John proclaims a baptism of repentance:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
John is the voice of one crying in the desert. He tells people to prepare for the Messiah, that the King is coming, that the Messiah will overthrow the wickedness of the world and conquer all, with a winnowing fork to clean the threshing floor and an inextinguishable fire to burn up the chaff.
I love the resonance of these verses, and the shiver-inspiring Godspell invocation of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”
And yet—John is wrong as much as he is right.
John is absolutely sure of the power of the one who comes after him, the Messiah, the King. Even nature will be overthrown: valleys filled, mountains leveled, rough ways made smooth.
That mighty, conquering, Super Messiah doesn’t come. Instead, we get Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t look like the conquering King and Messiah of John’s preaching. He hangs out with fishermen and fallen women and even—worse than these—with Pharisees. Thrown in prison for his preaching, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one? Jesus tells them:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” [Matthew 11:4-5]
Poor John. That doesn’t sound like the Super-Messiah he has been preaching and waiting for. Now he has to re-examine what he believes, in the light of this new revelation.
And so do we.
Repent, John calls, repent. Even if he does not see the future clearly, his message of repentance is right on point. Repent—turn away from doing evil and do good.
What form does that repentance take today?
Many forms, I’m sure. Far too many to compass in a single Advent reflection:
- repentance and healing from sins personal and social,
- from sibling quarrels and family breaches close at hand,
- from wars and suffering inflicted impersonally and at a great distance.
As I consider John’s mountains and valleys, I think about the sins we have committed against the earth itself.
We have torn the tops off mountains, clear cut forests, and polluted waters, all in the name of progress and profit. We have planted lawns in deserts, erected skyscrapers taller than the Tower of Babel, paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Looming over all of these visible scars on the planet is the specter of climate change.
COP24, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is now underway in Poland. I feel a special connection to COP24 because my nephew, Jesse Turck, is a Minnesota representative there for Will Steger’s Climate Generation organization.
As he prepared for the conference, Jesse wrote about our family farm and the “treasured places and memories for me and several generations of my family, in every field, behind every tree, and around every bend in the river.” He explained his own commitment to action on climate change:
“The projections of continued increased temperatures and severe weather events, loss of biodiversity, ecosystem changes, etc., can be truly terrifying. The biggest reason I’m passionate about fighting climate change are my three kids. I often think of the Native American proverb ‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ I want them to have the opportunity to grow up in and experience a beautiful and diverse natural world. Even in the most optimistic climate change projection models, their world will be significantly different from the one I have experienced, and drastically different than the one their grandparents and great-grandparents did.”
Instead of leveling mountains, our call to repentance is a call to heal the earth. We are called to repent our part in tearing down, in polluting, in destroying creation. We are called to repent and find our part in restoring creation and preserving this earth for future generations.
“We have a little over a decade to remake the world economy,” Jesse wrote. “This will take everyone working together for the common good of the inhabitants of our planet.”
Let the church say amen.