John’s prophetic message called on God’s people to repent; or in other words, to turn their hearts and minds back towards God’s dream for this world. Those moved by John’s message, would partake in a ritual cleansing and recommit to God by being dipped or immersed in water. Hence his nickname as a baptizer. John was that unique kind of eccentric person, who has a way of making you feel deeply uncomfortable, and yet at the same time, you can’t quite turn away. He captivated people's senses.
Prophets often have this skill. As God’s messengers, they are called to speak to particular communities facing their own individual concerns. Yet the themes are often the same. Typically, they call on people to turn back towards God, and expect the community to collectively address social justice issues facing the wider community. In so doing, they help pave a new way for God’s dream to unfold in the world.
John the Baptist was no exception. When leaders from the religious establishment head to the wilderness to observe this unusual man, he calls them out:
You brood of vipers!*
Do you think you can be changed by simply showing up here?
It’s your life that has to change.
You can’t rely on your religious authority either.
Change your life.
Put your energies towards working for God’s dream.
Because soon another is coming, and we need to be ready.
I love John the Baptist. His eccentric fashion and speech. His ability to make us stop and stare; to make us deeply uncomfortable. Which can often trigger an unhealthy, yet natural, response within us. We often become defensive, snarky, and judgemental; sneering and ridiculing the prophet and God’s so-called ‘message’.
Right? We do this all the time. How often do prophets in our own lives challenge us to turn away from some of our current practices and back towards God’s dream for this world. We often react by feeling judged and become defensive. This is a coping mechanism to mask our deep fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. In general, when prophet calls us out, we tend not to respond by saying,
By golly, you are right.
I see the error of my ways, and I will do things differently from now on.
For that matter, how can I help with these efforts?
Instead, we tend to react by doubling down in the very beliefs and practices God is asking us to change. We seem to harden our hearts, just as Pharaoh did all those years ago.
This is both good and bad news. The bad news is this makes the prophet’s work incredibly challenging. Given the Church is called to be a prophetic voice in the world; to work tirelessly for justice and mercy, we know what this challenge feels like all too well. We know what it feels like when our progress has been stymied yet again by another act of human selfishness, greed, and/or violence. Prophetic work can be wearisome, and at times it can challenge our capacity to hope and persevere in the face of resistance.
Yet the prophet is never alone. God is always right there, inspiring the words, vision, and next steps to keep going. As the Church, we are never alone.God is with us, and we are here to engage in this work together as the body of Christ.
That is the good news, but there is even more assuring news for us to take in. The response to the prophet’s message, particularly if it is defensiveness, judgment, or argument, is valuable information that we can learn from. We can pay attention to what lives underneath those behavioral responses, and we can offer compassion. It means as the Church, we can approach the prophetic work of social justice by preaching the message to turn towards God’s dream, while at the same time coming alongside people and meeting them where they are. Instead of talking at people, we can see their fear and discomfort; we can recognize hardened hearts and offer them compassion. Because their response to the injustice we are addressing is not actually about us, even if it is directed at us, and it is fruitless to take any of it personally.
Which means for all of us who maybe had an uncomfortable moment or two at Thanksgiving about a controversial social justice issue, we don’t need to waste precious energy holding anger towards those loved ones. Instead, see the fears underneath the words and offer compassion. This doesn’t fix everything, but it helps us to do the prophetic work of social justice, while also walking the Way of Love in each of our relationships.
Now returning to our eccentric friend, John the Baptist, for a moment. John modeled for the Church that we too can prepare the way for Christ’s coming by engaging in the prophetic work of inviting people to turn back towards God’s dream and one another. One of the most important ways the Church can use our prophetic voice right now is by addressing the climate crisis.
We are in a season of unprecedented climate change. For the last few hundred years humanity has plundered the earth of every conceivable natural resource, using them for our own individual comfort and gain. As young people, we were taught by both the Church and the wider culture, that we ruled over the abundance of creation, and that we could use those resources however we saw fit. Yet humanity is one speck of God’s creation, and we were always meant to play our small part in the interconnected web of life. As the Church, we are called to the prophetic work of helping the world to wake up to the climate crisis, and to turn back towards God and begin a reconciliatory relationship with creation.
The Church was made for just such a time as this. We understand deeply that the earth is sacred; that creation is God incarnate. Like John the Baptist, the Church has a role to play in helping the wider culture turn away from the unsustainable and dangerous practices that have led to this crisis. We can be agents of change that help shift humanity’s relationship with creation from consumer to caregiver. This is how we can ready the Way; by ensuring that there will be a wilderness for Christ to return to.
Whether we think about it this way or not, the climate crisis intersects with every single social justice issue. We need to see the intersectionality of these challenges and collaborate with others to collectively be that voice crying out in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
The Green Team is helping our church navigate how to be prophetic caregivers of creation, but there is more we can each do all on our own. And I promise it’s not hard, and won't cost you more than a few moments each day. One of the first steps we can take is to follow John the Baptist’s example by spending more of our time in the wilderness.
I don’t mean you need to pack up your house, sell your possessions, and embark on a six month journey hiking the Appalachian Trail. Though that is also great. Nature is all around us. In the slow stretch of time at the pandemic’s onset, people shared at virtual coffee hour how they were taking more time to connect with creation. For many it was birds or flowers; for others it was walks or hands in the soil. The slowness of that season allowed us to reconnect with nature in a way that many of us had not done since childhood.
What if every day we were each to spend five more minutes appreciating God incarnate in the creation that surrounds our home and neighborhood. Maybe this means getting better acquainted with a particular tree in our yard. Maybe it is forging a relationship with a nearby squirrel, bird, rabbit, or insect. Maybe it is sitting outside in silence, simply taking in each sound, scent, and scene. How might deepening our relationship with creation help us to heal and grow?
How might it help us prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent? Amen.
*This is inspired by and adapted from the Message translation of Matthew 3:1-12
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