I see a man by the banks of the Jordan River. He is climbing down a tree at the riverside, licking the wild honey from his fingers. There is still some in his tangled hair. He looks a little crazy - in a really good way. His eyes are bright and tender, and very intense as he smiles, then shouts in enthusiasm over the river, arms wide, “'Prepare the way for the LORD, make straight paths for our most holy God.'" His wide arms turn into a gesture of invitation to come and be anointed in the river. This morning I hope we can reflect together on the two sides to John’s ministry: the truth-telling of this shouts and the shimmers of his truth-living. Shouts and shimmers. “You think you’ve got the answers?” shouts John, “No, the attachments to your fears in this world will not save the soul. Prepare your soul for God to enter.” He then creates a posture towards this preparation through the spiritual experience of baptism - he shimmers in the water, in relationship with those who step out with him into the depths. In his shouts and shimmers, John prepares us to learn both truth-telling and truth-living to an even greater extent through Jesus; John’s shouts and shimmers en-courage, inspire a bravery, that leads to peace.
Truth-telling is a difficult task, especially in our current political climate, no? It is always a difficult task. This book we call good tells us it has always been a difficult task. John will go on later to be arrested and killed for it. It seems strange sometimes that saying God should be our priority is so threatening, that speaking to the truth of how everyone is loved and saved by God, and that everyone is deserving of God’s love, is so threatening. And yet it is. Here is something that may help us to understand this side of ourselves: consider, all of us, everyone in the world, has an ego that is driven by their deepest fear. I heard on a podcast recently that more than 50% of the world’s population share the same deepest fear - losing security or certainty.
The God who comes in and saves the day that we hear in a portion of our Isaiah reading today, the God who comes with power and a mighty arm, this part of God is very comforting to more than 50% of us, because it comforts that deepest fear. But shouts are not comforting - the shouts of John intend to show us the instability of our stabilities. He says, that which we rely on in this world does not honor God, that which makes us feel secure usually takes advantage of someone who is vulnerable. This shirt I’m wearing that keeps me warm right now, was created by children overseas or inmates in prisons for mere cents in slave-like conditions. It’s not a comforting, peaceful thought, and shouting a la John the Baptizer is not a safe exercise. Shouts remind us that peace is not absence of conflict but presence of justice, that war may not be in the picture, but peace requires the paths to be made straight, for the hills to be made low, and the valleys lifted up.
This isn’t all that John does, though. There is comfort. There is comfort in the God who is tender that we also hear in Isaiah, the one who “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” John does not merely shout, but also shimmers. Now where did I get this “shimmer” language? Last week I read an article entitled, “An Inventory of Shimmers” by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J Seigworth. In it they talk about the, what they call “force-relations” in the world, and how particular practices can give us a taste of God’s transformed world that both exists within and exceeds the boundaries of our current world. Those practices facilitate “nuanced states of changing,” or “an inventory of shimmers.” These shimmers of “perpetually finer-grained postures for collective inhabitation” effect that place where change occurs beneath the surface of our mind’s awareness. Because they instill possibility, they are at once all powerful and powerless, these shimmers. To me, all that sounds like trying to imbibe what happens in that grace space where the holy spirit is working. It sounds like sacramental work to me, like communion or baptism. We may not know the depths of the Jordan River in which we’re steeped, but we can see the shape of the water by the way the light shimmers on it’s crests, how it changes and is affected by the body's moving into and stirring up the water in baptism.
I saw The Shape of Water this Friday with George in DC. (The 1960 film The Story of Ruth makes an appearance.) You know me and my indie flicks. How many of us have seen the old monster movies? Director Guillermo del Torro, describes his vision in this film as showing the movie, rather than from the point of view of the scientists or the military, from the point of view of the monster. And not just the monster. The heroine of the movie is a mute woman who works as a cleaning lady at the scientific facility where the monster resides, and they fall in love. It’s just a little bit crazy, in such a good way, like John. Also like John, there is a plethora of shouting and shimmering. There were so many shimmering, ritualistic moments: the many times she gives him an egg and eats with the monster, listening to music, receiving help from her friend and fellow member of the cleaning staff, encouraging the artistry of her neighbor. And how she shouts - shouts by telling her friend that he must help her save the creature, by telling the movie’s villain nothing when he threatens her. Yes, the mute woman shouts loud and clear.
It is not unlike the shouts of Christ that call us to love the vulnerable in ourselves and in the world, Jesus’ shout to come and help in actuality, to provide real physical help, and telling-truth about God’s desire for us all to love one another as we are so loved. It is not unlike Jesus and his shimmering, his wandering and just hanging out, building relationships, telling stories, teaching others to pray, and baptizing us eternally, not with water, but with the holy spirit. These acts of bravery, one more brazen and the other more tender, both require us to be vulnerable and with the vulnerable. Shouting and shimmering prepare us to be as vulnerable as one who is a poor, homeless, newborn babe newly come into the world.
My invitation to you today is to think back to a time that you were brave -
Were you shouting a cry in the wilderness? Were you shimmering as a driving force, recreating your posturing to the world around you?
Now think back to those moments after - hold onto the peace after that moment of courage. Let us give ourselves the space this week to use these memories, to en-courage ourselves to shimmer and to shout. Let us prepare our hearts for the babe in Bethlehem who will topple the shams of our securities and build us up in tenderness, who invites us to make peace in this world.