The Adventurous Lectionary: The Second Sunday of Advent — John, Jesus, and Spiritual Friendship

Lectionary Reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2013

Isaiah 10:1-11; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

John is a major figure in our Advent Adventures. Still, little is known about the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. According to tradition, when Mary the mother of Jesus meets her close relative Elizabeth, John leaps in utero in acknowledgment of the uniqueness of Mary’s son. Beyond that, the early life of John, later John the Baptist, like Jesus’ early life, is shrouded in mystery until adulthood.

As an adult, John comes on the scene as a wild man, proclaiming hard words of transformation and redemption. He comes as a purveyor of bad news first: he doesn’t mince words to the folk who come out to hear him preach, some knowing they need transformation, others for the sheer spectacle of it all. “You brood of vipers,” he shouts, insulting the erudite and affluent. A voice crying in the wilderness, John is a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Transformation requires pruning, and destruction of old ways of life. Our souls need purification: we must put off injustice and idolatry and spiritual smugness to experience God’s realm in the now. Those who sought new life received baptism as a sign of purification and commitment. But, the cleansing waters of baptism must be preceded by a change of heart and lifestyle.

“Align yourself with God’s coming realm,” such was the message of John. God will come, the gospel narratives state, manifest in the message, hospitality, and healing practices of Jesus of Nazareth. John anticipates Jesus not as an abstract figure but as a spiritual companion, first of John himself, and then all of us. The Celts use the term anamcara to describe a deep spiritual relationship of common values and commitments. Our anamcara mirrors our deepest self and enables us to embody the glory of God as persons “fully alive.” In relationship to our soul companion, or anamcara, we experience the better angels of ourselves and others.

Imagine the relationship of John and Jesus for a moment. I believe they were the best of friends who grew into spiritual intimates. The narrative evidence suggests that Mary and Elizabeth were also intimates.  Elizabeth was the first relative to hear of Mary’s unusual pregnancy. Perhaps, Mary knew of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s own mystical experiences surrounding John’s birth. I suspect these two women were close enough that Mary expected celebration and affirmation rather than judgment when she shared the news of her pregnancy. I am, as you can see, not worried about the historicity of these stories; there are facts, objectively noted, but beyond facts there are stories that tell us the deeper meaning of life, and invite us to journey beyond the ordinary and controllable world to God’s unexpected and surprising realm of spiritual transformation.

I can imagine John and Jesus growing up together, playing games with one another, going to religious school together, perhaps speculating on the young women in the community, and dreaming of their future vocations. Both boys were set apart by birth and I suspect spiritual experience. They might have been sensitive to the seldom-noticed spiritual currents of life. They might even have journeyed together to study among the Essenes, going deeper than other young persons in search of direct experiences of God.

Perhaps, it is no surprise for John when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized. John protests a bit: after all, they are friends and colleagues, and John knows the depth of Jesus relationship with God.  The child who leaped in the womb followed the unfolding of Jesus’ intimate experiences of God, and we suspect John recognized Jesus’ unique connection with the one they called Father. Jesus’ full humanity – the glory of God, indeed the Incarnation, is a person fully alive – resonated with divine energy, power, and wisdom.  John may have recognized that what he spoke about in his sermons Jesus’ fully experienced.  John preached of God’s coming and Jesus felt that coming realm in his very marrow; he was the embodiment of the good news that emerges when the flames of prophetic practices refine our spirits.

John dreamed of the peaceable realm and so do we. He never lived to see its full embodiment, but he planted seeds that enabled Jesus to move forward as its messenger and embodiment. John is Advent personified: he embodies the fierce urgency of the now, but not yet. He is impatient with our foolishness and sin, and wants us to be better. As Advent messenger, he knows that salvation occurs through the transformation of one person at a time. This very moment is the right time for us to let go of the past, turn away from our half-heartedness and complicity with injustice, and find a new pathway to God’s peaceable kingdom, one step and one breath at a time.

The uniqueness of John’s message is a good theme for this Sunday’s sermon. His radical vision, preparing the way for Jesus, challenges us to prepare the way for Jesus’ mission in our time. Our preparation is a matter of deeds as well as words. Walking in the way of Jesus involves a commitment to constant transformation and renewal, to changing our ways in response to God’s wondrous gifts of grace. Like John, we are challenged to announce the coming of a world not yet born, critique our own and our community’s hypocrisy, and recognize that Christ’s presence demands a radical reorientation of values so that we might recognize the realm of God already emerging in our midst.

About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.