When I was in college, I traveled to summer camps one year as a college recruiter. Living among middle and high school kids teaches you a few things about yourself. First, maintaining your cool, detached pretty-sure-I’m-the-next-Bono persona past twenty takes a lot of work.
Second, teenagers are ruthless judges of hypocrisy, inauthenticity, and idiocy—and if you think this doesn’t apply to you, you’ve probably unwittingly committed various atrocities in the name of all three.
Third, insecurity is the coin of the realm, and if you’re plagued by any, adolescents will root it out with more ferocity than a grudge-bearing passive-aggressive boss who keeps getting her artisanal micro-lot kombucha stolen from the break room fridge.
So, I figured being uber-cool was what my college recruiter job required of me. Wear a little hair gel, drop a sufficient number of pop culture references into every conversation, remember not to breathe through your mouth and everything should work out fine.
And it did. I didn’t totally embarrass myself. Throughout most of the summer, I was convinced that my attention to the details of being a hip college guy had won me the the admiration of enough kids to consider myself successful.
But one guy stood out to me as a repudiation of all my assumptions. It was the last week of summer, and I was cruising down the home stretch, ready to get back to college and my new girlfriend. There was a guy at camp that week. Let’s call him Mike. Mike always had a crowd of teenagers around him—everywhere he went. I found this terribly off-putting, as I tried to get some sense of his secret, the reason kids seemed so attracted to him.
But I couldn’t see anything special about Mike. Kind of a short, middle-aged guy (like 28 or 29 years-old, which felt to me at the time like middle-aged), balding, paunchy. He wore brown corduroys and old t-shirts. Soft-spoken. Not especially funny that I could tell. He didn’t play electric guitar, couldn’t dunk a basketball, didn’t sing or work with a ventriloquist dummy. I was stymied.
Typically, this would be the part of the story where I tell you that his special secret consisted of his amazingly generous nature, or his wonderful ability to listen, or that he had the hypnotic carnival stare of Dr. Mesmer. And then I would tell you that after observing him for a week, I had an epiphany about what’s actually compelling about human behavior. Which epiphany I would then incorporate into my life plan, making me who I am today—a successful mouth breather, who still struggles with pop culture references, but who has forsworn hair gel. (Alas, I’m not that good a story teller.)
But it turns out that I have no idea why Mike was one of the most charismatic men I’ve ever seen, which he pulled off without having anything even remotely resembling charisma. He seems like the last guy anybody would ever attach themselves to. And I’ve spent years trying to figure out why he made a huge splash in a such a notoriously difficult pond.
John the Baptist is another guy I have a difficult time figuring out. Why exactly are the people, as Mark says, “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem . . . going out to him?”
I mean, what’s so compelling? It certainly can’t be his sartorial choices or his personal grooming habits. And it’s definitely not his predilection for fine dining. John’s a guy who obviously doesn’t spend much time worrying about what folks think of him. Anybody who eats bugs and looks like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy isn’t losing any sleep over not being People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
And Mark opens his Gospel with him. With John the Baptist.
Don’t you find that odd? The other Synoptic Gospels open up with genealogies, and angels speaking glad tidings to quaint shepherds in bucolic fields, or snappily dressed magi with their high-end baby shower presents.
But in Mark there isn’t any of that. No earnest seekers after the baby Jesus, no doe-eyed animals lowing to the soft strains of angelic harp music. In Mark we get the ancient Near Eastern version of Bad Santa. Mark opens up with John the Baptist, of all people.
I can’t imagine Ralphie and Randy standing in line for hours for a chance to sit in this guy’s lap to talk about Red Ryder BB guns.
So, why do the people flock to him?
I don’t know. I have a hard time seeing it.
He sounds too much like those street preachers who wave their Bibles and tell you you’re going straight to hell if you don’t repent . . . right now (and of course, they’re the only ones who know how you’re supposed to do that and whether or not you’ve succeeded). Only, there’s one big difference between them and John.
Those guys with the bullhorns and the tenuous grasp of what the Bible actually means tend to plant themselves right in the middle of the sidewalk so that you have to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid them. They get all up in your face and dare you to ignore them, whereas John grabs himself a stump out in the middle of nowhere—where the chances of accidentally stumbling across him are pretty slim.
John sets up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wants to hear what he has to say has to go to a lot of trouble to get there, borrowing the neighbor’s four wheel drive truck or setting off on foot with enough peanut butter crackers and juice boxes, and heading down lonely trails full of brigands and thieves.
So, it’s not just that people are sleeping in line to buy tickets to see John the Baptist at the local VFW Hall, like it’s Black Friday at Walmart for a chance at a two hundred dollar 55” flat screen TV. They’re road-tripping it.
John isn’t coming into town to meet the crowds; they’re going out into the wilderness to catch a glimpse of him—which is strange, considering that the religious center of the faith is supposed to reside in Jerusalem. That’s where the temple is, where the chief high muckity-mucks are, where all the important stuff happens, right?
So, why go out in the middle of nowhere to listen to some guy who makes nice, law-abiding folks nervous to look at, much less listen to?
I have to believe it has something to do with the fact that John is proclaiming a new world. He’s announcing the coming of one who will do something entirely new, who will establish a reign here on earth (both in the city and in the wilderness) that will be driven by God’s justice and peace, and not the usual concerns that organize our common life—greed, violence, sexual harassment and abuse, corruption, and selfishness.
No, this will be a new world that doesn’t look for permission from the folks in the seats of power to do what needs to be done. John’s announcing the coming of one who will lift up the fallen, who will feed the hungry and heal the brokenhearted, who will pursue justice for those who’ve too often seen only the justice that can be bought by the wealthy and the powerful.
Indeed, Jesus, the one to whom John points, wasn’t from the city either. He was from out in the county, from Nazareth in Galilee—which had seen its share of the kind of evil the old world had represented. Right about the time of Jesus’ birth in 4 B.C.E., King Herod the Great had burned the city of Sepphoris to the ground and sold all the survivors into slavery.
What does that have to do with Jesus?
Well, the city of Sepphoris was only a couple miles north of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. And the reason Herod wiped out that city was because of a popular messianic movement that saw Herod as an illegitimate king. He’d taken advantage of the peasants, stolen their land and their produce. These revolutionaries, who I’m sure Herod would have called terrorists, wanted to install someone else on the throne.
So, Herod quashed that rebellion, showing once again that the old world was bought and sold by kings and those whom they favored. And who got killed or sold into servitude by the state—all in the name of preserving the peace and law and order?
That’s right, the people like John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus—the one John says is coming to establish a new kingdom—where the poor and the dispossessed, the forgotten and the ostracized, the disadvantaged and the bullied—which is to say, the folks who always seem to find themselves begging for a few crumbs from the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them.
When Jesus shows up on the scene, the people out in the countryside have been through an increasingly oppressive time under Herod’s sons, the Roman client-rulers. The rich and powerful, led by these kings and their retainers, have been snatching up land, and then leasing it back to the peasants they’ve stolen from, taking a percentage of the crops the peasants grow as a tax. When you’re a subsistence farmer, that 50% share your new landlords are taking isn’t just a matter of taxes eating into your profits; it’s taking actual food from the mouths of your babies.
People can only take so much before they start thinking about the most effective ways to take back some control. Having one’s taxes increased so that the wealthiest can have more is a potent recipe for civil dissent. But John the Baptist says, “There is one who is coming who is more powerful than I—more powerful than the systems that grind the forgotten ones to dust.”
At this point someone is likely to say, “But Mark says John came preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You haven’t said anything about that.”
But you see, I have. Western Protestants are so used to thinking about repentance and forgiveness as applicable mainly to individuals: I get mad at you and run over your prized begonias, which is a sin for which I need to repent and ask for forgiveness. And individual sin is definitely a thing—inasmuch as individuals commit sins, and need to repent and ask forgiveness.
But there are other sins that also require repentance, a seeking of forgiveness—sins that are bigger than any individual, more systemic, and therefore harder to address—sins that too many people take for granted as “just the way things are.” Racism is a sin like that. Heterosexism is that kind of sin. Xenophobia and Islamophobia can be an institutional sin. And as we’ve seen with sexual harassment and abuse, though such a sin is usually committed by an individual, it takes a whole culture that winks at it for it to continue to exist.
And in order to address those kinds of sins, we’re going to need more than just individual repentance and forgiveness—we’re going to need a kind of collective repentance that seeks the forgiveness of all those we’ve allowed to be hurt because we refused to say no to the system that allowed those injustices to endure. It’s going to take a new world, a new reign on earth—it’s going to require someone capable of lifting up every valley, of making every mountain low—someone capable of baptizing with the Holy Spirit.
Before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood in front of the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. one afternoon and said, “Those of you inside, are you listening? Do you hear me? You have already been defeated. Do you understand that? You have already lost and we on the outside have won. Out here, we know how this struggle for black freedom and liberation will turn out, for God is on the side of the oppressed. It’s not ‘We shall win.’ Oh no! We have already won! Only you on the inside have not realized it. We outsiders have, and we know the future. We are the future.”
Do you get that? We are the future—those who struggle to realize the new world Jesus announces, the new kingdom for which John prepares the way. We’re the ones holding out for something better than what Herod or Caesar think we deserve. We’re the ones struggling to hear the cries of the oppressed and excluded, the ones trying to address the sins that eat away at the bonds of human community, waiting for the one who will finally remake the old world and establish a new one.
But that’s Advent, isn’t it? You find it in the unlikeliest people and in the unlikeliest places.