In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with* water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Matthew 3:1-12 Gospel reading for 2nd Sunday in Advent
John the Baptist, clad in camel hair, points and gestures from atop a rock in the Judean wilderness. Repent, he cries. He shouts down the religious elite who have appeared amongst the people, and promises the coming of one more powerful than himself. One who John the Baptist is too unworthy to carry the sandals of. “I baptize with water for repentance but…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
This image of John the Baptist is one we have encountered since Sunday school. A rugged and unkempt prophet, living in the wilderness on honey and locusts. In the movies, he is always shouting, perpetually angered and unafraid to name that which angers him. He is someone, I think, most of us would avoid if we saw him shouting in the street. And yet he is one of the most important characters in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus says, “…among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
What is it that continues to draw us to this itinerant prophet? For myself, it is the seeming single mindedness of the man. His dedication to the future, and his consistent appeal to a better world. He withdraws from the life of world (many scholars think John may have belonged to the Essenes) and preaches repentance. And not repentance only to the weak, but also to the powerful. It is this dogged pursuit of righteousness and justice, even in the face of powerful violence, that is the defining characteristic of the Baptist. It is this pursuit that results in his imprisonment, and finally in his execution.
I hear the words of the Gospel on the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I am drawn to the dedication of a person so convinced of the truth and necessity of his words that he can do no other, but shout them for all to hear. In this shouting, there is more than simply judgement or admonition. There is an invitation. An invitation into baptism and the practice of repentance. An invitation to wake up and see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and to ask if we can do better. Once we have asked that question we are invited to do just that.
John the Baptist is also a character that offers hope. In many of the most famous paintings of the Baptist he can be seen pointing. Always he points to the coming of Christ, to the incoming and indwelling Kingdom of God. The Baptist points toward a future of possibility, and peace and justice. In this gesture, he asks that we not focus too intently on him, but on what is to come. He asks that we repent so that we might hope, and that our hope might encourage us to repent.
Events of this week caused me to consider again this voice crying out in the wilderness. News broke on Sunday that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied an easement permit to Dakota Access, and would begin to seek out alternative routes for the 1,200-mile-long pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois *. The news was seen as a victory by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and the thousands of other water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Images swirled around the news showing the camp and its supporters celebrating the decision.
For months, water protectors have been gathering at the camp and at various construction sites to demand that Native rights and sovereignty be upheld, and that the pipeline be rerouted or eliminated completely. They have faced violence and arrest from private security and law enforcement, while the rest of the world largely ignored the struggle. And now, after all that they have faced, after months of gathering at Oceti Sakowin, after water cannons and attack dogs, the water protectors can celebrate this decision by the Army Corps of Engineers as a victory, and can say that giving voice to justice and the side of right can bring about change. Those voices that cry out from the margins and demand that we look towards a better future, that call us to repent, are themselves pointing towards the coming hope and a future of possibility.
It must be said that there is still much work to be done, and there is danger that a Trump administration may overturn the decision. Energy Transfer Partners will most certainly challenge the decision, and will seek ways to continue building the pipeline across sacred Native lands. In fact, on Monday, Energy Transfer Partners said as much. But this victory by water protectors points towards a future and a world that we can hope for. Like the Baptist’s finger pointing towards the incoming hope of the world, we can also point in the direction of hope ourselves. We can hope that this decision sets a precedent for future government and Indigenous interactions. We can hope that as a nation we might follow the example of our Native brothers and sisters in pursuing energy policies that consider the protection and intentional stewardship of creation. We can hope that the wisdom of peaceful resistance may filter into the national consciousness, and that we may begin again to listen to those voices among us that cry out in the wildernesses of our own world. The cynic in me wants to smash all this hope with a hammer, but I am going to reject that line of thinking. There will be fights ahead but the strength and perseverance of the water protectors offers us a glimpse at something so much more hopeful.
This victory comes also with a renewed invitation, like that of the Baptist. It calls for us to repent. It asks that we reflect on the events at Standing Rock, and those that lead up to this decision, and ask if we can do better. Can we truly begin to hear the voices of Indigenous people, and repent of our history of violence and genocide? Can we seek ways of living in this world that do not harm and corrupt the incredible gift of creation? One thing is for certain, we cannot lose sight of the work ahead. We cannot rest on the good feelings of this victory for our Native brothers and sisters. Rest assured, vigilance and resistance will be called upon again. The pursuit of justice, and of the future world of possibility must be relentless. Victories must be celebrated, but we must also continue the work before us. We must continue having conversations with those around us who might think differently than we do. We must be ready to stand with those who face oppression. For some of us that means finding ways to participate in action and conversations that are already happening around us. There are organizations all over the country working to support and advocate for Native rights, and environmental justice. If this movement awakened something in you (as it did for me) then seek out ways to continue the work in your daily life. Small acts of justice and peace in the daily monotony of our lives contribute to the larger pursuit of a better a world, and your voice is needed.
Another thing we must consider, one that we can observe in the Gospel reading from Sunday, is the continued call to repentance John extends to the Pharisees and Sadducees. This “brood of vipers” shows up as John is baptizing, and bears the brunt of John’s righteous anger. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”. John really lets them have it. He speaks truth to power and reveals its own hypocrisy and sinfulness. But, John does not send them away. He does not say “This invitation to repentance is not for you, nor is the soon to arrive salvation unavailable to you”. He calls them also to repent, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. As nasty and as angry as John’s words sound, he is still inviting the Pharisees and the Sadducees into the incoming beloved community, the Kingdom of God. And this is what we must remember as we seek to engage those we might consider our enemies, those who hold seats of power, or those who pursue and inflict violence. We must call out what is evil, but we must do so while pursuing the hope that all the world will one day be reconciled to each other. If we are to have hope for the future it will require that everyone come along. This means that we must consider the ways we talk about issues of justice. We cannot continue to play into the division and politicized rhetoric that contributes to fear and anger. We need everyone. John cries out in the wilderness hoping that everyone will change, and it is our responsibility to cling to that hope, however unlikely it may seem.
In the season of Advent, we await the coming of the Christ; of the future world of possibility, hope, and peace. We hear John crying out in the wilderness, calling us to repent and we hope to respond. I hope also during this Advent season we might identify those other voices crying out in the wilderness, begging to be heard, and asking for us to respond in the hope of the incoming Kingdom. Our responses will vary, but let them all seek to live into a reality that grounds itself in hope. Find those small ways in your own life that you can be about the work of justice. Seek out organizations and communities that are focused on pursuing this work. Your voice and your hands are needed at all levels. Let it also be known that, as we saw at Standing Rock, when one voice crying out becomes many the world can be changed. Amen.