“Travel Light” was the theme of the National Youth Gathering back in 2010. Over 1,000 Anglican and Lutheran youth made their way to Whitehorse, in the Yukon. Now, it is never an easy thing to tell teenagers to travel lightly. They have stuff and want stuff. But, that, of course, was part of the exercise. Acknowledging that we carry around so much, both material and emotional, the idea was to bring to this gathering far in the north of our country, only what we really needed.
Some were more successful at it than others.
On that trip there were oversize suitcases, clothes, makeup, hair dryers, curling irons, hair flat-irons, gels, portable music players and gaming systems. All the paraphernalia that comes with being a teenager in North America. I am not pointing fingers, because I was a teenager myself, and it is no easier, really, for many of us who are no longer teens. We carry a lot of stuff around, material and emotional, and we come with our own set of baggage, sometimes years of it.
But those young people came, their adult leaders with them, and that was the point. Many in that gathering, coming from points east, determined to take the bus tour from Edmonton to Whitehorse. Three days in a bus convoy, staying in hockey arenas and community centres, experiencing the hospitality and the food set before us in the towns we went through, making friends along the way. We travelled far, up the Alaska Highway, to experience the country, get to know other people along the way, and we came to be inspired.
In Luke’s gospel we are told that many made their way out to the wilderness area to hear what John the Baptist was saying, some came out of curiosity, most came to be inspired, most came looking for a word of hope.
John himself was a man who travelled light. If there was food, he ate. If there wasn’t, he didn’t. He wore uncomfortable clothing on purpose, just one shirt made out of camel’s hair. He preached a message of repentance and performed a baptism in the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins. The many that came, came knowing that something wasn’t sitting right, either within themselves or within the world which was ruled by emperors, governors, high priests, tax collectors and soldiers.
They got an earful from John. Part of the text that we don’t hear today from Luke’s gospel is where John gives the people who come out to hear him a good dose of verbal medicine. He calls them a “brood of vipers”, talking about the wrath or the judgement to come. He tells them about the ax lying at the root of the tree, ready for it to be cut down if it does not bear good fruit. He tells them not to rest on their status or tribe or anything else for that matter before God.
They ask, “what should we do?” And surprisingly, John gives some very practical advice about preparing their hearts for the coming of God in their midst. He says to them, whoever has two coats, give one to someone who has none. Whoever has food, give it to someone who has none. Even the dreaded tax collectors were there in the wilderness to hear and to be baptized. John tells them to not collect more than they are told to collect. Be satisfied with your wages, he tells soldiers who are there around the Jordan.
The many that came and heard, came with expectation and hope, and they wonder if John is the Messiah. That is when, in Luke, John points to Jesus, saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, gathering the wheat but burning the chaff. Luke tells us that John proclaimed the good news to the people. And we end that part of the story as we began it – by repeating the name Herod – who puts John into prison for his words.
This gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent does not exactly have us basking in the increasing glow that is Advent and Christmas. As we make our own happy preparations, as we make our way toward Christmas, with parties, food, drink, gifts, family and friends, John is calling to us from the wilderness, calling us out from our own wildernesses, and asking us to take a good hard look at ourselves.
Repent, he says. Wash yourselves clean, he says. Prepare the way of the Lord, he says. Make his paths straight.
John is calling us to a place where often the terrain is rough and treacherous, the footing uneven and maybe even a little dangerous. But John, though he is physically in the wilderness, is not talking about an external geography, he is talking about an internal one – a geography of the heart.
In Greek, the word that is used for repentance is metanoia. Really, it means a change of perspective and a change in outlook that moves us beyond chaos and wilderness toward a place of peace with God. It is a “great understanding” where we move from darkness to light. It is a place which involves recognizing first and foremost our estrangement from God and from neighbour and then a turning of our hearts and minds toward love.Metanoia, repentance, is the work of learning to see differently, it is the work of prayer, and it is the work of conversion. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion)
Driving out along highway 86 I came across a few church signs that I am not terribly fond of. You’ve seen them on the highway, “Repent while you still have time”, or “The wages of sin is death”. This might be how we can interpret John’s message in the wilderness surrounding the Jordan when he talks about repentance and the ax lying at the root of the tree. Rob Bell, pastor and author, calls it the gospel of goats. Many have interpreted John’s message this way.
But to hear what John was proclaiming in the area around the Jordan that way is to miss the point. The point is that the good news is better than that. The good news is got a gospel of goats. It is a gospel of mercy and grace. John’s proclamation of preparing for the kingdom of God was about travelling light, it was about preparing our hearts for God and neighbour. And he gave very practical advice on living in the kingdom and preparing our hearts for forgiveness and grace – share. Share what you have. Allow the light of God, the compassion of God, into your hearts so that you can be light for others.
We know all too well that it is not always an easy thing to take a look at ourselves, or the baggage we carry. Sometimes it feels too dangerous, too painful and so we stop ourselves from going. Some of the strategies we employ to not take that rough path are to hold back or to deflect. “It’s them, not us”, we say. “It’s you, not me”, I say.
This is what John is talking about. Metanoia, change, compassion, conversion takes place wherever and whenever the landscape of our own hearts change, where it softens and becomes smoother, where we let go of the baggage we carry around: the old hurts and hostilities, the unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others, the unbearable beliefs we hold that keep us separate from others.
When we drop those bags, and let God’s light of mercy and grace shine, then we are ready for the advent of our God. What both John and Jesus proclaim is a gospel of peace, a gospel of shalom, for all. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” Luke quotes from the book of Isaiah.
Those words are still as true as ever.
Rob Bell writes this about the good news: “It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what’s been done to us or what we’ve done, God has made peace with us.”
This is the road we travel. We travel light, not needing very much, only open hearts, making our internal paths straight and rough ways smooth for our Lord.
And so we come this advent, on the road from the wilderness to the child in Bethlehem. We come to listen. We come to be washed. And most of all, we come to be changed by God’s unfailing, abundant and merciful love for us and for all.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg