Is it just me, or does the lectionary seem fixated on John the Baptist this Advent season? Of course, he is our Advent icon, all that preparing the way and warnings and baptisms. People, get ready! That is the song that is always on his lips, beating in time with his heart. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” (John 1:6, NRSV) We’re like the priests and Levites who ask the obvious question: Who are you? Except our question is more complex. It isn’t simply a question of identity, but one of purpose, of intention. What have you to do with us, John the forerunner? The precursor? And what are we waiting for?
Of course, we know that it isn’t a what, but a who. And it isn’t a what but a how. John not only points to the who, the one who comes, but he also tells us how. How to wait. How to live while we wait. How to be while we wait. Waiting sounds so passive, until we watch John do it. Until we lean into the vibrant personality, the one who seems so alive in his waiting, in his anticipation. He seems almost gleeful as he shakes off every guess they throw at him. “Nope,” he says, “not the Messiah. Nope, not Elijah.” “Then who are you; what are you?” “I’m me,” he says, “I’m the voice. I’m you. I’m us. All of us. All of us leaning into what is coming. All of us knowing that what is isn’t what is going to be. That’s who I am. I’m the one who hopes. Who knows peace. I’m the one who embraces joy with fierceness. A tenacity. That’s who I am. Deal with it.”
Did they deal with it? Who knows? They probably left as confused as they arrived. But the crowds knew. Or they sensed. Or they wanted something of that fierce joy that he had. They came in droves; they waded into the water looking for the new start, the new hope that John proclaimed. They were clinging to something in John that built them up. They were desperate for a new way of living, a new way of being alive in the world. And John was that way. Or in his words, he pointed to that way. He promised that a new way of being was on its way. In fact, read just one more verse from our Gospel text this week and you’ll see it too. “The next day he saw Jesus …” (v.29) We’re desperate to see that too, to see him. Aren’t we?
Isaiah understood desperation. The people in the latter part of this multithemed prophetic tome understood it. We recognize at least two moods in Isaiah - the first half, when things were going well for the people as a nation, was a mode of warning and judgment. Pay attention, the prophet said repeatedly. Look at what you are doing to one another. Look at how you are living, look at the source of your wealth, look at the foundations of your society. Does your socioeconomic system reflect your status as a people of God? The second half of the book speaks to a desperate people who have lost all, who are hungry, afraid and homeless; they are refugees, without status or rights. Now the mood shifts, the tone of the book is starkly different. Now it is a word of hope, a promise. And a call to live, even in desperate times, by a different standard. To embrace the fierce joy of living as the people of God, no matter the circumstance in which you find yourselves.
Things are bad; take my word for it. The prophet comes to the people and says ... what? Good news! Good news for the oppressed, good news for the brokenhearted, good news to captives and prisoners, good news to those who mourn. Great. What is this good news? What do they get? Garlands, oil, a mantle. Uh. What? Where is the promise of wealth and goods? Where is the promise of vengeance? Where is the righting of wrongs?
God comes to people who are desperate and tells them to decorate. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem enough. Decorations are nice and all, but they hardly serve to make things better. We can’t count on them to change the world. Can they? Why do we bother, in the end? Are we just shouting in the darkness?
Well, yes, in a way. But shouting in the darkness is a noble profession. It is a calling. When we shout, when we decorate our homes and our churches, we are not saying that we are unaware of difficulties, that we are oblivious to bad news. We are saying that we choose to live by good news. We are saying that we choose to live by hope and not despair.
But what keeps this from becoming a rose-colored glasses scenario is the prophetic call to act in hope. Look back at Isaiah’s words. The Lord brings the good news; the Lord, through the prophet, proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. But then we are the ones who bind up hearts, who set people free, who rebuild. We work because we believe. We build because we hope. And because we hope, we are blessed. And that blessing is lived out in a fierce joy, an in-your-face kind of joy that says, “No matter what might happen to me, I choose to trust in God.” The fierce joy that says, ”No matter what my individual feelings and inclinations might be, I am going to join with the community that is doing good in the world.” We light our lights and put up the garland not to just look pretty or to win a neighborhood contest, but also so that we can declare that the darkness is not the final answer. It is the fierce joy that sustains us. No, wait! It is the fierce joy in community – the shared fierce joy that enables us to bring light to a world needing to learn to see again.