The image looks like something out of a graphic novel, and that’s not surprising because the artist Everett Patterson is a graphic novel illustrator. As you look at it, you can tell immediately that the setting is a gas station, likely on the bad side of town. It’s pouring rain; the angular young man in the ballcap and ill-fitting work shirt has shoved his backpack up against the wall to keep it dry while he makes phone calls. He has the air of somebody who’s been put on hold and left there for several minutes.
His girlfriend, we presume, is shivering in her high school sweatshirt, the hoodie pulled all the way up, and looking nervously out at the street. The window of the gas station behind them is full of ads for all the usual stuff: beer, cigarettes, candy bars; there’s a cheap motel across the parking lot, its sign missing several letters. The artist has described his illustration as representing “the many minor discomforts and petty indignities of urban America.”
With all that’s going on, the first time I saw this image it took me awhile to notice the sidewalk between the couple, where there’s something surprising happening. Just about halfway between him and her, coming up out of nowhere, is a bright green plant. Just a shoot, really, only a few inches high, but the rest of the scene is so industrially gritty that once you see this vividly green shoot, which almost seems to be glowing, you wonder what it’s doing there.
You might have noticed that the Gospel lessons from this week and last week look a lot alike. Last week’s passage was from the Gospel of Mark; today, we are in the Gospel of John, but both passages have John the Baptist famously declaring himself to be the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” and both conclude with him anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. I definitely had to do a double-take to make sure that I wasn’t looking at the wrong week. I’m not.
But last week, the Gospel of Mark passage allowed us to reflect on John the Baptist during our Pray-as-you-go group, the lectio divina style gathering that meets during coffee hour each Sunday. One of the themes that arose from our discussion was that the identity and the vocation of John the Baptist was entirely bound up in what he was not. He was not the Messiah; he was not the light; but it was precisely because he was neither the Messiah nor the light that he had something to say. He came to testify to the light that was coming into the world.
We also talked about how remarkable it was that John the Baptist had such clarity about his responsibility and about who he was that there was not a hint of rivalry or confusion of roles between him and Jesus, the Messiah. John the Baptist had the easiest organizational chart ever crafted: Jesus -- “Messiah”; He and Everyone Else -- “Not Jesus.”
Our special guest star today is John the Baptist. He has a two-week run every year in our Advent lectionary. He’ll be with us this week and next, preparing the way of the Lord and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Since Advent is all about preparation for Jesus, it’s no wonder John is such a regular feature of the season. Now John is a pretty intense character – living out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, denouncing King Herod to his face – he’s not, you know, somebody you can count on to be a charming guest at your holiday open house.
But intensity and idiosyncracies aside, John isn’t, as he’s sometimes caricatured, a man who’s all about condemnation. What he’s proclaiming today is, once again, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s not proclaiming that you’re a terrible person. He’s proclaiming the availability of forgiveness, and hinting that the One who will come after him – the One we know is Jesus Christ – he will have infinitely more to offer along those lines. I can wash you clean, John says, but when he gets here there’ll be a lot more than just forgiveness available.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
If you have looked through the December Messenger, maybe you know that I spoke about this prayer, the collect for today, in my letter to the parish this month. As we enter a new liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent, the church always gives us these same words. They were written by Thomas Cranmer, the 16th century English archbishop who put together much of the Prayer Book that we still use (in an updated form). Cranmer drew on all kinds of ancient sources, for the most part reframing Catholic materials and traditions, but bringing in some fresh reforming theology as well.
On your lectionary insert, which I’m going to ask you to take out right now, you’ll see up top this week (and every week) the very first section which says Collect. That’s the prayer for the day. Many, many weeks the collect is something Thomas Cranmer translated from older Latin Mass-books. But this day, the first Sunday of Advent, it isn’t. It’s something he composed completely fresh, because he thought Advent, and what it meant, was that important.