Advent 2 - Week of December 7, Mark 1.1-8
John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The wilderness east of Jerusalem looks much like the Western Slope of Colorado—dry, rocky hills with no visible vegetation until you get up close and see the gray-green sagebrush, land where only a goat could find sustenance. At higher elevations and in the ravines, a few scrappy-looking junipers cling to the rocky soil. There are few towns here, mostly small camps of Bedouin, with their goat-hair tents, corrugated metal sheds for the animals, a camel or two, a propane tank, a bright yellow generator, a water tank, blue plastic tarps, and a white plastic lawn chair or two, like the ones on my patio.
This is John’s wilderness, the land between Jerusalem and the Jordan River, where all he could find to eat were locusts and wild honey—bees and locusts, all that could live in this arid landscape.
As our bus wound its way down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, I thought about Jesus spending forty days out here after his baptism, before he began his ministry, driven out here by the Spirit, and tempted by Satan. I thought, too, about the parable he told of the Samaritan, traveling this road and finding the man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead. And I thought about John preaching in this desolate place, about his message—calling the people to “a baptism of repentance.” And somehow his message was heard as really good news, because we are told, “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” Not a very inviting place to be teaching, not an easy place to get to, not a comfortable place—but something compelling about his message brought crowds of people to him. Something about his message of repentance? Freeing them? Liberating them? A place of testing?
Whatever their reasons, John’s message about repentance must have been what they needed. And I have found that it’s what I need, too, when I visit Israel and Palestine. The political situation there—the terrorist bombings of Israeli schoolchildren, the bulldozers plowing through crowds of shoppers in Jerusalem, the imprisonment of Palestinian children for throwing rocks, the young woman in labor who died at the checkpoint because she was not allowed to go to the hospital, the utter hopelessness of lives lived under occupation, at the whim of 18-19-year-old soldiers carrying Uzis—these are not isolated events on the far side of the globe. As a citizen of the United States, I have had a role in creating this world of chaos and fear.
It’s hard for me to visit with these people who are being oppressed because of my government’s unquestioning support of Israel. I would expect that people injured by rubber bullets fired from American-made weapons, supplied by my tax dollars, would resent my presence, or at least question me about how I can support such violence against them. But they never speak of this—their code of hospitality, which shapes the way they live and relate to the world, does not permit them to treat me poorly simply because of my complicity in their oppression. They welcome me, feed me, lavish me with attention and work to make my visits pleasant and comfortable.
But, like the crowds following John, I, too, need repentance. I need to confess my apathy in the face of their suffering, my ignorance of their history, the scant attention I pay to the news from Palestine, my lack of courage to confront my leaders with what I have seen and heard and insist on justice, and my willingness to let this situation drag on for sixty years, while I have lived in security and peace. So John’s message becomes a message of hope for me as well, and a call to turn from my apathy and fear to become a bearer of good news to those who suffer.
O Lord our God, merciful healer of the world, you call us to repentance. You call us to turn from our apathy and fear, to follow in your way of justice and peace. Forgive our indifference, our boredom with a troubled world, our ignorance. Straighten our paths so that we go out with courage to be your good news in the world. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.