What would make me leave my comfortable home and venture into the wilderness to hear a fiery prophet tell me to repent and prepare the way of the Lord?
If I had a sense that the world was wrong, that the scales of justice were unbalanced, that my body and my soul were languishing from what I was witnessing and perhaps even benefitting from myself, then I might venture into the wild, curious to hear this prophet dressed in camel’s hair and foraging for food.
I hope I’d be among the seekers in this passage from Matthew. But I could be like the Pharisee or Sadducee. When the world gets ugly, it is tempting to grab what you can, to align with the powerful and privileged and convince yourself that this is the way of righteousness. Maybe I’d note John’s influence and feel unnerved by how many he was baptizing — a sacrament traditionally reserved for the Temple and performed by priests within the approved religious system. Maybe I’d venture into the wilderness not out of curiosity or humility but seeking to discredit John as a weirdo and a fraud.
In the NRSV translation of verse 7, the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John “for baptism.” But the NIV is more accurate in describing them “coming to where [John] was baptizing.” These religious leaders – who didn’t get along and were unlikely to work together – were united in their opposition to John. They did not venture into the wilderness receptive to his ministry, but to oppose a threat to their power and influence.
John the Baptist’s appearance in Matthew’s Gospel is abrupt. There is nothing subtle or graceful about this disrupter extraordinaire. He’s come to deliberately shake things up. To prepare the way for the Messiah, John preaches outside the city center, outside worldly power and privilege, where people would not normally go to get their needs met — spiritual or otherwise. John calls us to meet God off the beaten path and on the margins of our society, among the poor and powerless.
On the second Sunday of Advent, this passage poses some important questions for us spiritual seekers. Will we venture into the wilderness? Will we pause our routines, and disrupt the daily to venture outside our norm? And if we do venture out, how will we approach the strange prophet and the message he proclaims? Will we go as spiritual seekers, open to that which is new and different? Or will we go out bearing the truth as we see it, presuming our righteousness, uncompromising, certain, and ready for a fight?
The wilderness in Israel’s history was a place of reckoning — a crucible that exposes those who wander into or through it for who they are, showing what their lives have become. We can still learn a lot from the people and prophets living in these wilderness places. Activist and author adrienne maree brown writes that we should seek out those residing on the margins, “not to be nice, but because those who survive on the margins tend to be the most experientially innovative — practicing survival-based efficiency, doing the most with the least.”
There is spiritual opportunity outside our realm of comfort if we are open and curious, and willing to confess where we have gone wrong. Salvation and survival wait for us in the wilderness — especially in the One for whom John’s ministry proclaims: “Prepare the way of the Lord;” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (v. 3, v.2).
Let us not be too far away or too full of ourselves to hear and respond to this prophetic call.
Questions for reflection:
- In what ways do you feel called to prepare for Christ this Advent?
- What voices from the wilderness, or the margins of society are you close enough to hear? How can you position yourself to hear these voices?
- What spiritual opportunities await you this Advent if you are willing to venture into the wilderness?
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