It all begins in a desert. It has to, really—out somewhere quiet, out away from the world; the world talks too much. In fact, it shouts too much, and always pretty much all the same thing. That might sound strange to you, but when you get right down to it, it’s true; everything the world shouts boils down to this: you have to do this, and do things this way, and you can’t do that, or do things that way. It’s all part of our frantic effort to pretend we’re in control, that if we just try hard enough and do it right, we can make our lives be what we want them to be. The problem is, nobody agrees on whatwe have to do and not do; and so people shout, hoping to drown out all those other voices, or at least make them give up and go away.
And out in the desert, out in the wind and the howl of the coyote, is another voice, with another message altogether. Out away from the world and the riot of all its news, down by the one river running through a land dry as bone, stands a man offering something different: good news. Out where the sun and the heat stab like knives, where the harshness of the land sandblasts our defenses and lays our weakness bare, suddenly there is a word of hope. We’ve made a mess of things; but God is coming to make things right.
God is coming! That’s the good news John is preaching; though if you’re not sure that’s exactly comfortable news, you’re not alone. Certainly a lot of people back in the city didn’t think so—especially the professional religious folk who thought they had everything under control and God all figured out; that’s why they came down to the river, not to follow John, but to spy on him. They wanted to convince themselves that John was a fake so they could go back to their nice comfortable existence in the city where they were the experts who had all the answers and had their lives all together. God already had them to do his work for him—what did he need with some anti-social loudmouth out in the desert eating bugs? And in the backs of their minds—not that they would have admitted this to themselves—had to be the thought: if God really was coming, what could he do but upset their applecart?
But if you understand that your cart’s missing a wheel, it’s already fallen over and the apples are bouncing down the street, and you don’t even know for sure where some of them got off to—well, then you get it: this really is good news. If you recognize that you don’t actually have it all together, that in fact you don’t have all the answers, and that nobody really does—if you see that all our efforts at control amount to little more than a house of cards, which stands only until the first hot wind blows in from the desert—then you can hear John’s message as a word of hope. It’s only when you recognize that you aren’t going to fix your life yourself—and none of us do, and none of us can—that the announcement that God is coming is reason to rejoice; because then we know that everything needs to be made right, and we need someone bigger than ourselves to do it.
We don’t have to act like we’ve got it all figured out and we’re doing everything just right; and in truth, we aren’t doing ourselves or anyone else any favors if we try to. Our message isn’t that if you just try hard enough and do things our way, you can work your way up to God; it’s that God came down to us, because he loves us. It’s not about us being good enough, or having to be good enough—it’s about Jesus being good enough for us, when we never could. This is the good news; and if we really understand this, we don’t need to pretend. We can be a place where it’s safe to be honest about our sin and our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our struggles, both with each other and with God—where confession and repentance are met not with proud condemnation, but with humble grace. That’s a gift. Let’s pray.