1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
This year during Advent the Gospel of Matthew invites us to sit in, what we are calling, The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Prison and Public Disgrace. These strange and frightening waiting rooms mirror the all too familiar experience of vulnerable urban communities throughout our network, and are timely reminders of the challenges facing contemporary society. Each waiting room yields its own gift. This week we see how the wilderness yields the garden of grace growing in our midst.
The prophet cries out from the wilderness, “Every valley will be filled and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Is. 40:3-5). It’s an outlandish claim that borders on delusion given the difficult conditions that people were enduring at the time.
Like all the prophets, John the Baptist recognizes the massive upheaval that God’s Word induces and calls forth from humanity. It is not always obvious in the moment, but when viewed from the long arc of history, we see God’s Word at work in the world doing “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:21). And this abundance is happening now!
Advent hope is unflinching. It names the cruelty and injustice we inflict upon each other without hesitation. It also names a deeper truth. There is a great leveling taking place. Valleys of injustice are being filled. Mountains of cruelty are being brought low. Crooked deals are being set straight. Rough paths of poverty and oppression are being smoothed out.
But let’s be honest, there is still cruelty and injustice on a massive scale and many millions are suffering torment that is impossible to express or tolerate, much of it fueled by religion at its worst. We can and must see this. We can and must work for justice regardless of the cost. But as the poet Jack Gilbert says, “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” We multiply the cruelty exponentially and give twisted praise to evil itself, if we deny the spiritual evolution that is taking place in our midst-one that I believe is made possible by the Incarnation.
As the prophet suggests, in order to see this we must repent. The word “repent” in this week’s text invokes images of moral cleansing, but the word actually means to change one’s mind, or to change the way we see. In other words, if we are to celebrate the upheaval happening in our midst we will need to “repent” and change the way we see-to see as Jesus sees.
The process by which all this is accomplished is easily missed because the massive transformations that are happening in our midst are occurring in the most understated and counterintuitive ways. Transformation is achieved not through might, but largely through weakness. The power of a vulnerable life is its openness to the inevitable risks that life carries. To walk in this kind of vulnerability requires a primal trust. New life is sowed in vulnerability, brought forth in vulnerability, and sustained in vulnerability. How else are we to understand the Word made flesh? What is sown in vulnerability is harvested in the power of the Gospel itsel-the power that is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
The garden of grace is growing in our midst. Can you see it?
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