out to this God-forsaken place by your cousin, who is always off following some other itinerant preacher, or trying out the latest diet fad, or ordering what he thinks will be the next great product from the Home Shopping Network to shove into your Christmas stocking. He’s brought you out to see “the latest guy,” a man named John who is preaching and ritually cleansing people in the desert. John is quite a sight. His hair and beard are wild. He smells and he is wearing a camel hair shirt, which is possibly the only thing that smells worse than a real live camel. He lives on locusts and honey, which is certainly not the most complete, balanced diet in the world, and he is flirting with annoying the wrong kind of people with some of his ill-advised comments about King Herod and his new wife.
John is proclaiming what strange preachers often proclaim, the imminent arrival of God’s Messiah, who will right the wrongs of Israel, will finally makes sure that Israel isn’t constantly getting beat up by the bigger bullies all around, or used as a cross-roads between Africa, Asia and Europe. It is what the strange religious types have been yelling about for hundreds and hundreds of years, to anyone who would listen to them, that and sin and repentance, and John is no different in that either.He washes people to remove their sins, and he talks about the need to return again to faithfulness with God.And he draws a crowd, as strange prophet types tend to do. Some are there because they like the spectacle; some are like your cousin, always looking for the next big thing. Some are there because they feel some guilt in their life and would like not to feel it anymore, and sacrificing in the Temple didn’t make them feel any better, so maybe this John character will be able to.
What would you think, looking out on that desert scene? Would you think “John is right. The Messiah is coming soon. I need to prepare myself.” Or would you think what most people probably thought: “This guy has spent a little too long in the desert sun without a hat. He’s got a screw loose.”
John is not different from the other prophets throughout the years that preached to Israel, and were ignored and laughed at and mocked and killed. John is the last of them, but no different. They came to tell Israel about its sin and failure (which everyone loves to have pointed out to them). They came to tell Israel to return to faithful covenant with God, or risk destruction. They came talking about the Messiah long promised, long expected, who never ever seemed to arrive.
Like John they all looked, or at least acted more than a little crazy. And like John they found their mission, their calling excruciating and onerous and dangerous. Not easy, to be the mouthpiece of God. To have your fellow prophets killed, to be the last prophetic voice in the land. To have to declare to a people that you love and belong to (or at least used to belong to until you started prophesying) their sin and the coming wrath. Or even worse, to be sent to preach repentance to your sworn enemies, and then when they repented and God was merciful, to feel bitterly angry that God had not destroyed them. Or to write into your own life and marriage the infidelity of the people of Israel to their covenanted God, to take a harlot as wife, as the kind brutal symbol of God’s relationship with the people that he loved and pursued, and who constantly spurned and were faithless to him. Not easy being a prophet of God and you can tell when we read their words out in the midst of this place. They are simultaneously extremely disturbing and profoundly comforting. When they bring to us words of comfort, they are soft words, words about the end of our sojourn in the wilderness, about the ending of our trial and testing and punishment. They speak words of profound comfort – the restoration of what should be, the putting down of those who oppress us, the binding up of the sick, the lame and the poor.“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
But when they prophesy against us – we feel and justly feel – condemned. For our pride, our faithlessness, our idolatry, our injustice, our greed. And even though their voices come to us out of the dust, and out of the complex politics of ancient near eastern kingdoms and wars, still it is hard not to blanch slightly when we hear them railing.
For they speak not only about injustice and idolatry and greed and sin (which is enough in itself), but about the shortness of our lives and the tininess of our beings before the abundant power and majesty of God.“All the people are grass,” says Isaiah, and “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” And indeed it has proved true. Although Isaiah is long since under earth, and crumbled away to ashes, the words that he spoke, attempting to crystallize in language the compulsion that he felt from God, those words come down to us still.
And they resonate with us.Despite innumerable years and miles, still we feel their condemnation. We are not much different from Israel.Still we are an unclean people, faithless often to our God, full of sin and greed and idolatry and injustice.Spurning the poor, the widows and the orphans, and offering up our sacrifices at altars other than this one.
And still we are in need of God’s comfort, God’s grace, God’s mercy to break into the squalid little messes of our lives and restore us again. “Will you not turn again, O God? Will you not remember your people?” We need the words of comfort which the prophets offer us.
But most of all we need what the prophets spoke of and longed for and knew that they would never see, in their sad poignancy and in their waiting for God to do something, to do anything, to restore Israel; we need a Savior, a Messiah, that One expected from the foundations of the world.
And so John stands in the desert, looking into the distance, the last of a long line of prophets, doing what they have done for so long: waiting. Waiting for God to act.Waiting for the Messiah to arrive.Waiting for the people to get it together. Waiting in the midst of that moment of calm before the storm, of pregnant pause, of held breath and deep anticipation. Waiting for that secret moment, that mystery beyond mysteries, which will redeem all the suffering of the prophets and of Israel, which will restore the fortunes of Zion, make of the desert a garden and gather the lambs in God’s arms.He proclaims what the prophets before him have proclaimed: Repent, turn again to God, there is One coming who is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to untie his sandals.He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
He says these things wearily, and looking into the haze of the desert, wonders sometimes, about the truth of the words which flow through him. Whether indeed that Messiah will ever come. Whether God will ever redeem his people and turn again to them. Whether the desert and the life of a prophet will get him before Herod does. Whether the waiting will ever end.
Somewhere, just over the horizon, is another man, a God-man coming out to meet John. And the path that John preaches, the path that he is attempting to smooth with harsh words and ritual cleansing, that path will stretch as straight as an arrow, from the moment that the God-man comes up from the water of baptism, directly to Jerusalem and a hill outside it.
John will be gone by then, of course. His head will be on a platter and the agony of being a prophet ended. But his eyes will have seen something that the prophets longed and waited for, against all hope. [The savior of the world, God’s messiah.]
For now, John simply looks out into the distant desert, and hopes and waits, and waits, and waits, for God to bring about his purposes.
Preached by the Rev'd Andrew Ashcroft
7 December 2008
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia