Wilderness voices, Reorientation, and Hospitable Advent Waiting
Homily, Luke 3: 1-6
By Colleen D. Hartung
Every time I have opened my assigned homily scripture over the last year I have been inevitably drawn into a reflection on the religious and political circumstances of our times; iconic gospel stories, compelling characters and mesmerizing events, celebrations and rituals resonated with the religious and political issues that define our day and age like immigration, gender equity, LGBTQI rights, racism and more. These themes leapt off the page and were impossible to ignore. The current machinations of various religious and political players, the call of our religious and civic duties, the fault lines that fracture our religious and political structures and the manipulation of the mechanisms used to govern our religious and political institutions created so many foils for a consideration of the gospel demand to love as a challenge to our own, everyday ways of being and acting in the world. The Gospel has worked like a call to hard reflection and transformative action which is good. Right? But also exhausting and debatable if you ascribe to a strict separation of church and state where church concerns are spiritual and set apart from profane, political concerns. On this day, the second Sunday of Advent, when the expected posture of waiting has taken hold, I was hoping for something different, something like a gentle lean into a hopeful, anxious anticipation toward a longed-for birth… maybe something like a reflection on a joyous nesting instinct. But as the old adage goes, there is no rest for the weary.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanias ruler of Abilene during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”.
This first line of today’s gospel situates us unmistakably into the complicated, interconnecting, often merciless religious and political circumstances that were the context of Jesus’s life and ministry. If ever there was a gospel reading that conjures a reflection on our religious and political context and if ever there was an event filled week that would support such a conjuring – given the funeral of the 41st president of the United States, the death of a local bishop and the manipulative stratagems involved in the changes of power taking place after the November election, this is it. The sins of the religiously and politically powerful and their various constituencies have been on fully display.
The high drama that has played out on our TV screens and social media feeds this week is a replay of the spectacle that has, across the centuries, shaped the centers of power and the margins of oppression that form the religious and political structures that make sense of our lives. In the face of this high drama, the voices from the margins and beyond, the voices of the wilderness are most often dismissed, ignored, delegitimized and even criminalized. The voices of 13,000 children in detention centers across the United States, who were initially detained at the border between Mexico and the United States, the voices of the 85,000 children under 5 who have died of starvation since the bombing began in 2015 in Yemen, the voices of those disposed by the destruction wrought by the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the voices of 5 million Syrian refugees and on and on and on are denied in service of a political and religious order that works only for the privileged who lives their lives within the boundaries of this order.
In today’s gospel, John is the voice “of one crying out in the wilderness”. John, son of Zechariah is a descendant of the priestly tribe of Aaron. People thought this longed for son would be named after his father and assumed that, like his father, he would take his place as a priest at the center of religious power. But instead, John follows the calling of a prophet into the wilderness. Formed by wilderness voices he proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. John’s baptism of repentance is not primarily a spiritualized cleansing. It is instead, a hard-won forgiveness of sins. “Bear fruits worthy of forgiveness,” John tells the people who come to be baptized. “Whoever has two coats” – and I am guessing that most of us do – “must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. Tax collectors – “collect no more than the amount prescribed…. Soldiers…, do not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusations….” In other words, reorient your life, your way of being in the world, your patterns of attending. Pay attention to the margins, to the marginalized, to things and people you are tempted to reject and exclude. Make a way for the poor, the sick, the outcast, the stranger and the immigrant guest. In the words of today’s gospel, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”.
The author of Luke’s Gospel is not suggesting an escape from the religious and political milieu of the times. His message and critique, at least in this passage, isn’t aimed at the aforementioned list of the powerful. Rather, in this passage, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness is for the ordinary “brood of vipers” who are consumed with making their way toward some sort of security and legitimacy within the given structures of power. The people seeking John’s baptism are likely tired of this struggle for security and legitimacy and they are seeking something different. The author of Luke’s Gospel suggests a radical reorientation from the centers of power toward the voices crying out in the wilderness” – a reorientation that might “prepare the way of the Lord”.
In this way, we are like the people who followed John out into the wilderness, weary of the religious and political dramas that form us and consume us. We come to the gospel message seeking something different, some kind of relief. Like them, we cannot escape our own religious and political milieu. But we can head the call of the gospel and reorient ourselves toward the margins so that we are not consumed by the spectacles of power but rather formed and transformed by the wilderness voices in our own lives; by the voices of the excluded, the new arrival, the immigrant, the oppressed knocking at our door. Here at Holy Wisdom Monastery we know this as a hospitable posture of waiting on the guest who arrives at the door as Christ.
Which takes me back to the beginning and the desire for a gentle lean into an Advent posture of hopeful anticipation. Perhaps it is as simple as a hospitable reorientation that waits gently, patiently and persistently upon these wilderness voices. So that this gentle, persistent reorientation becomes an anticipatory gesture that leans us into the day, that our Christmas celebration presages, when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.