Monday, December 10, 2007

the second advent question: will our children have faith?

Each year during Advent we meet John the Baptist, again. He is a little like the relative most of us would like to avoid at the annual family gathering! We meet him in the same place, in the wilderness. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of repentance. Israel went to the wilderness to do penance and to be formed. In Exodus 16, our greatest biblical description of wilderness, the people were tested on the way to the promised land; centuries later, all of this was written down by a people living in exile, in Babylon, far from home. These stories would capture the imagination of Jesus, who was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested. The wilderness is at the heart of the entire biblical story, and John stands squarely in the wilderness, the loudest voice in the strangest place. We encounter John every year, during the season of Advent. If there is no Christmas without Advent, there is also no Advent without John the Baptist, no Advent without wilderness.

Earlier in the fall I saw a movie entitled “Into The Wild”, based on a book by Jon Krakauer. It is a true story about a young man , a son of privilege in the D.C. suburbs, an honors student at Emory University, who takes off shortly after graduation and disappears, headed west for the open spaces. He lives in the elements: wind, heat, cold, storm. He lives off of the land. He keeps a journal. He leaves everything behind, burning his credit cards, giving all of his money to a relief agency, abandoning his car, making his way from Grand Junction, Colorado through the Dakotas into the Yukon Territory, and then toward the Mt. McKinley area of Alaska.

As I watched the movie, the character, Christopher McCandless, reminded me of John the Baptist. His beard grew longer. I could imagine him eating locusts and wild honey. He was dissatisfied with the world as it is, and he was not concerned with what others thought about his quest. Interestingly, people were drawn to Christopher. The article in Outside magazine about his life generated more mail, by far, than anything else that magazine had ever covered. It became a best-selling book, and then a popular movie. People were drawn to this young man, living in the wilderness, searching for something different, something radically different.

That would be John the Baptist. John is so central, not only to the season of Advent but to the gospels themselves—his story is told in all four gospels, and clearly he is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 40. He speaks out of his wilderness experience, his voice in full throttle, to anyone who will listen:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

To repent is to reorient ourselves, toward reality. It is not to feel differently, or to be sad about something we have done. It is to strike out on a new path. In Into The Wild, the repentance takes the form of leaving a privileged education behind and seeking a new reality. For Christopher, that was the natural world. The prophets of the Bible and the hermits of the Christian tradition were not so different:
“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through the deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality” (ITW, 25).
The wilderness of the Bible is the place where we are confronted with reality. It is a place without distractions, a place where we hear voices, maybe even the voice of God. Of course wilderness is not limited to geography. The wilderness can be the difficult experience of being a teenager, or going through a divorce, or waiting in an intensive care unit. But whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness, we are confronted with reality. Late in the book, Krakauer concludes that McCandless went into the wilderness to “explore the inner country of his own soul”.
In the wilderness, we are confronted with reality. In the gospels, the great reality is Jesus. Matthew speaks of kingdom of heaven, because the name of God is not uttered among the Jewish Christians, it is so holy. In the presence of holiness something happens to us: we are aware of our need to change. In the wilderness we examine ourselves, our egos, our motivations, all of that is stripped bare. We live with ourselves, and not much else. We pack light, only the essentials. It is scary.
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
What do you do if you find yourself in the wilderness? You begin where we are, you build the road out of the wilderness and make your way home. The way out of all of this is the road home from exile to restoration and hope. In the wilderness you find yourself, you discover who you are. The rabbis called the wilderness the “school of the soul”.
After the repentance, after the reorientation, there would be a restoration. And folks were drawn to that.
The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
What was happening? The people of Jerusalem and Judea were going to John The Baptist to start over. These were the religious people, which means that even if we think we are far along on the path, we may need to start over, repent, confess. He is blunt with them. He sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized and he says to them,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Don’t 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 of Abraham.
The religious leaders are called snakes. If John were alive today, we would accuse him of being anti-religious! There is a pretty significant anti-religious sentiment in our world today. There is a section on atheism in most of the big bookstores, along with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Jesus did not have much use for the religious leaders of his day, who really represented different political parties, and were often in conflict with each other. He would have resonated with John the Baptist. The way to the cross, for Jesus, was paved by his critique of the organized religion of his day. In some ways, they were missing the point. What was that point?
For Jesus, it was about “bearing fruit”. What difference does spirituality, faith, religion make? How does it shape your life? When the kingdom has come, when Jesus is a part of what we are doing, we are bearing fruit.
They responded, “we are children of Abraham”. “Don’t be too critical of us”, they were saying to Jesus, “we are the chosen people, we’ve got this all mapped out, the past and the future belong to us, we are children of Abraham”.
I had not been at the church very long, as pastor. The nice woman took me into the narthex and showed me the stained glass, with her family names on it., her maiden name on one side, her husband’s name on the other. I had been there long enough to know that she had a temperament that could cut through someone like a knife, but she had a nice southern smile that could mask all of it. She was the establishment; I was the upstart new preacher. “That’s my family”, she said, as she pointed out the names on the stained glass. The message was pretty clear: “before you get too carried away with your big ideas, remember, we were here before you got here…and we will be here a long time after you are gone”.
I tell that story only because it haunts me, and I wonder: Do I sometimes send that very same message to others? After all, on most days I am pretty much the religious establishment. And Jesus is saying, to me, “don’t presume to say, “I have been ordained”, or “I have been a Christian for these many years” or “I have been in all of these Bible studies or on all of these mission trips”…
It is as if God is saying, “Don’t be too smug”.
From the very stones God will raise up children of Abraham. Which means, I think, that each generation has to embrace the faith, each generation has to go into the wild and hear the voice for itself. There is a real sense, in North America and Europe, that the church is living on the spiritual capital of our parents and grandparents, and we are drawing it down, and there are real questions about what we are passing on to our children.
And so, the second Advent question: Will our children have faith? A lot of Christopher’s quest had to do with his disenchantment with his parents’ values. And a lot of the reason for the growing secularism of our culture, and abandonment of the church by the younger generations, has to do with the disconnect between Jesus, on the one hand, and the church, on the other.
Will our children have faith? “If we change, if we repent, if we face reality”, the answer is “yes”. But it is hard to change. It is hard to face reality. There is stark, life or death quality about John’s message to us:
the ax is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

The ax is the judgment. The bad will be cut away, the good will fruit will remain. The fire is painful, but it purifies.
Why did Jesus go out to the wilderness? Why did the young man in the movie go out in search of the wilderness? Why does the preacher drag us through the wilderness every year? We just want to sing the carols! Right?
Why go out to the wilderness, with all of those people? It is the place where we recognize our dissatisfaction with life as it is. It is the place where faith and hope are born. It is the place where change is possible. And it is the place where the quest for something more seems not only possible but necessary, a quest that is primarily for integrity: a life that bears fruit, good fruit, the fruit of the spirit:
love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness,
generosity, faithfulness, self-control.
In the wilderness, that voice that we had pushed to the margins comes roaring back, and we discover, in a painfully purifying way, that to repent is to cleanse ourselves of the cultural swamp of materialism, religious hypocrisy, obsession with self and addiction to the pace of life.
Jon Krakauer, who wrote “Into The Wild”, noted that he received a massive amount of correspondence about his main character. Many thought Christopher was insane, judgmental and irresponsible; many others admired him and thought he was seeing something, and acting on it, that most of us avoid. Like good art, the film, I think, allows you to be the judge.
In the same way, I think we are both repelled by and drawn to the biblical prophets, and all who live in such a way that we are forced to question our way of life. And yet there is something about John the Baptist that is compelling, and that is, we know, truthful. The kingdom of heaven has come near. The Lord is at hand. The Christian religion finally is not an escape into the wild, but an encounter with reality, and that reality is as near as the inner country as our own souls. The voice of the prophet challenges us to disengage from everything that separates us from the life that God intends (we call that sin), and that same voice prepares a way for the Lord to come into our world once again.

Sources: Thomas G. Long, Matthew; Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild.


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