You may listen to Mother Takacs's sermon here.
I have been to the wilderness of Judea only once. It was the spring of 2009, and I was there on a pilgrimage with a group from the Washington National Cathedral. We took a bus to get there, of course, and parked along a ridge that then led us along a wide, dusty path away from the road. Everywhere I looked was beige. Beige to the right and beige to the left – over there, along the crest of the mountain, slightly darker beige, but only very slightly, only one crayon over in the box of 96 Crayolas. The hills were so mono-chromatic that they seemed two-dimensional, flat, propped up against the horizon. It was beige and hot and dry; the sun beat down on our heads as our tour guides tried to beat it into our heads that we needed to stay hydrated. Take another sip, friends, we’ve been here 15 minutes already. Barring our sipping water and snapping photos, there was no movement anywhere – just beige and dust and heat. It was one of the least hospitable places I have ever seen – not an easy place to get to, and not an easy place to stay in.
So imagine, for a moment, that you are a Pharisee, and you have just schlepped all the way out into the wilds to have a look at this crazy man dunking people in the desert. You don’t know if he is one of the Essenes or just a nut job with an Elijah complex, but you felt compelled to check it out, if for no other reason that if anyone asks you about him you want to have a decently informed answer. You want to be able to say, “Well, when I went out to the wilderness to see him, I thought this.” That seems like what a responsible religious leader should do.
And so you’ve hauled your butt all the way out into the desert to find John the Baptist. You walked, and it was hot, and the wine skin you brought along to help you stay hydrated seemed to have gotten heavier instead of lighter as the day wore on. It wasn’t an easy journey, not least because you ended up traveling with a bunch of Sadducees who were headed in the same direction. You and the Sadducees agree about, well, not much, so along the way you tried to avoid topics that might lead to arguments, like the doctrine of sola Torah, or the primacy of the Temple, or the resurrection of the dead. Mostly you talked about John. What have you heard? Have you talked to anyone who’s been baptized? What do you think he’s up to, really? And you decided, as you traveled, that you just don’t know what to make of him, that you’ll just have to wait and see. You’ll wait, and pass judgment when you get there.
And so imagine your surprise, now that you’ve found your way down to the Jordan River, that it isn’t you doing the judging but John. You brood of vipers! he yells at you. You conniving clutch of cobras! You’ve come out here trying to look pious and responsible but you look like nothing so much as a bunch of asps. You’ve come out here to look into baptism, but you haven’t even looked into your own souls. Is there anything growing inside you or is it just dried up and beige in there? He points a dusty finger in your direction. Bear fruit, he snarls. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Now scripture doesn’t actually tell us what the Pharisees and Sadducees do in response to this scolding. We’re left to assume that they just up and go, leaving John to his wooly, wet work. But that doesn’t seem quite right – after all, you’re a Pharisee. You don’t mind a good argument, and you’ve walked all the way out into the desert, with the dust and the sun and the Sadducees – are you really just going to turn around and go home because this prophet has called you a couple of names? No! You’re going to challenge him right back, aren’t you? You’re going to defend yourself, say something like, wait a minute pal, bear fruit worthy of repentance, what exactly does that mean? How am I supposed to do that? I mean, I’m doing the best I can, but just in case you’ve forgotten, we Jews aren’t exactly thriving here. Remember this little problem called Rome? I can barely practice my religion at a bare bones level without getting the hairy eyeball from some Roman prefect. We’re an occupied people, imprisoned in our own cities. We’re barely making it here – we’re living in a dusty, dry, pretty beige time. Really, John, how am I supposed to bear fruit here?
And John is going to look right back at you and say, look around you, you silly serpent. Just look. Look at all of this fruit right here, in the desert. I, John the Baptist, am standing in the middle of the wilderness, and yet I am surrounded by fruit blossoming all around me, faithful, fervent followers, standing dripping in the waters of the Jordan, succulent with Grace. Look around you. You ask how you are supposed to bear fruit here, as if here is some impossible place. But there is no impossible place with God. How can you bear fruit here? How can you not bear fruit here?
We can sometimes get stuck asking ourselves how we can possibly bear fruit in our time, in our place. And we can imagine that Advent is a time to help ourselves move along to someplace better, some holier, more mystical place where all the conditions will be right for us to be the disciples we want to be, to be able to bear good fruit. And yes, of course Advent is a time for reflection, for repentance, for re-orienting ourselves. But this Gospel reading reminds us that Advent is also a time to bear fruit – right here, and right now. The kingdom of heaven has come near to us here, in this place, even if this place feels impossible to us. Advent is a time to bear fruit right here and right now, because there is no impossible place with God. There is no place so dry, so dusty, so altogether beige, that God cannot encourage a new blossom to grow.
Three days ago, this earth lost a man who understood this truth deeply in his very spirit. For Nelson Mandela knew how to bear fruit. He bore fruit while sitting jail cell for 27 years, fruit that flourished even in a wilderness of isolation and suffering, fruit that fed a wounded people and healed a nation, fruit that produced seeds of forgiveness and mercy, of truth and reconciliation the likes of which the world had rarely – perhaps never before – seen. Mandela’s life is an Advent life, and his witness helps to remind us that Advent is a time to bear good fruit here, right here, wherever here is. Maybe we feel like the ground beneath our feet isn’t particularly fertile, that it’s been scorched by injustice and oppression, by suffering and hypocrisy, by cynicism or secularism. Maybe we feel like the ground of our heart is dried up and desolate because of fear or anxiety, grief or pain, the uncertainty in the face of transitions, the struggle of loneliness, the dark night of the soul. But I’m guessing that John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela had moments when they felt the same way. I’m guessing that Paul, and Isaiah, and Martin Luther King, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mother Teresa and Sojourner Truth had moments when they felt the same way. And yet the fruit their bore in their lives proves to us that there is no place that is impossible for God.
Before we got back on the bus to head out of the wilderness and back into Jerusalem, I ended up standing for a few moments next to our group’s tour guide. We looked out across the desolate landscape in a companionable silence, and then he turned to me and said, “It’s just unbelievable.” I was just about to agree with him that yes, this beige barrenness was unbelievable, when he finished his sentence – “it’s so green.” It’s so – what? It’s so green, he said, and then explained that as it was at the end of the rainy season, what we were looking at was as green as the wilderness ever gets. And then he started pointing out the growth – tiny, grey-green bushes that I hadn’t noticed before, a dusty green fuzz dusting the ridges, and flowers, too, squat little squirts of yellow just three inches above the ground. There was color there, there was life there, and growth; the wilderness was bearing fruit, right where it was.
So when we find ourselves asking in a kind of futile frustration, how are we supposed to bear fruit here, we can remember that John the Baptist has the Advent answer. Because here is where we are. Here is where the kingdom of heaven draws close. Here is where Christ comes.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Second Sunday of Advent, 8 December 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia