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This week, the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary announced that their word of the year for 2022 is “metaverse.” If you are not familiar with that word, it describes a virtual world where people can live, work, shop, eat and make friends. A few weeks ago, the writers of the Collins Dictionary also announced their word of the year “permacrisis.” That probably needs no explanation, but just in case, a permacrisis is an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events.
For me these two words sum up the current state of our world right now. We are deep in the wilderness of a permacrisis and the pathway out is not entirely straight or clear. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that some are happy to escape into the metaverse in which we never have to leave the comfort and security of our homes or offices to interact with other human beings in the outside world.
What could John the Baptist, who we meet in our scripture reading, today possibly have to say to us about how we might create a pathway out of this permacrisis into a more stable state of peace and harmony?
John the Baptist, who is commonly known as Jesus’ cousin, has often received a bit of a bad rap among church goers over the years. With his camel hair coat and unusual diet of honey and locusts, the fire and brimstone preaching that spews from his mouth tends to turn us off. No one wants to come to church on Sunday morning and sit through a bunch of harsh judgements delivered from the pulpit, especially not at the most wonderful time of the year. But the church, in its wisdom, gives us John at this time of year to help us to prepare a way for Christ’s coming once again. So if we are serious about our spiritual preparations for Christmas, we might want to take John the Baptist a bit more seriously.
I myself have found it helpful over the years to unpack some of the symbolism found in the biblical descriptions of cousin John and to notice in the four gospels that describe him, the emphasis each one places on their particular version of his story. For example, in Matthew’s version that we heard read today, it’s the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious elite, who get called a brood of vipers and who seem to really incite John’s wrath. In Luke’s version we are all a brood of vipers. That’s a cue that there’s something going on in this version of the story that has to do with singling out the power structures of the day. There was John baptizing anyone and everyone who confessed their sins, out in the wilderness. He’s far away from the center of the city where baptism was usually reserved for the temple and the sacrificial system controlled by the high priests and the elites of the day. Surely, the Sadducees and Pharisees would have been threatened by John’s “baptism from heaven.” If you didn’t need to have special status to baptize people, then what other power structures could soon start to tumble?
And then there’s the symbolism of John’s strange attire and dietary habits. His food is the food the poor, locusts with whatever honey could be found. His clothing is the clothing of the poor, the common camel’s hair smock of the Bedouins. John is clearly standing on the side of the oppressed.
Even the wilderness is symbolic in this passage. For the earliest readers of Matthew’s gospel, the fact that John baptizes in the wilderness would have evoked a memory of other wilderness experiences the people of God have had.
Here is a man, standing with those on the margins, reminding us that the wilderness times of our lives are always times of both judgement and hope, reminding us that the way forward through the wilderness almost always comes with a dismantling of our lives as they have been and especially the dismantling of power structures that elevate some at the exclusion of others.
But we should be cautious if we think that the judgement we heard from the mouth of John the Baptist this morning is reserved for just a few “the religious and political elites.” The larger context of Matthew’s gospel says it’s all of us who need to examine our lives if we are looking for a way out of the wilderness in which we find ourselves. It’s all of us who need to realign our lives with Christ’s life in order to find a way to peace and harmony. That’s what repentance is all about. It’s about realigning our lives. More often than not the wilderness is not some place way out there, it’s something deep inside of here.
This Advent we are drawing on the wisdom of Richard Rohr to guide us on our journey back to the manger. One of Rohr’s central teachings is that God, the Divine, was not made incarnate in just one person named Jesus. Instead, one person named Jesus reveals to us the way that God is incarnate in all of us. He is like a mirror for all of us. In him, we see ourselves. We are all sacred people.
If our world is in a wilderness crying out for peace and harmony, the pathway out of the wilderness is only going to come through our capacity to see the sacred reflected in all of humanity. The challenge is that often we have a hard time seeing the sacred within ourselves. And if we can’t see it within ourselves it’s hard for us to see it in others.
One of the reflections in our Advent readings this week talks about how we live in a world that divides what’s in and what’s out. It’s what was happening with the Sadduccees and Pharisees from this morning’s reading. In the ancient world they had a hold on who was in and who was out. The problem with this is that because our world tends to make these divisions, we soon start making them about ourselves. We decide for ourselves which parts of ourselves are good and worthy of expression and which parts are bad or shameful. We become our own harshest critics and judges. It’s why we don’t like John the Baptist because who needs a judgy guy like him around when we are already doing a pretty good job of judging ourselves?
And when we live with those kinds of judgements about the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, it’s not long before we find ourselves being outwardly critical of those aspects in other people. If we can’t befriend or address what Carl Jung called our own shadows, we project them onto others and the more we do that, the more we end up with a divided and hostile world.
What if, as part of our Advent practice we intentionally tried to accept and love those parts of ourselves that are hard to love, drawing closer to a place of peace with ourselves. Or, what if our Advent practice included trying to accept and love those parts of others that make us angry or irritated? Start small, begin with one thing you don’t like about yourself or one thing you don’t like about one other person. What if you were to imagine the light of Christ shining onto that one aspect of yourself or that one aspect of another person, every day for the rest of the season? I wonder if you might begin to feel something shift.
According to Richard Rohr, how we love one thing is how we love everything.
Our world is crying out peace, crying out for harmony. Being able to see the love of Christ, sacred beauty reflected in ourselves when we look in the mirror and in the presence of each other when we encounter one another as we go about our daily lives, is possibly the only way a pathway through the wilderness of our permacrisis will take shape.