In many ways, the two readings for this second Sunday of Advent seem to be in conflict with each other. The text from the prophet Isaiah speaks of gentleness and tenderness. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Here the prophet’s task is to offer words of comfort and solace to a people in deep pain, a people long traumatized by exile and alienation from the homeland. Longing for a gentle word to heal an ancient wound.
But in the New Testament reading we meet up with John the baptizer, a man for whom the words gentle and comforter do not exactly apply.
If John the Baptist were a tree, I’m pretty sure he’d be a honey locust. Although it’s a strange coincidence, this has nothing to do with the fact that John ate honey and locusts in his wilderness habitat. The honey locust tree is a force of nature not much related to honey or locusts, as far as I know.
Before I knew they were called honey locust trees, I knew them as thorn trees. This is an appropriate name since the prominent feature of these trees is that they are absolutely covered with thorns. The trunk is covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns. Even the thorns are covered with thorns. This is a tree that you can know by site even if you don’t know by name, and there’s no other kind that grows in our part of the world quite this thorny. This is not the kind of tree you want growing in your backyard. Not the kind of tree for kids to be building tree houses in. It’s not a tree farmers are all that fond of either. If you walk around a honey locust tree you’ve got to watch your step. I have a distinct memory from my childhood of walking through the pasture with boots on and stepping on a thorn from a fallen branch that went through the bottom of my boot up into the middle of my foot. I remember it being a not-so-pleasant kind of feeling. If you’re driving a tractor around a honey locust tree it better be a cab tractor, or a low hanging branch could take out an eye, or tear a shirt. Even if you have a cab protecting you, a long hard thorn could end up in a tractor tire. This is not a particularly friendly tree. Beware the honey locust.
Mark begins his gospel sensibly enough, with a statement about the beginning of the gospel. He writes, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’’” These words in Isaiah appear alongside the call to “Comfort, o comfort my people, says you God.” Then In Mark we get this, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and honey.”
For Mark, the beginning of the good news looks like an eccentric man, with questionable hygienic practices, living on the edge of society, calling on people to do a complete about face in the way they are going about their lives. Do you find this comforting? If this is the beginning of the good news, one shudders to think what the beginning of the bad news might look like.
From the other gospels we are told more details about this John character. To say that he had a bit of an abrasive personality would be kind. In Matthew and Luke his first words to the Pharisees involve calling them a “brood of vipers.” John seems upset these Pharisees have even made the effort to come all the way out into the wilderness to hear him preach. He tells them they get no free pass just because they are children of Abraham, have the right progeny or family line. They must bear good fruit, or risk getting thrown in the fire as worthless brush. John isn’t all that much softer on the common people. They ask him what they must do to repent, and he tells them, “whoever has two coats must give to the one who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” This is entirely too clear and practical and difficult to be comforting in any way. John the baptizer even rubs the political leaders the wrong way, and soon he is placed in prison by Herod.
There are a number of puns that would be all too easy to make the connection between John and the honey locust tree. There are plenty of signs he has a thorny personality, and that he was a thorn in the side of just about anyone who came near him. But there are other connections that are much more interesting and illustrative of just what the Spirit of God was accomplishing through the message of John.
Walk a little ways into any healthy, mature forest and you will not find a single honey locust tree. Keep walking down the trail and you still won’t find any. The further you get into the forest, the more assured you can be that there will not be a honey locust tree around you. To find a honey locust tree, you have to go to the edges of the forest, or in a fence row, or in an open field. The tree only grows where the forest has been disturbed, where there is a major gouge in the natural canopy, where the forest has been cleared away for farmland. Honey locust is known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, even injured land.
The honey locust grows fast. If a farmer around here doesn’t mow a field for a year, there’s a decent chance there will be a number of honey locusts already waist high or taller, beginning to reestablish the native forest. Wait another few years, and you’ll have to take a chain saw with you before you run the mower over the area. The tree can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil, and is heat and drought tolerant.
Honey locust is a repairer and a preparer. With soil susceptible to erosion, it sends down its roots to better hold it all together. It is in the legume family, and, although there is some debate about how much it does this, like other legumes, it helps put nitrogen back in the soil, something few other trees do. Legumes enter into a communal dance with soil microbes to pull nitrogen out of the air and fix it into the soil, making it available for other plants to use. It replenishes what has been depleted. The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree telling us, “Hey, stay away for a while, would you? I’ve got some work to do here.”
As the tree grows it enables slower growing, more shade tolerant trees, more “pleasant” trees, to grow around it – the oaks and hickories, the beech and maple. And once those trees get established, the honey locust has done its job. It can’t survive in the shade itself, so won’t grow in the midst of these other trees, can’t be found in the middle of a healthy, mature forest. The honey locust tree grows fast and tall, and dies away as the forest comes back to an area.
“Prepare the way for Lord.” Eventually John the Baptist says, “I must decrease, so that he may increase.”
Abbie and I recently watched the movie The Tree of Life – which, as far as I could tell, was not aimed at a particular species of tree. It’s a pretty ambitious film, placing the story of a struggling 1950’s suburban American family in the broad context of the history of the universe, past and future. Early in the film the mother and father receive the devastating news that their 19 year old son has died. Not too long after this there are scenes of cosmic explosions in deep space, water and wind spraying and whipping on the primordial planet earth, the formation of microbes and early life forms, and scenes of dinosaurs roaming around a river basin. We then see scenes of the young family, through the memory of the older brother, playing, fighting, rebelling, growing up. Very early the mother’s voice says that she is aware that there are two paths in this life. The path of nature, and the path of grace. I don’t remember the exact words, so I’m paraphrasing here and probably embellishing a bit, but this is about how I remember it. Nature, she says, is unyielding, blind to the pain of others, undiscriminating. All things die, and cycle, endlessly. Grace is forgiving, overcomes wrongs with mercy, offers love even when it is not given in return. It travels, somehow, outside of that endless cycle. There are two paths- nature, and grace. With the loss of her son, she has confronted the power of nature. She says she wants her life to follow the path of grace, but in her family the forces of nature and the forces of grace are both seeking to claim the same territory.
I’m not sure what to think of this split between nature and grace, especially in light of a tree like the honey locust that might appear to represent only the qualities of nature, but also has grace built into it, even if most of it happens underground. But I like thinking of Advent, and today’s scriptures in particular, as being a territory where these forces of nature and grace are working themselves out.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says the Lord.” The deep pain of our species endures, cycles, through the centuries. The trauma of exile and alienation from home persists in our psyche. The ancient wound awaits a healing presence, to guide us into the way of peace, to extend grace to our parts too long disturbed and disrupted from reaching mature growth. To baptize us with Holy Spirit.
If John the baptizer, in all his thorniness, was trying to tell people to stay away while he did his work, it clearly didn’t work. People flocked out to him.
Mark reports that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” In their pilgrimage to see and hear this baptizer, there was no doubt a sense, a persistent hope, that he represented more than just sharp words and challenging speech. There was, perhaps, a Spirit inspired intuition that this path of repentance and forgiveness was the beginning of their healing. A path of grace. The beginning of mending what had been broken, re-enlivening within them the ability to thrive.
People from the country side and Jerusalem go out into the wilderness to seek God’s transforming power. The country side and Jerusalem are both places of human cultivation – the country and the city. Each place, in its own way, shaped by the will and desire of its inhabitants. The countryside farmers would plow the land, plant seeds of choice to grow grains and crops for food. Care for animals that had been domesticated for human use. The city dwellers shaped their buildings and their streetscapes for function and beauty, a cosmopolitan mix of language and culture. Both are arenas where humans have gained some power over nature. But in their pilgrimage, both groups head out to the wilderness, on the edge, even beyond the edge, of their carefully cultivated worlds. This is a place of wildness, a place untamed by the human imagination. A place that could kill you if you weren’t careful. Nature in its fierce, naked glory. It’s not a safe place.
For the people to open themselves up to transformation, it took this literal change of geography. Now they stood, timid, in a place over which they had no power. What happens in a place you don’t fully understand? What happens when you submit yourself to the powers of a place you had no hand in planning, producing, or maintaining? What happens when you heed the words of a prophet whose untamed words are sharp enough to make you bleed?
Those who heeded the words placed themselves under the hand of the baptizer, as he lowered them down into the waters. Nature and wildness in one of its most primordial forms. Held underneath the water, there are two paths. Either you stay under and you die, or you are lifted up and are given your life back again. Each pilgrim held their breath, took the plunge, and, through no power of their own, found themselves lifted up, baby wet, onto the Jordan banks. Free, forgiven, grace filled.
This was the beginning of the good news. But it wasn’t the end. John told the people, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with Holy Spirit.”