The Second Sunday of Advent
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
John the Baptist. John is an interesting character. On the one hand, he is known as one of the greatest saints of all. When Jesus asked who people were saying that he was, one of the responses was that people thought he was John the Baptist. So, John must be somewhat similar to Jesus. They were cousins after all. And I like Jesus, so John must be pretty good, too. Jesus also says, no one born of a woman was greater than John the Baptist. John is also the one that Jesus goes to in order to be baptized. John is the precursor who was great, and had to diminish so that Jesus could rise. So, John is a pretty great guy. There is no doubt about that.
On the other hand, you hear the Gospel today describing John with his camel clothing and leather belt, and diet of locusts and wild honey, yelling "Repent! The kingdom of heaven has come near, you Brood of Vipers!" and you get the impression that John was a bit crazy. I remember a few years ago, Bishop John preached on this Sunday, with these lessons, and we were in the middle of our last Assistant Priest search, and he said "My one piece of advice is this: don't hire John the Baptist!" I'm pretty sure if someone came down from the wilderness of Spencer's Butte, wearing camel's hair and a belt, eating bugs and honey, standing on a street corner yelling at us to "Repent!" and calling us all kinds of names, most of us would cross the street to avoid them, maybe call Cahoots, and see if perhaps he could get some mental healthcare.
That's my 21st century, American mind hearing this story of a man in camel's hair, with his strange diet, yelling repent. The thing is though, that's not really what the description means. Sure, his clothing and diet are important enough to get mentioned, but they aren't as strange as I have also thought that they were, as strange as it comes across to most of us in the West today. Camel's hair was a common material for clothing of the nomadic desert people. They made tents, clothing, hangings, and whatever other fabric they needed from goat and camel hair. Eating wild honey and locusts just means that he was eating what he found in the wilderness, instead of growing food or participating in the local economy, he was out in the wilderness living the gatherer lifestyle, like a lot of us here in Oregon who search for blackberries in the summer, and chanterelles in the fall. These details also helped fulfill a couple of prophecies. As the Gospel mentions, John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah that said a voice would cry from the wilderness. The wild honey and locusts emphasize that he was out in the wilderness. And the camel's hair clothing links him to the other Biblical character who wore camel's hair, Elijah, helping fulfill the prophecy that Elijah would return before the Messiah. John the Baptist is not really a wild-eyed, crazy man. He is not the guy on the street corner yelling and holding a sign that says "The end is near." He is living an alternative lifestyle to the mainstream one, but not a totally unique, strange, scary one. He is more like the folks in the 60s and 70s who went back to the land, perhaps a bit of a prophet like the poet Wendell Berry.
And John comes to prepare the way of the Lord. He cries out - Metanoia! which our English version translates as Repent! But this is a rather weak translation. Metanoia means to change direction, change your understanding, change your worldview. Repent means to regret, be sorry, admit fault, but this Greek word metanoia involves a deeper transformation, it means changing the old way you looked at the world for a new way, and living your life by this new way. Metanoia! for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Change your perspective on the world, for the kingdom of heaven is about to break forth. Turn from the way you are looking at the world, at the current kingdom, with Rome in charge, and the collusion of religious and civic power, that keeps some oppressed, while the few get more and more powerful. Turn away from this kingdom to the new kingdom.
To participate in this new kingdom, we must metanoia, change our understanding, turn from the old ways, alter our unsustainable path that ultimately will be our destruction. In many ways it is rather similar to what the modern day prophets are telling us. We have become short-sighted, preferring unsustainable practices that bring quick growth, but will fail in the long-term. We have become blind to structures that benefit the few over the many. Until we change our understanding to see our responsibility to future generations, and our responsibility to God's creation, and our responsibility to the least among us. John will keep calling out over us, Metanoia!
It is an interesting time of year to hear this reading about John, to hear his story in Advent. Of course, we hear it because he was the one appointed to prepare the way of the Lord. And here we are in Advent, preparing the way of the Lord, preparing for the coming of Christ. As we heard last week, we prepare for the three-fold coming of Christ - to welcome Christ in the manger 2000 years ago, to welcome Christ in our hearts every day, and to welcome Christ coming in all of his glory at the end of time. But our preparations are so different. Our preparations involve hanging lights, decorating trees, baking cookies, buying gifts. These are all good preparations. But here John challenges us to do some other preparations, to prepare ourselves by taking a little bit of time to go inside, to look inside, and see what needs to change inside of us if we are to truly welcome Christ, to see what needs to change in our perspective, in our vision, in our worldview, if we are to truly see that Christ has even come. Metanoia! What understandings need to change if we are welcome the birth of the Messiah? What do we need to turn away from if we are seek and serve Christ in others? What do we need to transform if we are to be prepared for Christ to reside in our hearts today and every day? Amen.