John the Baptizer was preaching in the desert of Judea…and people poured out of Jerusalem, Judea and the Jordanian countryside to hear him.
Burning Man aflame in the Black Rock Desert has nothing on the Advent story. When a wild man settles in the badlands, then the rest of us close up shop, gather our provisions and set out toward the fire and the thunder. Numbed by our conveyer belt existence, our heart has forgotten so much. But it only takes a mere glimpse of a spark, a glimmer of real life, and our desire, longing and hope shakes off the slumber. Whoever said it was a bad thing to be the moth drawn to flame?
What actually made John the wild man, though? His camel-hair habit surely furthered his holy-man austerity, while the locusts and wild honey only encouraged his reputation as a man disinterested in modern convention. But these biographical details could not be the center of it. Jerusalem was no different than Charlottesville or Denver or Trenton – you only have to stroll downtown, or the neighborhood BBQ for that matter, to catch more than a few odd ducks.
John was a man too-wild for our aloof, cold ways because he knew something, he had heard something. “Repent, God’s Kingdom has come near,” John announced. The crowds flocked to the wild man in the wild place because John told them what their soul most longed to hear: God is near.
I believe the great fear of the human heart is that God is, in the end, far, far. What sickness or sorrow, what loneliness or ruin, could we not endure so long as we believed in our bones that God was near? Yet when we’ve lost this hope, when God seems too remote to matter or too capricious to trust or too fanciful to believe, then our most precious flame dies. Our hearts and our hopes sink into ourselves. They sink so far we forget them and assume they will never rise again.
But then there’s a John, speaking the wild words. God is near. You are not alone. Hope is coming. If merely a single word, the tiniest flicker, finds its way to us, then there really is no telling what might erupt. Good words are dangerous.
From what I see, too many of us think that God’s message necessitates shrill noise. We denounce and correct. We draw our tribal lines. We build synergy toward our clan or our corrective version of faith. What we do not say, with our words or our actions, is the wildest thing: God is near. Have your cause if it’s worthwhile. Promote your distinctions if you must. But please, in God’s good name, do not forget to tell us that God is near. If we don’t hear these essential words, the flame will stay cold and the heart will stay hungry.
This is the second week of the Advent conversation John Blase and I are sharing. So what I’m offering is only half of the picture. For his reflection on this same text, you’ll need to move over to The Beautiful Due.