“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:3)
Man, you just gotta love John the Baptist! He’s as funky a dude as you’re likely to meet with his organic diet, rustic clothing, and penchant for out-of-the-way locals. He’s definitely an outsider, but that’s okay because at least it gets our attention.
And we need a little waking up, don’t we? John comes to us preaching a need for repentance, for changing our minds, because we might be so far in the weeds ourselves these days that we don’t even know we need saving. We’re not ready to encounter Jesus, because we don’t know what we need from him. In the Advent 1 gospel lesson Jesus told us to keep awake because the world is definitely changing. In Advent 2 (Mark 1:1-8) we’re being told by John that we need to look inside and do some changing ourselves.
And he’s right. The changing world has certainly changed who we are. Last week, one of my faithful, long-time parishioners, Harvey, handed me an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer by Dwight DeWerth-Palmeyer which warned us about things we don’t hear talked about. DeWerth-Pallmeyer is afraid that our reliance on cellular devices is warping our brains. Americans, he maintains, are reading less and growing more depressed. We spend more time staring at display screens than we do in conversation with each other. We have shorter attention spans, we’ve grown increasingly more individualistic, and vastly more myopic in terms of our views on the world. We don’t want discussion or reasoned debate anymore. We want someone to tell us what we’ve already decided we agree with, and we want to verbally bash those who disagree.
DeWerth-Pallmeyer, shouting a warning that John the Baptist might’ve envied, expostulates that church attendance is down, and so are a host of other forms of social engagement such as the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. Once we were a nation of joiners, but now we’re a nation of “I-don’t-wanna-join-so-leave-me-alone.”
In a letter to ELCA congregations, Steve Oeschlager (ELCA Stewardship Program Coordinator) notes that the suicide rate in the US is at a 30-year high, and more Americans die of drug overdoses than die from gun violence or auto accidents. And yet, we are willing to spend over $10 billion a year on books, programs, and techniques for “self-help.” This figure, Oeschlager tells us, is more than six times the amount collected annually in offerings by all ELCA congregations combined! Yet are we a healthier people for all that?
What would John the Baptist cry out to us today?
Maybe he’d just want to warn us about what a messed-up bunch of self-medicating, lonely, hungry souls we’ve become. Maybe he’d want us to recognize that we’re all hurting, and that we’ve run the bus off the road into the ditch and we don’t really know what to do about it. Maybe he’d just want us to “come clean” about what we’re feeling at this time of year when the culture tells us to be “merry and bright” while we’re feeling exhausted and scared and mournful.
If we listen to John, we might well be ready to receive Jesus. We’ll be ready to admit that we can’t do this on our own, and we need the Spirit of God to inspire us and to comfort us and to give us hope. Then we’ll be ready receive the one who is more powerful than we can imagine. Then we can begin to look for signs of him in our neighbor and in ourselves. Then we can pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Teach us to love, to forgive, and to believe. And come soon.”
May this time of Advent be a blessing to you, and may you receive Christ in your heart.