MATTHEW 3: 1-12
(The 2nd Sunday of Advent)

Wilderness is gripping symbol. John the Big Dipper, then Jesus in his turn are gripped by it, their life & ministry coloured by it. As was the nation's in its wandering phase. Wilderness calls us out into margins beyond normal routines. More than just driving into the bush in our 4X4's in search of our own Promised Land. Journeying in faith includes keeping our horizons & margins expanding. Maybe sorting out one's life out there in the margins is what Promise is all about?

Journeying in outer wilderness can lead to inward journeying, but it's not automatic. Deeper, inner steps need to be taken before we can hope to find a uniquely Australian Spiritual Way. (If you live elsewhere, substitute your own land's spiritual pull on you.) Outward, geographical trips can turn out to be only temporary breaks from fast living, scoutings in search of more picturesque barbie sites than our own back yards. In which case that's exactly where we may end up - back in our own back yard! Spiritual nowhere. True wilderness is a matter of inner geography. Where we dare meet and confront our own real self along the pilgrim way. Grow into a mature child of God. Can you imagine either John or Jesus holding a slide or video night of their 'out there' experiences? It's not that kind of thing. How do we share our inner-space experiences? Have we even had such an experience - yet? How do we identify fellow pilgrims with whom we can share our journeying? Can others sense in us someone they can share theirs with?

True wilderness always calls us outside the establishments, the centres of power, as it calls John, then Jesus outside them. It calls into question today's powers as it did those of old. John Dominic Crossan [Jesus : A Revolutionary Biography, Harper Collins 1994, p.43] suggests John calls people across the Jordan, outside the Promised Land, so that when they turn back to God and are baptised, they have to cross back over again to go back home as those who would conquer it anew for God. By changed lives this time, rather than cunning or force of arms. Could we benefit from making some kind of re-entrance, a humbler one this time, into this Great South Land (or wherever you live.) Taking the spiritual insights of earlier settlers more seriously this time. As fellow pilgrims with riches of their own to share. This is a dimension we need to explore before we can approach issues like reconciliation in a meaningful way. Talk about 'wilderness experiences' is cheap, but it's changes in the landscape, the wilderness inside, that lead us to baptism, or maybe more likely, grow into and express a baptism of long ago. Let it really happen to us.

If, like Jesus, we go to the heart of the Dipper's message, we're challenged to a radical change in the way we see the margins we operate in. For Jesus it's the beginning of taking up his cross. But change like this threatens the ruling control systems. True prophets can't and don't operate within control systems, including, & especially the Church. In the end, reluctantly but I guess, inevitably, they call those who respond to their message to join them 'in the system, but not of it'. Is this not Jesus' attitude to the church of his day? Sometimes it means going, or being pushed, right outside.  That's not easy for those of us who stay to accept if we feel their going as a rejection of us & traditions we stand for. That's a challenging pastoral issue in itself. But still, beware of pseudo-prophets comfortable inside comfortable churches!

Isaiah builds on the God-given wisdom of those before him. John builds on Isaiah's. Jesus goes on to build on both, & go far beyond them. It's important to recognize connections & build on them. Build on God-incidents, leaving co-incidences for others to believe in.

John re-models Elijah of old. Jesus re-models them all, & transcends them in the process as a New and Greater. That people go out to him in such numbers contrasts with the mass exodus from most of today's churches. Where are today's disillusioned to turn? Note that only LK reports John B's stress on the inevitable social & political outcomes of true religion [3: 10-14]. It will cost us, too, if we challenge the system. Look at what happens to those who challenge, for instance, the ugly face of the globalisation idol with all its feeding on God's little ones.

Broadly, the Pharisees are the pious & orthodox, largely of the pews; & the Sadducees, wheeler dealers who run with the  Church establishment. John lashes both. We're not made right with God by slavish obervance of minutiae, or manipulative piety. Both destroy us and, if it were possible, the Real God.

Being over-conscious of our family tree can be more hindrance than help to our entering into the fulness of God's Rule. Trade only on the fact that we're a son or daughter of God. I was fortunate to holiday in Venice a couple of years back. I remember the local green-grocer (on a barge) waged a war of eternal vigilance against tourists who wanted to squeeze his fruit! It struck me that we're a bit like that - spread out before God like fruit in a fruit shop. But God knows what we're like at heart without needing to squeeze us [cf.7:17-20]. (Though he often gives us big hugs!)

Before we take the axe and fire and apply them to the riff raff (or leave them to extremists to rant at) consider whether Jesus hasn't taken us way past the kind of God JB's imagery implies. Most of us probably don't sing 'Gentle Jesus meek & mild' anymore, though we may still promulgate Jesus as Mr Nice Guy; but 'Redneck Jesus, victims piled, slash & burn each wicked child' would be a bit over the top, wouldn't it? Just joking! On second thoughts, would anyone notice if we slipped it in?

Baptism as John B sees it is for repentance. To mark a change of heart. If we want a rationale for infant baptism, we must look in some other direction. (Note again that only LK [3:10+] spells out what we're to turn to when we turn from being snakes, etc.) Turning from something without as a consequence turning to something is an invitation to a vacuum to possess us. Which Jesus himself warns us against, strongly. [MT 12:43-45]) Encourage people to turn from something, and to something. No! To Somebody!

Knowing he's unfit to serve Jesus qualifies JB to preach with an authenticity that comes only from true humility. I've heard a lot of windbags claim to be under the influence of the name & fire of Holy Spirit, but their lack of humility shows them up as shonky. As Spirit and Fire are One, so are  humility & genuine discipleship. Chaff pretending to be wheat is shown up for what it is when Jesus can't make Bread of Life from it. Try as we might to pitchfork people into (or out of) God's Rule,  it's the Breath of God's Spirit, fiery with love that sorts out the lightweights.

P.S. A while back we had a travelling exhibition of casts of Rodin scultures, including a large head of JB. I was drawn back to it several times. Far from capturing some wild preacher, Rodin brought out in his bronze, & probed, a disappointment, a pathos, an agonizing, a despair that biblical word pictures of JB had never drawn from me before.