A teenager passes his driving test and asks his father if he can use the car. The father tells him he must do three things to earn this privilege. First, he has to bring all of his grades up to a B average. Next, he needs to read his bible. And finally, he has to get a haircut. Well, sure enough, the son’s next report card has all A’s and B’s. The father is impressed. Dad has also seen his son reading the bible on a regular basis. Check number 2. However, the son has not gone for a haircut. “Dad,” he says, “I have learned most of the men in bible had long hair… people like Sampson, John the Baptist, and even Jesus. If they had long hair, I think I should be able to as well.” The father thought about it for a moment and then answered, “It’s true. All those biblical figures had long hair. Did you happen to notice how they all walked everywhere they went?”
Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent we encounter John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. They call it the wilderness because, well, it is wild. There are no hotels, no restaurants, and no cell phone service. The people of the day are used to making religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps as often as several times a year. Jerusalem is a city used to its population swelling during various festivals. People can travel here confident they will be able to find all they need. But John is not in Jerusalem. He is way out there – literally and figuratively. Those who go to hear him have no idea what to expect once they get there. Still, the people flock to hear a prophet in the wilderness.
It has been a little over a year since I made my pilgrimage walking the English path of the Camino in Spain. Everything about the world is different when you walk it. Unlike driving, every hill you climb comes at a cost. A path that twists and turns adds to the grind of the day. You are exposed to the elements – the heat, the sun, rain, bone-chilling winds – in a way you never experience in an automobile. On my pilgrimage my meals and overnight lodging were set up in advance. Many pilgrims do not do this and face the added uncertainty of not knowing if there will be a place to eat and a place to sleep at the end of a long day of walking.
All of this is to say it is no small undertaking for the people of the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem to leave the comfort of home and walk several days into the uncertainty of the wilderness. Many arrive tired, hungry, and afraid.
So why did they go? What is so compelling about John that so many people embraced such an arduous undertaking to hear him preach and teach? They certainly didn’t go all that way for fashion advice nor are people considering his diet to be a new fad to follow.
People flock to John because they are desperate for hope. They want to know God has not forgotten them nor abandoned them. So much of their world is brutal, ugly, and cruel. The powerful use their power to exploit and humiliate the weak. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The elite have it made while the average person struggles to eke out a meager existence. In this cultural setting John announces God is about to send a powerful person who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. And this message gives hope to folks who are desperate for change.
It also gives them a sense of empowerment because the person John anticipates is not going to come and make all things right all on his own. This person will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, thus enabling each and every person to stand on his or her own, to be the change they so desperately want to see in the world. People walk a long, long way to hear God has not forgotten them and to learn that their individual life matters; that each person is baptized to make a difference.
This is the timeless message of Advent.
Think about our cultural landscape today. What would it look like for a person to rise up in the wilderness and give us hope God has not forgotten us, but is about to raise up a person who will bring about restoration, healing, and new life? How would it feel to be invited into this movement so that your life would be transformed from passive and partial participation into being a vital and dynamic agent ushering in the kingdom of God?
Well, guess what. This person has come into the world and you have been initiated into this movement, which our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls “the Jesus Movement.” And he says, “If it isn’t about love, then it isn’t about Jesus.” I would climb the longest, steepest hill in Virginia on a cold, wet day to hear someone remind me of God’s love for the world and reawaken me to my role and my place in establishing it. This is the purpose of Advent. It takes us on a journey of hope and rediscovery leading to a child in a manger. It renews us with the promise God will make all creation new again. And it reminds us we have a role to play in this work and God’s own Spirit dwells within us to equip us for the work of the Jesus Movement.