In the same way Advent can be seen as Mary’s month in that we follow closely with her and Joseph as they prepare for the birth of their son, so too can Advent be seen as John the Baptist’s month. In a way, this is John’s moment. Jesus’s moment is coming soon, very soon where he will then steal the show so to speak.
In a way this makes sense. Now is the time of preparation and getting ready. So great is Jesus to us and the world that even before his birth, before he takes his first breath and says his first word, the world waits and prepares with anticipation for the fulfilment of a promise. We read again the testimony of John that characterizes Advent completely, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1: 23). Of course John is referencing the prophet Isaiah with his testimony. This is big news. So big that it has been on the hearts and minds of the prophets of old, through to John the Baptist and through down the ages to us, here today that our struggle will end. To use one of the characteristic images of John’s gospel that darkness, our darkness, struggle, turmoil and pain, whatever that may be will end and replaced with light. Light the image of new life, a better day, of Jesus and God breaking through darkness and bringing the world, us, into light and life. This is the promise that the prophets proclaim to all who struggle. “Take heart, be ready, for the one to bring you into light and life is coming.”
John describes himself as one who is crying out in the wilderness (John 1: 23). In a very clever way he is aligning himself with everyone who finds themselves in the wilderness. The wilderness is an unsettling, complex and deep place. On the one hand, we absolutely don’t want to be in the wilderness because it provides a sense of being lost and out of place with our lives and the people in our lives. This is not a comfortable place to be, because we don’t really know what is going to happen next.
Be that as it may, the wilderness, and certainly the wilderness in biblical terms on the other hand is the place where the voice of God is heard. John’s testimony comes from the wilderness. A testimony that calls for the way of the Lord to be made straight. The Lord is coming and his path needs to be made ready.
When we find ourselves in a place where we feel lost, alone and unsure of the road ahead this is the wilderness that is being talked about. We don’t have to be in the middle of the forest away from home and our places of comfort to be lost and alone. The same is true for the People of God who have gone before us. John’s message is that God is coming to us, to liberate us from the wilderness of our lives whatever that may look like. John gives the People of God hope and bears witness to the light, to God and the evidence of God in the world.
The one who claims to be unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal, that being Jesus’s sandal, is the Chosen One to baptize Jesus. As I mentioned last week, David Jacobson comments that John’s baptism is the baptism to prepare the People of God. John, by baptizing Jesus, prepares Jesus for his work and ministry in the world. An interesting thought, the ‘unworthy one’ is chosen by God. I wonder what that says about God.
We too, as unworthy as we may believe ourselves to be, are chosen by God to bear witness to Christ in the world. The implied message in today’s gospel is that, like John, we too have been chosen by God. God has chosen us, as flawed as we are, before we ever decided to choose God.
John models for the church our most basic calling. To stand with those who are alone, suffering and struggling with faith. In a world that continues to be plagued by violence, hatred. When people are persecuted for what they believe and their temples bombed, we need to be the voice that cries out in the wilderness that the God of love and hope is coming.
Bearing witness is one of the simplest actions we can do, yet at the same time, it is one of the hardest. I remember a CBC documentary on the radio last week that was talking about how to respond to violence in public settings. The commentators were using the incident of an 18 year old woman who was assaulted by someone on the sky train in Vancouver. Perhaps you remember the story. The man, in part, tried to pull off the woman’s hijab and shouted that Muslims must die and other hateful comments. What emerged from the conversation was talk about how we can, and perhaps should, respond when we witness such violence. What cannot be underestimated is the realization that responding is the right thing to do should we feel safe enough to do so. However, any response does place us at risk as well. We, nor anyone else, knows how the perpetrator is going to respond to our interventions, even if it is simply standing between the person being abused and perpetrator or distracting them in some way.
But this is in part what we are called to do. We are called to respond, as best we are able, to those who are persecuted or tormented in any way. This is why Advent is important to us and the world. This is our chance to take a stand for what is right and good and proclaim with John and the prophets of old that the day of liberation is at hand because God is breaking through the darkness and the dawn of a new day and era is about to to be born.