Times were tough. The people felt oppressed. A foreign government wielded an iron fist over them and was not afraid to use it. Taxation had become a burden. People were not good to one another. Even their religion had become overbearing and weighty. The days were becoming as dark as the night . . . the people were losing hope. These were desperate times for the people . . . a people who felt lost . . . a people who felt oppressed . . . a people abandoned. In understanding the time period we are dealing with it is not difficult to see the desperation.
Where was the relationship between God and the people? Oppressed by dogma and ritual the people could barely breathe without falling into sin according to the local religious leaders. The temple and sanctuary had become corrupt. Those called to lead had separated themselves from the people and only had time to belittle the them as they rushed about in self-importance. The “spirit” seemed lost . . . the “joy” had been destroyed . . . and faith set upon the people like a heavy burden that they could not shake. And, the people drifted . . . drifted away. These were dark days . . . days of desperation.
From where would hope come? Well, probably not where one would it expect it to come from . . . desperate times create desperate measures.
Hope comes wandering out of the desert in the form of what we might call a hippie or at least a naturalist . . . he wore “clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locust and wild honey” . . . not exactly the heroic image many would imagine. Not really what the people are expecting. Yet, here comes this rag-tag fellow preparing the way and announcing the “hope” that is to come. John the Baptist was not quite what the people were expecting. Despite his dramatic appearance . . . his roughness around the edges . . . he was not the fiery conqueror the had imagined to come and set them free of their oppression and desperation.
In biblical times, such as the one we are dealing with this morning, we have to remember that John the Baptist is not really even off the path in his role in the story. In this time, most sons followed in the footsteps of their father as far as careers went . . . and, John was definitely following in the footsteps of his father. Like his father he was in the “god business”. His father, Zechariah, was a priest . . . one of the “holy ones”—check it out over in the Gospel of Matthew. Like father, like son . . . only John doesn’t quite fit the image of a priest as the people imagined a priest would look and act. Nope, this guy was the opposite . . . he was an extreme; and, yet, he came with the task of helping people discover and rediscover their relationship with God and one another. The people just weren’t expecting it in quite the way that it was being played out.
Now, remember what I said . . . desperate times create desperate measures. John the Baptist wasn’t what the people were expecting, but he definitely got the people’s attention. We know that the ministry of John the Baptist was immense as people came in droves to hear his words and to be baptized by him. Shoot, the people even thought he might even be the one sent by God to rescue them . . . that he might even be the Messiah; but he assured them that he was not. He told the people: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
If you think that John the Baptist threw the people for a loop, imagine what Jesus is going to do to them once he arrives on the scene . . . again, even Jesus is not quite the image of what the people expect when God comes to rescue them and re-establish the kingdom. In fact, the whole scenario of what is panning out is absurd . . . yet, God stoops to desperate measures to grab the attention of the people and to change the world in which they live.
In the simplest terms I have always thought of the story of God’s people prior to the advent of Jesus . . . what we would call our Old Testament . . . as being one of a frustrated parent on the part of God. In that story God attempts to use ever parenting trick imaginable. God tries to talk to the people. God sends them to their rooms. God takes things away. God spanks them . . . scolds them . . . ignores them . . . and, nothing ever seems to make a difference. The people go about their business as usual, and the relationship between them and God gets no closer or better. One would think that God would throw up God’s hands to call it quits.
I don’t know if it is out of desperation or what for God, but God plays a pretty dramatic trump card on the whole situation . . . God decides that if the people are ever going to get it, God is going to have to show them God’s self. Desperate times call for desperate measures. God uses the last ploy of any good parent and determines that example is the most powerful means of having the people understand what is necessary for a relationship with God and one another. God would come down to earth and show the people exactly what a “holy” relationship really is . . . thus we begin the Jesus story . . . God came down in human form to show the people the way.
Again, not quite the way the people expected as they wallowed in their desperation. They wanted God to exert some of that wrath and smiting shown earlier in their journeys . . . not something that was based on relationships.
Any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that the quickest way to establish order in a loud and rowdy classroom is to speak softly. To speak softly because in speaking softly the class will quiet down to hear what the teacher is saying. Here God speaks softly.
God speaks softly in ways that the people do not expect. God speaks through a wild man wandering out of the desert . . . in images and people not expected. God speaks not with power and anger, but in possibility and hope. God speaks softly in hope . . . in hope that the people will listen and respond to God’s grace and love that comes unexpectedly.
I am sure that there would be those who disagree with me, but I think that we, too, live in desperate times. That we are not too far off of what our ancestors of faith experienced in the scriptural words we hear this morning. Ours seems like a pretty desperate world . . . pretty desperate times. We could all use a little hope in our lives right about now. So let us not look for it in the obvious and the expected, but let us look for it in subtle and quietness of the world and people around us. Let us turn our ears towards the soft voice of God that whispers to us in these desperate times. In these desperate times God surprises us with extreme measures . . . surprises us in the unexpected . . . surprises us in ways we never imagined.
Who would have thought that God would change the world . . . change lives . . . with a hippie wandering out of the wilderness announcing the greatest gift of all? There is “hope” in the air as we continue our Advent journey . . . may we embrace it and hang on tightly in these times of desperation. We just might find our salvation. Amen.