It's because the Baptist's voice is so cold, urgent and disturbing that the Judaean priests and Levites come out to demand in effect: "Who do you think you are?" That's what this morning's Gospel dialogue is all about. And the Baptist's answer is even more disconcerting. He is shaking up things as they are; he is baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. But he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet Isaiah. He is a voice announcing that God is near, entreating us to wake up, cleanse away our sin, and prepare ourselves for the One who will liberate us. The Baptist is a witness to God's coming in the midst of the jail cell that we call "our life," a jail cell formed by our self-deceiving thoughts that we are, perhaps, independent, privileged, knowledgeable, economically stable.
Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, editor of The Witness, once wrote the following from a jail cell one Advent when she had been arrested during a protest vigil. I find it especially telling because one imagines protesters as so sure of themselves and their causes. In her jail cell, she wrote:
Whether it's a "still small voice" or an impassioned
and prophetic cry, God's presence in my jail cell is
discomforting because I relish my darkness so; it is
private, independent, undemanding, undisturbed. I
want nothing to upset the stability, the familiarity.
The slightest sound, any sense of a voice that upsets
my organized life, any unwelcome disturbances, don't
fit into my carefully created pattern of living.
The Judaean priests and Levites who the Evangelist says came out to confront John the Baptizer would understand Jeanie's words. They wanted nothing to upset the stability, the familiarity of their lives organized around traditional temple worship. They were deeply invested in their traditions but, evidently, a great deal more invested in them than God was. That's why John was so threatening. If John were from God, things were going to change, and they didn't want anything to change; they wanted things to stay exactly as they were.
Such changelessness, however, is not what God is about. Like the Judaean priests and Levites, like Jeanie, like most human beings, we like the things to stay as they are; we like the little jail cells we construct. We hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah about rejoicing in Jerusalem, about not hearing weeping and cries of distress anymore. We hear that our labor shall not be in vain, that the wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion eat straw like the ox. These are comfortable words, comforting promises. But also like most human beings, we don't hear so clearly how God accomplishes these promises. It's in the same passage. Hear it again:
I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come
to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am
The promises are only fulfilled by the passing away of what was and the coming into being of that new order God is creating. Often we don't like hearing those words, so we close our ears, and as a result we don't really hear God.
A voice entreats us to live outside our cell; it holds us to a call different from the established order. Paul's call to the church at Thessalonica holds the people to the Baptist's call, too: Help the weak, do not repay evil for evil, seek to do good to all, hold fast to what is good. If we've made our place in an established order, if we are secure in our darkness, we can understand the fears of the Thessalonians. We learn to love the cell bars. But a voice calls our spirits, souls, and bodies to be kept sound and blameless at the coming of God.
The Baptist's cry as we heard it last week and this morning is cold, urgent, and disturbing. He is a voice announcing that God is near, entreating us to wake up, cleanse away our sin, and prepare ourselves for the One who will liberate us from our jail cells. Jail cells formed by our self-deceiving thoughts that we independent, privileged, educated, politically correct, or economically stable.
When we're on the edge -- when we know we are alone, without property or privilege and know first hand scripture's words of assurance to the least of God's people, because we recognize ourselves as the least of God's people, then our self-deceptions fall away. There are countless ways this can happen. Often it happens under conditions that may seem to disrupt life, progress, and growth -- a sickness, a death, a layoff. Crises like these, crises of our personal and professional and political lives, are the points at which our Christian life begins, or begins again. The most momentous step we can take is to respond to a voice that calls us out of our complacency; it's a step that takes us out of the privatized jail cells we call home. When we realize that we are small dependent creatures, that we share the same limitations as all other humans, then we know our need for God is greater than any fear of God's demands.
The things we are afraid of are quite likely to happen to us, but they are nothing to be afraid of. We are all agents of God in this world. The Christian life invites us to accept this vocation with all its risks and demands. It is crisis, but for a Christian the word is transformation. Consider the lives of the saints; consider Paul and the Baptist. They engaged in God's plan -- fearfully, no doubt, but they had enough courage, initiative, and endurance to love God more than fear God. They knew themselves to be finite and dependent on a power far greater than themselves and they took their place in the great army, rescuing souls from their complacent little cells.
Hear the cry; recognize your need. God will liberate the captive.