Before the first coming of Jesus, before he began his earthly ministry, his cousin John was preaching in the wilderness calling people to change their ways by word and example. John was separate in the wilderness, eating food found only in the wilderness. He was off the grid even by first century standards, not participating in any part of established society, at least not that we see in the text.
In her Advent devotional, The Meaning in the Waiting, Paula Gooder points out that this baptism John was offering would have seemed very strange to the people of that day. Instead of ritualistic mikvah bathing, he invited them to step into the languid, muddy waters of the Jordan River. The significance of this is two-fold, I think. As Gooder points out, this is a calling back to the boundary that marked the beginning of the promised land. It is a return to remembering who they were when God called them. I think it is also a return to connection with creation and a broadening of the definition of how and who can commit to following God.
I see this over and over again when I look at scripture. We’ve talked before about how if you look at what God is doing in light of where the culture of the time was, God is always nudging people to the next level of equity, and justice, and shalom. God’s call works as a reorientation towards God’s priorities, expanding the definitions of who’s included and where we can encounter God.
We want God to just be in the temple–or in the church–because if God is just in the building and we go encounter God there, we can also leave God there. If God is in the place of worship only then that makes a very tiny and manageable God, a comfortable God, a God we can get used to.
But just when we’re used to God being in the house of worship, we go looking for God and discover that God isn’t just in the temple, they’re out in the river, calling everyone in.
God is in the river, y’all, God is in the river and everyone’s invited.
Another thing Gooder points out is the fear of the people upon John’s birth when Zechariah’s speech came back. Why fear? “They knew enough… to know this kind of calling had consequences for all who were caught in its wake…” (p. 92). John’s calling represented a choice for all who witnessed his actions. John’s call and actions turned society’s expectations upside down from the day of his birth and naming, and consequently, everyone’s comfort zones were about to get rattled. We experience fear when we step into the unknown, even if the unknown is a wonderful possibility. We experience mental disconnect when our expectations are upended.
The people witnessing John’s life experienced all of that as God came to extend the opportunity for them to move into more of a shalom kingdom–more towards that upside-down-but-right-side-up kingdom of God where the priorities of the empires of this world are inverted and everyone of us gets to thrive.
And God announced this with a couple of babies. One who stood in the river wearing animal pelts and eating bugs. One who conquered by giving up his life. Upside down indeed.
And while I hope I never end up eating bugs for the kingdom of God, I hope to stand in the river calling people towards what is to come. I hope we all do. Because God is in the river, folks, and out in the wilderness. God is in the river and other places–and in other people–we least expect.
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Book News: Inward Apocalypse
I’m excited to announce that as of October 13th, I’m under contract with Resource Publications an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers for my book Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good to be released late next summer or early fall.
Stay tuned right here for more details on the launch and how you can join the launch team!
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