God never shows up in quite the way we expect.
I wake up to NPR in the mornings and this Wednesday, after a story about funeral homes for pets, another of the endless stories about faith and the Presidential campaign began to play. At a recent speech, when explaining his faith, John McCain told a story.
When John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, at one point his hands were tied tightly behind his back and he was forced to sit with his head between his knees. After a few hours of this, one of his captors snuck back in the room, put his finger to his lips and quietly loosened his bonds.
Weeks later, during one of McCain’s rare ten minute breaks outside in fresh air, the same captor came alongside of him, gave him a meaningful look, and then drew a cross in the dirt with his foot.
If I were McCain, I would have wanted God to show up as a liberating army, not a kind captor. I would have been surprised, and maybe even a little disappointed at the way God appeared.
In the Christmas story, for the most part, God communicates in a way that is pleasing to us. In Luke’s Gospel anyway, Mary and Joseph have dazzling encounters with Gabriel, shepherds are alerted by a choir of angels; wise men are alerted by stars. The signs pointing to Jesus’ birth are spectacular and beautiful.
Today, though, we’re reminded that not all signs pointing to Jesus as the Christ were what we might want or expect. Instead of Jesus announcing his ministry with fireworks, and seas parting, and spectacular healings, we get a scene that does not even contain Jesus.
Instead we get John. Weird, wilderness-dwelling, locust-eating, hair-shirt wearing John. Why would God send a smelly, gruff, loner from the wilderness to announce the arrival of God incarnate? John is not what we expect.
Jesus’ birth, life and the ministry that John announces were not God’s way of doing show and tell. God does not need to show off. God is pretty spectacular on his own. But God does want to communicate-and communicate with US.
When God chooses John in the wilderness, God is making no mistake. Instead, God is speaking to us in images that have been familiar for thousands of years. The wilderness has been a rich place for God’s people ever since Moses and his followers wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses and the Israelites did not want to wander in the wilderness. Wandering is the wilderness is rarely any person’s choice, but, in their case wandering was a consequence of their betrayal of God. Instead of arriving in the Promised Land in a prompt manner, the Israelites wandered. And it was in the wandering, and in the wilderness that they learned who God was and who they were as a people.
John’s wild behaviors and rough garments evoke images, too. Images of long-dead prophets, who were called by God to call God’s people to repentance-to a changing of ways.
So, while the image of John in the wilderness would have been shocking to the sophisticated Jews of Jesus’ time, the shock would have come with a pang of recognition. These images mean something, they were familiar and stirring.
What better place for God to announce that he is sending humanity his son, than in the wilderness? The wilderness is a place of chaos and fear and emptiness. God’s desire for us is order and love and wholeness. John announces Jesus’ ministry in the wilderness as a symbol to all his listeners, then and now, that God is not afraid to tackle those places. John announces Jesus’ ministry in the wilderness, because it is in the wilderness, when all niceties of life are stripped away, that listeners can truly hear him.
People of Jesus’ time did not expect the Messiah to come. They really didn’t expect the Messiah to come in a small manger in a barn somewhere in Bethlehem. So, John needed them to change their minds. The word John uses that we translate as repent is metanoeo, which literally means “to change one’s mind or purpose”.
Even John’s mind needed to be changed. Later in chapter three, John finally sees this Jesus about whom John has been prophesying and Jesus asks to be baptized by John. This completely flusters John who doesn’t understand why Jesus needs to be baptized. Later, in chapter 11, when John is imprisoned, and he hears of the work Jesus is doing, he writes Jesus a note that reads, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” I love the sub-text here. I wonder if the next paragraph read, “Because really, you’re not doing that much. A healing here and there, an occasional miracle, and a LOT of talking. Dude, where is the revolution? When are we going to overthrow these Romans?”
After all, remember the tone John used when he was predicting Jesus’ coming:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John is expecting Jesus to be a powerful leader who will lead the Jewish people to a political uprising. John is expecting Jesus to be different. Jesus needs to change John’s mind.
Just as John’s mind needed to be changed, ours does, too. We need our own metanoeo experience. And this is why we celebrate Advent. We celebrate Advent, not just to extend holiday cheer or to think about how cute baby Jesus is, we celebrate Advent in order to prepare ourselves for the coming of God. Not the coming of God 2000 years ago, not the coming of God 2000 years in the future. We celebrate Advent in order to open our minds to the reality that God is here. The function of the annual retelling of the Christmas story is to remind us that it really happened-God came to earth in human form. The God that created the entire universe saw fit to limit himself so we could experience him more closely. He chose to sacrifice himself so we could engage with him more intimately.
We don’t expect that from God. In a world where we don’t see direct evidence of God, it is terribly difficult to remember that God is real and that God loves us with great passion. We have a hard time believing that God hears our prayers. Or, we tend towards the opposite trend. We get upset when God doesn’t answer our prayers exactly like we’d like him to. We think of God as our divine servant whom we punish with our resentment when he does not come through like we expect him to.
We are invited this Advent to change our expectations of God, to spend time in quiet reflection with open hearts. We are invited to dispose of any images or ideas we might have about God and make room for God to come to us as he actually is. We are invited to stand in awe of Christ and to delight in Him.