Sunday, December 15, 2019
Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10 & Luke 1:57-66
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
It’s the time of year when you talk about me. I show up as the great disrupter of the quiet joy of what you now call Advent. “Here comes John the Baptist and his brood of vipers!” While you get your trees lit and your cookies baked, I enter the scene wearing camel’s hair with the occasional locust leg still stuck in my teeth from lunch.
I am disruptive. You’re ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but I show up like cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation, not paying attention to any social graces, not dressing the part, and frankly a little embarrassing since I’ll tell you exactly what’s on my mind.
I am aware that I am different. I’ve been aware of that since my birth, but you have to understand that there is something deep inside of me that drives me forward. I am more than what you imagine me to be. So indulge me this morning as I give you a fuller picture of who I am.
I heard that my father, Zechariah, spoke to you last week. He’s a good man. Kind. He and my mom, Liz, did their best to raise me, but could you imagine having to raise a child who comes after a direct encounter with the angel Gabriel? It’s one thing to put your best foot forward as a parent. It’s another thing entirely to have the pressure to raise someone with a divinely promised purpose in life – “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). So, my parents did their best to bring me up, but looking back I can see it wasn’t easy.
I grew up in a priestly family in the hill country outside of Jerusalem. From my front door I’d see the pilgrims making their way to the Temple. A few times a year we’d make our way to Jerusalem to play our part. My parents were such faithful people. They were religious but in the good ways – not caught up in following rules but truly interesting in relating to the Lord God they loved.
My parents took my education seriously. We’d read and memorize the words of Scripture all the time. Since I was the one who had the role of preparing the way for the Lord, they knew I needed to be ready. We shared the stories of our people all the time, but some of them really stuck with me. Like stories about the Jordan River. Growing up I never laid my eyes on it, but I was drawn to its symbolism. It’s the place where my people passed to enter the Promised Land. There’s something there about passing from one life to another way – a transformation of sorts. I knew somehow it would become a central place in my life.
I also loved the stories my parents told me of the prophets, particularly of Elijah and Elisha. Those were my kind of people! Bold. Independent. Fully given over to God’s work. They spoke the truth to power. I loved how God took care of Elijah in the wilderness, using ravens to make sure he had what he needed. The Jordan even figured into these stories. When Elijah’s work was ending, he took off his outer garment and snapped it at the waters, which parted for him so he could cross the river, where chariots of fire swept him away into immortality. Elisha was there with him, and he took the mantle Elijah left behind to see if he could do the same. The river parted for him too (2 Kings 2). Transitioning from one life to the next at that same river.
My parents did all they could to raise me right. On occasion they’d mention relatives from Nazareth who figured into this story of what God was doing. They lived far enough away that we rarely saw into each other, and, of course, we were just children, so who would know what would become of both of us? When he was around twelve years old, he did come to Jerusalem with his family. Along with all of the other pilgrims they spent time near the Temple.
My cousin Jesus knew his Scriptures, which was a surprise to me. I mean, I grew up in a priestly family, so it’s easy to assume that I would know these stories. But Jesus’ father, Joseph, was in construction. It’s quite a skill to have, but I wouldn’t think there were so many Bible studies going on around the construction sites. Yet I saw the child Jesus standing in the Temple conversing with some of the sharpest religious minds. There was something about him that was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It would be a couple of decades before I’d see him again. I had other things to do.
My parents did all they could to raise me right, but they couldn’t control the fire in my bones. It’s really weird to be a child of promise. I mean, on the one hand, my parents did all they could to prepare me for life, but, on the other hand, I had this hole in my life that seemed to be growing by the day. I needed to get out and explore. Perhaps these stories about the Jordan and the wilderness could lead me to clarity. I had heard of a group of people called the Essenes living in the wilderness near the Dead Sea. They were serious about faith. They had given up everything to prepare the way for the Messiah. They saw society and even religion as corrupt, so they separated themselves from it all. After growing up in the shadows of the Temple and knowing so many priests, I was aware that things weren’t as they should be. I thought perhaps the Essenes were on to something, so I left home for Qumran. I lived their way for a few years. Intensive study of Scripture. Ritual cleanliness through baptism and washing. Giving up all pleasures. Total disengagement from the world around me. We were hoping for God’s promises to be fulfilled. For a while it worked for me. But from that community I kept seeing the Jordan River emptying into the Dead Sea. Those stories of the Jordan kept running through my mind, and I began to feel that I wasn’t in the right spot. Something within me knew that God’s promise had already arrived. So I left for the river.
For years I wandered in the wilderness experimenting with my purpose. I had no interest in pleasantries. I didn’t want to fit in. I didn’t require much to live. Over time I found myself talking to anyone who would listen about how God was doing something and about how the time is now to prepare your life for the coming of the Lord. It was by the Jordan River that Isaiah’s words came to life for me in a new way. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Those were words of rescue – of my people from Babylon who would have passed through this very area on their way home. But I also heard something of myself in these words. My parents had told me that I had a special calling in life – one of preparing the way – and here I could see it all. So I began speaking to anyone who would listen about what God was up to.
With urgency in my words, I told them all the time was now for getting your life in order. Don’t wait! Baptism was something I had been around my whole life. Growing up, it was a way of becoming ritually clean. But there by the Jordan I began to see baptism as something different. Yes, it was about being ready to meet God, but couldn’t it also be about moving from one life to another, from one land to another? Just like my ancestors moved from exile to home or from wandering in the wilderness to the Promised Land, couldn’t baptism also be about this kind of transformation?
Word spread about what I was doing. People came from all over to hear me. They came for baptism. They came because they had that same God-shaped hole in their hearts that I have. It’s hard to believe that a guy who dresses funny, who eats funny, who doesn’t fit any social expectation could draw such crowds, but that’s what happened. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. Crowds didn’t do it for me. The disciples who left everything to learn from me didn’t fill the hole in my life. Even the fights I’d pick with those awful Romans and their powerful friends didn’t satisfy me.
One day I was at the Jordan doing what I’ve been doing for years, when I felt something different in my heart. My cousin Jesus, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, came walking towards me. It was as if the heavens parted. All the light of heaven flooded my very being. When I met him there, that space in my heart that was never satisfied filled up. It became apparent in that moment that this is what I was born for, that this was the One I was preparing the way for. I was just going about my normal business, but God made sure I knew that there was nothing normal about this at all. That space inside me that knew there was something more filled right up.
My parents had told me I had an important job to do, but no matter what they did to prepare me, I wasn’t fully convinced, so I left home. My wandering into the wilderness to Qumran scratched that itch but it still wasn’t there. Even the years of success – of all the people seeking me out in the wilderness – didn’t quite make it all fit together. But when Jesus came to the river to be baptized it all fell into place. God’s voice from heaven affirming that Jesus is his beloved son. God’s promise had already arrived, and I was baptizing him, setting him off on a new course in life.
Now, I have to admit that after the baptism I have come back to earth a bit. People tell me about what Jesus teaches, and it challenges some of what I’ve been up to. I’ve devoted myself to God’s purposes in the world, giving up worldly pleasures, and I hear stories about how Jesus loves a good party and even knows how to make wine. I’ll admit that I’m a bit much to take. I’ve even said some things that made some powerful people pretty mad at me. My way of life and my prophetic posturing will lead to my untimely end, but I’m OK with it all. Why? Because I met the One who made it all made sense. I did what I was supposed to do. I prepared the way for him. I did this imperfectly, for sure, but I did it anyway. And it all came together in Jesus.
So, back to Advent now. My life was spent preparing the way for Jesus. I spent much of my life searching for what this meant but knowing that there was this space in me seeking to be filled. I tried lots of things to satisfy that hunger, but it was only in meeting Jesus that filled that space for me. In the centuries since my death, the church has made this season to make space in our lives to welcome Jesus. Like me, you’ll do it imperfectly. Like me, you’ll have your questions and your doubts. But I hope, like me, you’ll make that space so that Jesus can come in. He’s the one who brings it all together. He did it for me, and he can do it for you.