Today we get to spend some time with the fascinating story of John the Baptist, who, I’m afraid, is all too obviously the hipster in the Gospels. Bearded, wearing only natural fibers, eating locusts and wild honey, living in that tiny house in the desert, apparently able to make a living from his blog without compromising his principles—I confess, I secretly envy his life. There is less information about him in the other Gospels, but in the account in the Gospel of Luke, John was the cousin of Jesus. He was born in his parents’ old age, and in fact when an angel had come and told his father, Zechariah, who is a priest in the Temple, that he and his wife would have a child, he didn’t believe the prophecy, and the angel took away his voice until John’s birth. Only when the boy is finally born does Zechariah regain the power of speech, and immediately he sings the canticle that we sang this morning. Just like Hannah, welcoming the birth of the prophet Samuel, and Mary, proclaiming the coming of Christ, this new life is marked out from the beginning as having a special destiny, in the history of God’s people. This baby will be bound up, somehow, in God’s plan. His vocation echoes a promise that the people have long remembered in their worship and prayer, from Isaiah and Baruch: he will be a voice crying in the wilderness, warning the people to prepare the way for God, to make mountains low and raise up the valleys, straighten out all the crooked things, and make the rough places plain.
It’s a beautiful vision, familiar to us from Handel’s Messiah. But if we think about it as reality, not poetry, it seems like humanity’s fond and foolish wish, of what we could do for God, when the opposite is what we do. It’s the Instagram version, when real life is in the chaos on the other side of the room. Whether it’s getting married or having children, or just inviting someone over, we want to make everything perfect for them, don’t we? – the tv shows all educational and earnest (that’s if we’ll even let them watch tv), the songs on the radio all uplifting, the books free of unresolved conflict, the toys all handmade, our home clean and smelling of freshly baked bread, etc., etc. And then it happens and it’s real—we’re tired and cranky or scared or sick, there’s a mess we couldn’t get to, something breaks, we swear and stumble. We’re never what we hoped we could be for each other.
Maybe perfect isn’t what we’re supposed to be going for—maybe that’s not what the vision is about, the call to repentance. What happens in John’s prophecy—why are the mountains being made low, and changing places with the valleys? Maybe the “valleys,” the small and the vulnerable, are helping to keep those of us who are strong, the “mountains,” on track, by lifting up their voices, and bringing us down close to listen. His newborn son had to cry, before Zechariah could find the words to express his blessing. When we’ve got our heads in the clouds, when we’ve hardened ourselves against life’s assaults, we may be mighty as a mountain, but we’re missing something important. If we will listen, our children will be our prophets, reminding us that it doesn’t need to be perfect. That’s not what repent means. It does not mean doing right all the time, it doesn’t even mean feeling sorry or guilty. It just means to turn around, so you can see what you couldn’t see before, so you can pay attention. Just show up, you don’t have to get it right, you have to be there. Not perfect, but present. Right where you are.
What’s important is there, in the wilderness, but the wilderness is all around us. What makes a wilderness? It’s a place, any place, where things are not going according to plan. It’s not a neatly laid-out garden, or a well-designed day, structured down to the half hour. It’s everything else. It’s in a home with a stressed-out parent, alone with young children. On a dementia ward, with yesterday’s high mountains, whose proud façade is crumbling. On a highway, with so many people needing to get where they’re going, needing not to be where they are. It might be with anyone, in a moment of decision, at a crossroads, wondering how to move forward. The wilderness is in the space between two people in anger, who cannot get past the hurt they have caused each other. It’s not necessarily bad to be in the wilderness, and it’s not a place we run away to, to escape from reality. It’s a place we find ourselves in, where we’re brought up against the truth, with no escape, no shade from the blinding glare of it, no comfort, no hiding. The wilderness might be just where we need to be, even though it’s hard, or because it’s hard.
But it’s honest. And, if we’re being honest, did we make the way straight, for God? How did we do, with achieving John’s vision? When He came, did He find a beautiful room ready at the inn, or a parade, led by the king and the high priest? We know the story didn’t go that way. He came, and found us unprepared. He came, and almost no one noticed. The high and mighty stayed on their thrones, and the poor and weak, the sick and the children, were down there in the dust, where he sat down with them, as he grew. His way wasn’t smooth, ever, and in the end it was the rough wood of the cross, the bite of the nails, the tearing thorns and the ragged cry from his own dry throat.
So it was always a fond and foolish wish, of what we could do for God, but wouldn’t do, and never did, and still don’t do. Could we do it for each other, I wonder? Mountains might not fall, but we could kneel down to listen and look at those who need our attention. Jesus wasn’t really interested in the kings and the high priests, anyway—he didn’t need our ambitious visions or our good intentions. He asked for our presence, our time and patience and love, for those who need it.
To go out into the wilderness that others are experiencing, is part of John’s call to us. But perhaps even more challenging is to invite others into our own wilderness. To share, not just our love, but our weakness, takes strength. To let go of our pride, to admit our own need for what our neighbours’ time and patience and love, that may be the greatest gift we could bring. There is a prayer we say during the Wednesday healing service, that struck me especially this week, as being a good prayer, to offer by the manger, by the rough cradle of the Christ who came to us as a helpless baby, to minister to us, not from the mountaintop, from here, in the valley of the shadow of death. God of all mercy: help us who minister with the sick and dying to remember that though we may appear healthy, we, too, suffer from the universal human condition in a fallen world. Flesh withers, and we must all die to the life we know. Therefore, O God our help, teach us to be aware of our own infirmities, the better to make others understand they are not alone in their illness. Restore us all in the love which is our true health and salvation. Amen.