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Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Wild Man’s Advent Warning

El Greco's John the Baptist


"Wildman John leaps into Advent’s second Sunday, taking my breath away with his matted black dreadlocks, that camel skin he wraps around his bony body, gnarled bare feet sticking out below.  His eyes seize me the way his rough hands seize the locusts he eats, the honey he snatches from wild bees.   He roars warnings: dire times, dereliction of duty, the brink of doom.  Advent seems too small a stage to hold him."
- Nancy Rockwell blog


John the Baptist is the consummate prophet, not the conventional priest his parents, descendants of generations of priests, would have likely dreamed that their son become. And as a sign of this, according to Luke’s gospel, they were to call him “John” rather than name him after his father Zechariah. John was not a “Bible name,” but was of Greek origin, and the name of the father of one of the heroes of Judah’s brief period of independence over a century earlier, the revolutionary Mattathias Maccabees.

John’s coming was a warning sign of a God about to break in to make things right. "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" asks the prophet Malachi in another of the lectionary readings for this Sunday, "For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap."

Both of these images are a little disturbing, notes Presbyterian Pastor Scott Black Johnston, on another blog: “A refiner's fire is the forced-air, white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores and brings their impurities to the surface. Fullers' soap is the strong, lye-based soap used to bleach the impurities from cloth. ... He (i.e., God, through the Prophet John) comes to boil off the impurities in our souls and to apply a coarse scrub brush to our spirits.”

None of us wants to hear that. We’d rather tune out wild prophets and get on with celebrating a nice Christmas in the company of some nice priests or pastors. Who wants to be told that, in preparation for God, we need to be cleansed of our surplus as well as of our sins, as in, “If you have two tunics, give one to someone who has none”?

Yet that’s a part of John’s message of repentance, that before we get to welcome the Bethlehem infant into our arms, we must first apply some disinfecting soap.

To get the stains of sin and of injustice off our hands.
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