Second Sunday of Advent
Way out in the desert, in the wilderness, among the shimmering heat waves on the horizon, stood a sign. It was more than a sign, it was a symbol; a symbol that told me there was safe haven, there was sustenance, there was respite from the withering heat and the miles and miles of endless nothing. On those long family car trips from Dallas to Los Angeles in my childhood, there was one constant, one sign, one symbol, that offered hope - the McDonald’s golden arches.
Out there along I-10 between nowhere and next to nowhere the golden arches meant much more than a McDonald’s. They meant hot chicken nuggets, a cold milkshake, and a clean restroom. I see those golden arches today and I can smell the hot asphalt on a New Mexico afternoon. I can see the Gameboy that I played for hours in the car. That ubiquitous logo symbolizes my family, my summer vacations, my childhood; it’s so much more than a fast food stop on a tedious drive across the desert.
Out there in another desert, in the wilderness, along the muddy waters of the Jordan River, we stumble across a whole world of symbols. Symbols that conjure up all sorts of meaning and beliefs and thoughts and memories. John the Baptist is out there, in the wilderness, baptizing, preaching, giving hope to the powerless, antagonizing the powerful. He’s talking about wheat and chaff. He’s talking about snakes and stones and trees. He’s eating locusts and wild honey. Locusts and wild honey.
Remember, throughout the Old Testament, from Exodus to Joel, locusts were signs of God’s judgment. The locusts descend upon Pharaoh and his hardened heart. The locusts destroy crops as signs that the people of Israel have been unfaithful to God. Symbols of judgment. Then there is honey, and we ought to immediately think of God’s promise to the Israelites, a promised land flowing with milk and honey. A symbol of promise. Taken together John is symbolizing both God’s judgment and God’s promise. Eating locusts and wild honey isn’t some version of a Mediterranean diet. I think it’s a sign.
Prophets of old were always doing odd things to symbolize greater meanings - Ezekiel ate bread baked over dung to symbolize the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. Jeremiah buys a plot of land to show will return to Jerusalem from exile. Ezekiel gives a sign of judgment; Jeremiah gives a sign of blessing.
Judgment and blessing. Locusts and honey. Now, we’re good, kind, earnest Episcopalians. We can get behind the blessing, but this whole judgment thing disturbs our genteel senses. We’ve been so spiritually wounded and scarred by the language around judgment, that we’ve discarded the whole idea. Granted, I know that God’s judgment has been used by Christians as a threat, and a pretty convenient one at that, to raise money, to grow their numbers, and to keep people in their churches. That’s not at all what I’m talking about it. Judgment, in its proper theological context, is something that we hold dear, because judgment, properly taken, is a good thing.
See, throughout the New Testament, God is not so much represented as a criminal judge, sentencing criminals to their punishment. Rather, God is represented as a justice of the peace, the one who maintains the safety and security of a community. God is the one to whom we bring our cases - our complaints, our prayers, our laments, our hopes, our dreams - and God weighs them on the great scales of divine justice. As the Virgin Mary says, God casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. That is judgment, and it is good. It is good to know that God does listen, that God hears the cries of the anguished and wishes to alleviate their pain. It is good that God is enraged, wrathful even, at the evil that stalks about this world. This is a good thing, that God’s blood would boil at the sight of injustice, oppression, and treachery. It is good that God wishes to make things right and just, because it shows that God cares.
The crowds flock to John the Baptist in the wilderness because that is exactly what they want to hear. The people of Jerusalem and all Judea, living under the boot of the Roman Empire, want justice for their cause. Corruption, greed, and wanton violence are the hallmarks of the empire, and the people out there with John are sick of it. That crowd out there has a complaint they wish to bring before God as judge, and they want God to make things right. To those who have come out to see John in the wilderness, confessing their complicity and being baptized by water, John himself must been a powerful symbol, shimmering on the horizon. Because it’s not about John the Baptist, it’s about what he represents from God - hope, healing, redemption, and justice.
But with this hope comes a warning. For the Pharisees and the Sadducees, John has stern words, not about bugs but about snakes. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” John snaps at them because John wants them to know that God has been paying attention; God has not forgotten their hardened hearts. John knows all too well that the Pharisees and Sadducees have colluded with the imperial forces of Rome. They have taken the convenient option of going along with the Romans and their brutality. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. This is not anti-Jewish in any way. Rather, John the Baptist’s absolute loyalty to the God of Israel means that he is willing to call out anybody who has compromised their allegiance to the Lord (see, N.T. Wright, “Jesus,” 324). What is a word of hope for some, is a word for warning for others. Locusts and honey. Judgment and blessing.
So there we have it - a complex tableau of powers, peoples, and symbols from the ancient world. And what of us? Where do we find ourselves on this great divide that John lays out? Do we deserve hope or judgment? Do we need a locust or honey? Are we confessing our sins or are we complicit with the powers of this world? The truth is, we are both. The line between good and evil runs straight through our hearts. Like that crowd that went out to see John in the wilderness, to both hear a word of hope and to confess their sins, we come to this place. To hear a word of hope and to confess our sins. To clamor for justice and to receive a blessing. It’s never just one or the other.
That’s the hard edge of the Christian life, and that’s the unsettling part about Advent. We live in the gathering darkness of December, acknowledging that darkness in our own lives, yet knowing full well that the joy of Christmas is just around the corner. Acknowledging that we, even this gathering of kind, earnest Episcopalians, need blessing and we need judgment. If anything, we need God to sort out the good and the evil that resides right here. For we have eaten both the locusts and the honey.
We want to work hard and provide for our families, but we have to confess that we also work for our own greed. We are proud of what we have accomplished at work, at school, we ought to be proud of what we have accomplished in this church, but we have to confess that pride easily becomes ego. We want to be charitable, especially during this holiday season, but how much of our giving is rooted in smugness, that we have the time and the money to give something away to those poor people who don’t. This is Advent. Locusts and honey. Judgment and blessing.
As we make our way through the wilderness journey of Advent, we come to one last symbol, the one that stands far above and far ahead of us. John the Baptist was not preparing us for honey and locusts, for wheat and chaff, for axes and trees. Oh no, John knows that something much more powerful is coming after him. The ultimate sign of judgment and blessing. Sometimes it is our saving grace, sometimes it is our shame. We cling to it at moments of triumph and despair, of celebration and desolation, of judgment and blessing. The final sign is nothing less than the cross of Jesus Christ. Think of it, under that cross in this church, we celebrate the joy of the Eucharist, we bury our dead, we celebrate weddings, and we come here to confess our most grievous offenses. All while beholding the cross. It is never one or the other, it is always both.
Do not be distracted by the other signs and symbols this world offers. Because I’ll tell you what - they won’t get you very far, the chicken nuggets and the milkshake under the golden arches will only leave you hungry and empty again. Rather, keep your eyes fixed on that great sign. In the darkness, you will find the cross shining brightly, leading you home to God no matter how far off you have wandered. When you are lonely this holiday season, the cross will be your solace, a remembrance that Jesus died alone. When you are surrounded with family and friends, the cross will be a symbol of God’s delight in you.
Look to the cross and see the Lord Jesus, stretching wide his arms in a perfect love, embracing both your pain and your joy. Look to the cross and you will see more than a symbol, you will see your whole life with God, judgment and blessing.