In the gospel of Luke, we don’t get much of a physical description of John the Baptist. We get more of his place in history with the description of who was in political power at the time of John’s ministry.
Writers Mark and Matthew give us the description, of how odd (to our way of thinking) John was. He was clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist; he ate locusts and wild honey.
While that garb would be off putting to us, doing some research is seems many people wore camel hair shirts, camels being plentiful in the Middle East. His leather belt? That would have cost money, certainly more than a rope belt which was very common. Eating locusts? Middle Easterners ate insects for protein then and they continue to do it now! The insects are dried and roasted and are eaten in much the same way as we munch on peanuts! It seems that we in modern times have made John into kind of a wild looking man, when in reality, he more than likely looked like everyone else!
What made John stand out though was his message.
He drew on the writings of Isaiah and of Baruch as he preached.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth
and all people shall see the salvation of God.
His preaching caused people to look at the things in their lives that weren’t of God. Jews had a purification ritual called mikveh, a spiritual cleansing with water. When a person repented of a wrong doing, or had a conversion, he or she would go to the river and be submerged, dying to the old behavior, and rising out of the water cleansed to begin anew. We have Christianized that ritual and call it Baptism. However, a mikveh wasn’t a onetime thing like our sacrament of Baptism has become, one could receive the ritual when needed. John was performing the ritual of mikveh for his community.
So back to the mountains and valleys thing. When you were growing up and hearing phrases like that, did you stop to think what it meant? I didn’t. I would sing hymns about valleys being filled in and the mountains made low and in my mind’s eye. I imagined bulldozers flattening mountains. It finally dawned on me that the mountains and valleys were metaphors! That the mountains were the blocks I had erected to consciously or unconsciously protect myself from looking at what I had to repent, and the valleys were the behavioral ruts I had gotten myself into. Ruts worn deep into the earth, ruts such as worry, anger, fear.
The gospel has John using the word “repent.” The word “repent” is a huge turn off for me; someone else pointing out my wrongdoing and telling me what I need to do is repent? No thank you! Hmmm. That might be a mountain I have erected. Anyway, another way to say repent, is to say get rid of the things that are blocking one’s ability to be the best they can be. Plow down the mountains of holding a grudge, or of having to be perfect in all things, or worrying about what other people think. Fill in the valleys by maybe increasing prayer time, or making time to exercise, to take care of oneself.
So what is left if we give up the pain, the worry that has filled so much of our time? That can be stressful, too! With what do we fill that space? Now what? The Scripture today steps in and saves the day.
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction,
O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God,
put on your head the crown of glory.
Our psalm today tells us when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream, and then our mouths was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy. Really? You mean like, feel whole?
Or to feel as if we are entitled to or are good enough to put on the beauty of glory? Go figure!
And maybe, just maybe after we have looked at our lives, we will realize God has been with us all along, but with the mountains and the valleys in the way, we couldn’t see God. Or maybe we forgot our goodness along the way. Maybe another reason the gospel writers tell us to be alert, to stay awake is so we don’t miss Jesus coming yes, but maybe be alert to God who is ever present; to be able to recognize God in all things. What does God look like?
You know how sometimes you see something so beautiful or hear something so beautiful that you feel this lump in your throat and you couldn’t speak if your life depended on it? That is the presence of God. When you share a special moment with your friends or coworkers, when you find a passage in a book that seems as if it were written just for you, that’s God. How about when some time suddenly opens up where you can take a nap or a walk or a run? How about when you hear a song on the radio that instantly takes you back to an event in your youth or a smell that reminds you of a comfort? For me that is the smell of crayons that reminds me of my days in kindergarten. Those could all be God moments if one recognizes them. They don’t magically appear as if God is some magician that rewards us with cool things for our good behavior. No, they are the ordinary happenings made extraordinary because we realize God is already here.
Advent is a time of introspection and preparation to become the best we can be. John helped the people of his time to prepare. Today we use Scripture, sing our beautiful hymns, and sit here surrounded by our beautiful environment all help us prepare. The best part of all of this, the best gift of all? We do this together, as a family. As a very Holy family. O come, o come Emmanuel.
Homily shared on Saturday, 4 December 2021, by Rev. Mary Keldermans.