12/17/23 Advent 3: John 1:6-8,19-28 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Prophets. Have you ever cried out? Or perhaps heard someone cry out? Not a screaming into the void sort of cry, which I know I have done… maybe you have too. But crying out in those stark yet beautiful places in ways that invite transformation? I think of modern day prophets like Adrienne Maree Brown who encourages folks to anchor themselves in community and spirituality as the world becomes more difficult to navigate. She uses language that helps people to hold fast through what she might call the “slow burn apocalypse”.
Or maybe you’ve heard author Rev. Dante Stewart who wrote Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle and who calls to account white Christians and the way some white church spaces continue to prop up systemic oppression of black people in the United States. He invites inward and communal reflection and calls us to examine our attachment to colonizing empire that is in direct tension with the instructions of Jesus Christ. I find it truly mesmerizing the way I feel impacted by these voices that cry out and who help me to more closely examine my life and society. And I am struck by the way these voices hit me in unexpected times and places and for me ring true the voice of God.
Y’all… I am never NOT amazed by the unexpectedness of God’s inbreaking. I am blown away by how God shows up in our humanity and calls us into midwifing God’s inbreaking into the world. From the prophets of the Hebrew Bible that we recall today spoke truth to power and called people to account for their ways and turn back to God. The very voices who foretold one who would come and change everything; the Messiah.
To a young woman, not yet married, who makes the choice to be the God bearer, putting herself in an even more vulnerable position in her culture. And then delivers a hymn of praise that calls for radical justice at the hand of the divine. Justice that overturns every human understanding of power and control. Words so strong that they have become the most banned words of Christian scripture as they have been and are used in liberation movements all over the world. I love these words of Mary that remind us not just of the justice that God works through the inbreaking of God, but also reminds us that we are to prepare for this work ourselves… to help God do these great works of justice. When I think of HOW we go about living and doing these words of Mary’s song, I turn to our Gospel reading today.
To THIS one, John, crying out in the wilderness. The start of the Gospel of John, not included in our reading today, yet still important to our context in understanding this passage, lends the feeling of a setting in “heavenly pre-history” (TTONL, 186)… do you recall the words? (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…” NRSV)
It is where our passage starts today that we are brought back to earth and connects us more closely to our own humanity. And as a quick note: some biblical scholars think that this passage about John the Baptist might be a later addition to the text (SP:John, 43). We hear in the first lines that John is sent by God to “testify to the light…so that all might believe in him”. There is even this extra care here that makes sure we know that John was not the light. Then come the questions.
The initial exchange between John and those sent to question him explores the question of John’s own personhood, spiritual authority, and explores ancient Hebrew understandings of various possible trajectories of faith. There was a belief that because Elijah, who was also thought to be a “forerunner of the messiah”, ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot, that he would later return (JANT, 159). So, asking John if he is Elijah isn’t all that far fetched. There is also the notion that the messiah might arrive as a “prophet like Moses” (JANT, 159). John also quotes the prophet Isaiah as he commands, “make straight the way of the Lord”.
Those sent by Jewish leaders to question him were trying to figure out who he was, what was going on, and why all of these folks were flocking to listen to his teachings and to be baptized. The use of water in rituals of spiritual purification would have also been a known custom to the ancient Hebrews and Mandaeans gathered (JANT, 159) adding another layer into the sorting of who John is and what he is doing.
The questions asked of John are noted by Jewish scholars to be a polemic (JANT, 159). Now, I also want to be really clear about how easy it could be to fall into anti- Judaism thinking as we have the Jewish authorities questioning John at the start of the Gospel narrative with the highest Christology. So, we remember that these are a people suffering under the weight of a colonizing empire and who have been stripped of their sovereignty. While folks might have longed for a messiah to reach towards liberation of all kinds, it could also have been a bit scary to have someone come and possibly push against the Roman Empire that controlled their daily lives.
But what does this mean for us today? First, hearing one crying out in the wilderness, telling us to ‘make straight the way’ can feel intense and perhaps just what we need. John is crying out as a prophet and asking that folks turn back to God, letting go of what they have been holding on to so tightly it stagnated them. Letting go so that they can be sealed anew in God as they prepare their hearts and communities for the Messiah. This call leads us to a big question. How are we being asked to “make straight the way of the Lord”?
This question feels a bit different this year, especially in the midst of the fall we all shared in that was steeped in farewells and loss and knowing the grief that has settled into our hearts and in our community. And knowing that grief is compounded by the global grief of the egregious harm being caused to people all over the world by way of war and genocide, climate change, and growing authoritarianism.
For me, this year, it seems one of the ways we need to “make straight the way of the Lord” is by tending to these wounds, places of pain and grief. To process the depth of our aching so that we might move closer to being midwives to the inbreaking of God. Maybe we need to have a good hard cry and release the pressure that weighs us down and fogs our minds. Perhaps we need to spend time with one another in joy and fun… I see you drum circle friends! Or even to co-create ritual that allows us to process our communal and global grief so that we can also hold the love, hope, joy, and peace that this season calls us to.
This might be hard and WE CAN DO THIS. We can do this trusting in the voice of the prophets who came before us and speak to us today. And especially though Mary, who calls for justice, bears God, and cradles him in her arms. Mary who cradles us too as we prepare our hearts and “make straight the way of the Lord”. So let us do the work of processing all that we hold in our hearts so that we may welcome Jesus to wholly fill our hearts anew come Christmas. May it be so.
Resources: Jewish Annotated New Testament, Sacra Pagnia: The Gospel of John, True to Our Native Land