We spend a fair amount of time with John the Baptist during Advent. Two Sundays are devoted to his teaching, and I am heading, with John, into the third Sunday of Advent. In liturgical circles, this is called "Gaudete" Sunday, devoted to Joy rather than repentance. The first reading, from Zephaniah, begins "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion!" and we hear, briefly from the apostle Paul, "Rejoice in the Lord, always." John the Baptist, however, appears not to have received the memo. Luke 3, verse 7 begins on this cheery note: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
All righty then.
This reading reminds me of the story I heard a long time ago, about a woman who got up to read the lessons at her church. A good reader, apparently, she hadn't checked the pericopes ahead of time, and was startled to read, from Ephesians 5, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord." She closed by looking up from the page and saying, "This is the word of the Lord?"
Don't get me wrong. John the Baptist is a necessary corrective to the often advent-less Christmas celebration in our culture, the sentimental good news that is shallow often because it doesn't admit that there is any bad news out there. What difference does it make that the light is coming into the world if it's pretty light out already?
Still, we have a hard time, sometimes, hearing John the Baptist, and I, for one, wince at being called a "brood of vipers." Sometimes I think we would fare better in Advent by paying some attention to two elderly forebears: Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke himself prepares us for the birth of Jesus by telling their story. Their faith, their hope, their doubts, their failings, and especially their expectant waiting: all of these preface the story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Luke 2. Not only that, Elizabeth and Zechariah's story is a sort of a womb that carries within it the story of the Angel's announcement to Mary and her song.
Maybe it is because I serve a congregation with more than its fair share of elderly people, maybe it's because I understand just a little of what it means to be barren, maybe it's because I can feel the interplay of patient hoping and waiting with painful stabs of doubt: but I think that the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah has much to say to the church and the world today, at least as much as John's warning.
Zechariah has prayed for a child, and for a Messiah, for many years. His prayers have seemed to go unheard, and at least, unanswered. And then, after all seemed lost, he receives the too-good-to-be true message from the Angel that his wife is going to have a baby. And it's hard to blame him for asking, "How will I know?", even though this question is considered by many to be a lack of faith. He is unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth's pregnancy. But when his son is born, he writes down, "His name is John," and then becomes able to speak, and even to prophecy about the new thing that God is doing.
I can relate to this elderly, barren couple, hanging on to faith, but harboring doubts. They want God to do a new thing in their lives, and in their community, but they are past expecting, past hoping. They don't want to say it, probably, but they have given up. And after they are past hoping, past expecting, then God tells them they will be parents. Probably they are wondering if they have the energy for this, at the same time that they are rejoicing.
If we can't take John's judgment, at least, during Advent, we can take Elizabeth and Zechariah's barrenness, and understand the complicated and wonderful promise that God is giving to them, and to us. Into a world where we have given up, God comes and plants new life. Into a world barren of hope, God sends the gift of expectancy. It is enough, for right now, anyway.
Now that I think of it, that's as common thread in John the Baptist's message as well. Read between his harsh lines of judgment, and you can almost see the people leaning forward, "Is this the one? I mean, even tax collectors are coming to be baptized! It could be...."
Advent bookends: from being barren to expecting.