Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Thomas Merton, one of this last century’s more stalwart examples of spiritual honesty and searching, wrote, amongst many compelling works, a book entitled, The Wisdom of the Desert. In it, he refers at length to those Christianity knows as the Desert Fathers, individuals who in the first century or two of the Church’s history took a rather radical approach to life, fled the urban centers of the Middle East, and were the direct inheritors of the spiritual thought of John the Baptist.
Merton writes as follows:
Society was regarded [by the Desert Fathers and by John the Baptist] as a shipwreck from which each individual had to swim for his [or her] life….These were [people] who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was simply a disaster.
And John the Baptist comes upon the scene this morning replete in camel’s hair and leather girdle, eating locusts and wild honey, and generally, seeming to us like a rather quaint sort of fellow having precious little about him with which for us to engage.
Society, a shipwreck? Swim for our lives to escape? Flee life; go to the desert? Wear weird clothes. Eat strange foods. What can we possibly make of this sort of business?
Life is what life is. We don’t just up and run off because there are aspects of it that are bankrupt in their morality and corrupt in their ethics. It is all well and good, when one is a young firebrand of 20 or 25, to explore modes of life that offer escape from having to engage with a society seen as hopelessly flawed by one’s peers. It is, I suppose, an integral part of growing up. The passing years do, however, for most have a manner of revealing the difficulties of such an approach to life. Wisdom and maturity begin to make clear that such flight simply isolates the he or she who flees, and does nothing to affect that which is being fled. In it is a certain self-reflexive and solipsistic nature that is really a bit infantile.
It is rather like that marvelous old George Price cartoon from a New Yorker I recall seeing in the 1950’s. In it is depicted a most sour looking misanthrope, face screwed up into an expression of utmost disdain and disgust, muttering to anyone who would listen, “People are no damn good.”
We must if we are to be honest respond, “Well, that may be, but so what? I live in this world. I must make my way within it. I may get a nice vacation each year, but I haven’t the luxury of fleeing to some idealized hide-away and spending all my time there. I experience joy and sadness, fulfillment and loss, pleasure and pain, honesty and betrayal. I am in this world.”
It is, with this thinking in mind that I would suggest that John the Baptist has something to say to us regarding our journeys, our lives, our very souls.
You see, what John calls us to in the Gospel we just heard read is a new manner of thinking–to, in the words of the Gospel, repentance. Repentance is not necessarily a word with which we have much truck. One can scarcely hear it without yet another cartoon image coming to mind: one of the berobed fellow marching up and down in front of Chatelaine or the Post Office just across the street carrying a sign bearing the words, “Repent the end is near,” and usually a couple of passersby commenting about him in some humorous vein or another. And yet, repentance is a word of significance, significance not just for John but for any who would look about them and question how they might be thinking, what they might be making the center of their lives, where they are expending the days, how ever many or few, that are allotted them.
The Greek for repentance is “metanoia,” literally, the taking of a new mind. It simply means coming to think in new ways, seeing life from a different perspective. It doesn’t have anything to do with running away from life. It has to do with living it in new ways, ways that change not only us, but also the world around us.
Thomas Merton went on in his book to suggest that where the Desert Fathers seemed to be onto something was in their assertion that the self created by the culture around the individual could very well be, to one degree or another, a false self created by “social compulsions.”
Henri Nouwen expands upon such thinking in The Way of the Heart, Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry when he writes,
Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated, or despised. Whether I am a pianist, businessperson, or minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same…more work, more money, more friends.
You see, each of us may well have areas of our lives in which we have allowed a false self to begin to take over the self that God intended to be there. Do you know of such places in you own being? I am clear I do in mine.
We may not intentionally have set out to make or allow such a thing to happen, but life does, indeed, have a manner of pushing us this way and that, of convincing us that something is right or just or true when it is actually the opposite, of leading us to be less than the creatures we were created to be–of trying to smother us in the endless froth of falsehood that seems, too often, to be overwhelming our civilization and, for which, for us as Christians, only the grace and truth of the Incarnation provides remedy.
John’s message is clear. It is not a condemnation of the world. It is not a call to run off and hide in a cave shouting, “Bah, humbug,” at everyone and everything that passes by the cave mouth. It is a call to realize that we, with the grace of God, can change what we know we need to change about ourselves–and, in the changing, change the world.
It must happen in that order. Isaiah’s call to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low” refers not to the external reorganization of the world, but to the internal reconfiguration of what needs changing in our hearts and souls and minds. Isaiah knew, all too well, that once that work was done, changing the face of the planet would be easy.
The marvelous, absolutely astonishing, reality in this entire matter is that it is never too late to begin. It simply doesn’t matter where in our journey we decide it is time to repent, to think in new ways, to lift up the valleys and level the hills of lives that have become impossible to move through with any ease or joy. Peter writes, “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”
All that matters is that we make a start, and that is much of what this season of Advent is all about, and that is good news indeed.