I grew up in Burbank, California, a small city in the midst of metropolitan Los Angeles which, if you remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, is the home of NBC’s west coast studios. I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, which, if you remember the 1960s, was the home of the Free Speech Movement and was the epicenter of the counterculture. You won’t be surprised to learn that for most of my college years I looked pretty much as you’d imagine a 1960s Berkley student to look, sporting fairly long hair and a beard. You might be surprised to know that I rode a motorcycle all through those years.
In the summer of 1969 I was home from college and taking a pre-helmet law ride on my motorcycle around Burbank. I came to a stoplight right in front of NBC studios. Now you might also remember a television game show that was very big in those days called Let’s Make a Deal. One of the features of that show was that the audience members would dress up in outlandish costumes to try and get host Monty Hall’s attention. So it wasn’t uncommon to see, among all the other strange sights you might see in Los Angeles, people in front of NBC dressed as clowns, cowboys, outer space aliens lined up and waiting to get in to Let’s Make a Deal.
I pulled up to this stoplight and I heard someone yell, “Hey, weirdo!” I looked around. Standing there was a very large man dressed as a stalk of celery. I thought they might have been yelling at him, but in fact he was the one doing the yelling. “Hey, weirdo!” he screamed again. “Beautify America! Get a haircut!” Now I don’t know how this strikes you, but having a man dressed as a vegetable call you “weird” is a very strange experience. And he was not the only person in line offended by my looks. Suddenly a whole chorus of middle-aged adults, dressed as farm animals, robots, ballerinas, and clowns started yelling at me in chorus, “Get a haircut! Get a haircut! Get a haircut!”
Thankfully, the light changed and I got out of there.
Now I tell this story because, whenever I hear about John the Baptist, I think about that man’s enraged cry to me, “Hey weirdo!” What I wanted to ask then and now is, “Weird, precisely, to whom?” Sure, I must have looked strange riding a motorcycle with hair like a girl’s and a scruffy beard in addition. But how often do you see someone dressed like a stalk of celery? And when that stalk of celery starts questioning your appearance, perhaps it’s time to rethink things a bit.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us, “Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” I can just imagine John the Baptist walking down Alameda Boulevard in Burbank, past NBC and the Let’s Make a Deal audience, and hearing the celery-stalk guy yell out, “Hey Weirdo!” Certainly a man wearing camel’s hair clothing (not, I presume, a camel hair blazer) and a leather belt (not Gucci) eating some sort of biblical version of health food is going to get your attention. To us conventional types, a person dressed like that is apt to look a little odd.
But before we get to John’s message, let’s notice two things about his appearance. One is that as impressive and arresting and compelling as John is, he does not call attention to himself. As he announces this morning, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” As John’s Gospel put it, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” So the first thing is that as impressive as John is, he is not the one he proclaims. He points to the One who is. And then there’s a second thing, which both we and the folks standing in front of NBC and even the young man on the motorcycle need to pay attention to: sometimes someone who looks and sounds and acts very different from you is telling you something you need to hear. To the conventionally upright citizens in John the Baptist’s audience, his message was probably obscured by his costume, his diet, and his manner of life. In the same way, neither the Let’s Make a Deal crowd nor I could have heard each other back in 1969: to them I was a Berkeley hippie weirdo freak. To me they were a bunch of uptight middle aged establishment losers. Who, in our own time, is saying to us things we need to hear? And what is it that prevents us from listening?
Now even the President of the John the Baptist fan club would have to admit that his message was not one calculated to win friends and influence people. Calling your audience a brood of vipers—a nest of snakes—is not going to get them on your side. And more: “Even now the ax 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 He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Hey, John, take a chill! I’m just trying to live my life! What is all this talk about axes and water and fire?
The ax, the water, the fire. John’s preaching is a pronouncement of judgment. Think about those three images for a minute. The ax judges by separating, say the root of the tree from its main body. Water of course judges by cleansing. And fire judges by burning away that which is impure. The ax, the water, the fire are, in a sense, all frightening images to behold. But look again. Each one is also a friendly image as well. The ax, after all, is a human tool. Water is the source of life. And fire keeps us warm. So when John the Baptist says that judgment is coming, and when he uses these scary images of axes and water and fire to tell us that, our first impulse is to run away. But when you pause and reflect, even these frightening signs have something in them that is friendly to us.
John the Baptist uses the ax, the water, the fire as symbols of judgment. And judgment, when you first hear about it, is not something that any one of us wants to receive. Who is their right mind would want to be subject to judgment? Who that we would want to know would set themselves up as a judge?
But here is where God’s language and our language sometimes run afoul of each other. So it is with these images of the ax and water and fire. What we see in those images is threatening. What God intends is a blessing. The ax and the water and the fire are coming toward us, not to annihilate us but to make us well. The surgeon’s knife wounds us so that we might be healed. This is the respect in which John the Baptist talks to us of judgment. Hear again the words from today’s collect:
Merciiful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. . . .
The point of God’s judgment is not that we should feel bad about ourselves. The point of God’s judgment is that we might be clean and healthy and whole in order to greet with joy the news of our salvation. So Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, is a time of judgment. It is the time, metaphorically, when God separates us from that which weighs us down. As you and I encounter this message of judgment in Advent, John tells us that even now God is laying the ax at the root of our trees, God is cleansing us in the waters of Baptism, God is burning away that which is dead so that we might abundantly have life. And the word he uses to describe that is our good old fashioned term, “repentance.”
Now “repentance” is another word which normally frightens us. When someone tells me to repent it’s not usually because they like what I’m doing. But here is where, once again, language confuses us as much as it clarifies. The Greek word we translate in English as “repent” is the word metanoia which means, literally, a change of direction. And what metanoia suggests is that you and I are walking in the wrong direction. In common everyday language we use “repent” as if it means somehow to feel bad about something. “I repent eating the last cookie in the cookie jar. Forgive me.” But that isn’t what “repent” means at all. Metanoia doesn’t mean you should feel bad. It means that you should change direction. Take stock of yourself. Let go of what is lifeless and sick and deadly. Go forward lighter and leaner and possibly in a new direction. For John the Baptist, repentance is what we do in response to judgment. We change direction.
What that means for us is this: God comes toward us in Advent. God’s presence is an incomparable blessing, but before it can be that blessing it must first be an awareness of our need for change. And so what we need to do when we repent is not so much to feel bad or punish ourselves. What we need to do is take stock and get ourselves ready to be abundantly joyful.
Robert Pinsky’s great translation of Dante’s Inferno begins this way:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw . . .
Life’s journey, Dante says, always at some point leads one into a dark wood. And yet in that dark wood one finds not only fear but good. In a pleasure-seeking culture like ours, Dante’s wisdom makes little sense, but John the Baptist knows something of what Dante is talking about, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, so do you and I. Things happen in our lives that don’t exactly fit with our imagined life plan: illness, loss, grief, failure, separation. There is for us judgment in these things, but the judgment is the kind that John the Baptist speaks of. God lays the ax at the root of our trees. We are washed and burned that we may be healthy and whole and ready for life.
The writer Frederick Buechner talks about the “fierce blessing” that he discovered in the hard and sorrowful moments of his life. That fierce blessing is what God offers us on this second Sunday of Advent. As we stumble through that wood, we’re offered a new way to walk, a way that demands that we turn from the way we were heading and let ourselves be bathed in God’s healing light. It’s like what the old Native American poem says about the experience of being lost in the forest:
The forest knows
Where you are.
You must let it find you.
[David Wagoner, The Heart Aroused]
You may think you’re lost. God knows where you are. And God is coming to find you with the ax and the water and the fire. This may feel like an experience of judgment. But we know the judge, and the judge wants only that we be ready to greet with joy the blessings that are coming at us as Christmas approaches.
Even when you’re lost in life’s dark wood, the One who seeks you sends you signs and hints of what it is you’re looking for. Lost as you may feel at times, God is coming to get you. All of us get lost, and all of us can wander off in the wrong direction. God knows where you are, and this meal we move into now is a sign that you are in the process of being found. “Hey weirdo! “ Turn around. Change direction. Come up into God’s presence and discover a kind of fiercely blessing and forgiving love that has the power even to let grumpy game show contestants and arrogant motorcycle-riding college students see that they can now travel together into the new direction of God’s embracing love. Amen.