How did you feel about that smelly prophet that came to visit us a few minutes ago? Did you, like me, want to reach for the room freshener? sanitize the place? To grab for the broom and dust pan to clean up the mess? Itâ€™s tempting to want to get rid of uncomfortable grating voices that disturb our peace and quiet and challenge us as quickly as possible.
Lukeâ€™s story begins in dramatic irony. First mentioned is Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor the most powerful man in the world, (you can almost hear the drum rolls) then come Caesarâ€™s puppets, each with their title to power, Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea, Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, Philip tetrarch of Iturea, Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, every one of them politically insecure men who had compromised their values for power. Next come the high priesthood, Annas and Caiaphas, men whose energies were wholly devoted to political gamesmanship, and to personal survival. Surely the reader, might expect to hear of some mighty act coming from such powerful, pragmatic, sophisticated men.
But no! The word of God came not from these places of power, but from a political nobody in the wilderness; from an outsider; from a spikey prophet named John in a God-forsaken province in a god-forsaken country. Itâ€™s quite the set up.
The powerful ones do not see the wilderness, because they never go there. They donâ€™t expect there to be anything of worth coming from there. But in the wilderness, is springing up a vision of a new reality, a new turning-point in history….. Itâ€™s important to pay attention to the wilderness….It is almost always where the God action is!!!
In scripture, wilderness is an archetypal setting to encounter God . Wilderness is the place of testing, of radical formation and transformation. It is where one learns to resist evil, and being coopted by evil. The wilderness is a place of silence where one can get real about one’s illusions and genuine hopes. As the silence deepens, the voices may speak of a longing for something missing, or of regrets, or of how far one is from what truly feeds and supports, and how thin a diet you have been living on after all.
John the baptizer sought wilderness. People flocked to hear him. In the wilderness John gathered people searching for alternatives, seeking a different vision for living. The desert was one place where you could listen to a speech without being interrupted by Roman spies, on most days anyway.
John is an odd-ball for sure; but he has a radical dream for the future. He called for change, for things to go in a different direction. And from a Jewish point of view, there was a lot that needed to go in a different direction. Their country was occupied by Rome. Many were put off their land; had their wealth taken to Rome to build up the empire and its costly army. There was a lot that needed to go in a different direction.
Johnâ€™s message was radical. John said that the society had to change right to its roots (which is the meaning of radical). He called on people to Prepare Godâ€™s way, in their world. He told them it was possible to make a difference NOW, to make choices for change. A few minor superficial adjustments in the way things were was not enough. Repentence was called for: Turning around and going in another direction. Bringing lifestyle and society into harmony with Godâ€™s vision for the world. There was a real urgency to his preaching. â€œThis is the time, the kingdom is very near. We donâ€™t have foreverâ€. Baptism was the mark of this radical change and renewal that people sought.
I used to think that calling people a brood of snakes was not very holy language, until I realized I had some folk that fit that epithet very well….For me it would be arms dealers who profit from selling weapons to governments to use against their own citizens; seeding landmines to destroy life for years to come…..or child porn rings who abuse children and distribute images to pedophiles. You could no doubt add a few more…We need prophets like John to come out of the wilderness naming evil for what it is. For Godâ€™s way to be prepared and made real, there are parts of our culture that must be cut down, burned as it were.
It seems that Advent is not a season of preparing a layette for a cuddly newborn-but a time to reflect on earth moving; on radical restructuring, radical dismantling of the landscape of our lives and of our society to bring it into line with Godâ€™s path of justice and peace.
Voices still call for earth moving, for clearing the way for Godâ€™s vision to come. And these voices almost always come from the wilderness, from the marginalized, from the edge, from the powerless places. They often come with a urgency and demand. I hear these voices in the cries of those who have lost livelihood in the economic downturn, in employees of Nortel demanding pension and health benefits for those downsized while executives earn millions in bonuses.
Some of the strongest cries world-wide come as leaders gather this week in Copenhagen around Climate Change. A grass-roots movement is rising up demanding that leaders listen. As you may know, climate experts say that the upper limit for carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We are currently at 390. For thousands of years, church bells have been used to warn people of imminent danger â€¦ and also to call people to action, and so next Sunday we will join a global initiative of churches, as we ring our bells 350 X as a symbolic act. We invite people of all ages to come and help us do this. At about the same time church bells all across Denmark and all around the world will ring out. Perhaps it is we, in this case, who are the voice in the wilderness crying out for the future of our earth; Many are saying to our politicians. Prepare a different way. The time is now. Creation canâ€™t wait!
Other voices demanding change are very poignant and clear on this 20th anniversary of the massacre of 14 women at the Polytechnic downtown, shot for no other reason than that they were women studying to be engineers. Many of you were here when that happened. I was in Ottawa, but the shock waves reverberated powerfully. That event catalyzed a movement for zero tolerance for violence and abuse. Survivors and family members worked tirelessly for gun control, and had some success. This is even now being dismantled by our current government. Many of us are outraged by the legislation to end the long gun registry. Long guns are not just for hunting. They were used by Mark Lepine 20 years ago. They were used by James ROSZKO in Mayerthorpe Alberta to kill 4 RCMP officers, and by Kimveer Gill to wreak havoc at Dawson more recently. Long guns kill. Our raging grannies have post cards that you can sign following the service if you would like your voice from the wilderness to be heard by the government about this issue. The ending of violence will require nothing less than the kind of radical restructuring of our thinking that John the Baptist called repentance. It requires huge cultural shift
Also following service today you will have the opportunity to support two United Church missions; Montreal City Mission and St. Columba House. Both work with people on the margins, people caught in the web of poverty, refugees and new immigrants. I am proud that this congregation is in strong partnership with these missions, for in so doing we help to prepare a smoother path for many in our city. Both missions work hard to prepare Godâ€™s way in the communities in which they serve. They raise their voices for issues that are sometimes unpopular in the culture. They speak out in support of the powerless.
There are many more voices- trying to move mountains of injustice; voices crying out for transformed living- voices crying out against human rights abuses, against discrimination because of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability. Voices crying out against militarization. Voices from the Two thirds world. Voices calling out that Godâ€™s way of peace and wholeness must be prepared, so that what seems like mountains in the way of this justice, might be brought down, and the deep valleys of despair and hopelessness, might be lifted up, and that the rough road to Godâ€™s peace and justice might be made smooth, Time to join a landscaping crew and get moving some earth.