He was an old man driving a cart. He wore a grey cloak, and he made the people around him look small. No one knew where he came from, and no one respectable thought he was important: he was dangerous to good order, and should not be taken seriously. He was weird; and he carried a cart full of weird stuff. The only thing about him that was appealing was that he told stories, although they were outrageous stories and had nothing to do with real life. He was someone who talked about danger when none was on the horizon, and people how got involved with him were never the same again. You know who I’m talking about: Gandalf the Grey from the Lord of the Rings series, although he became Gandalf the White.
I’ll tell those of you who don’t know the story some details so you can follow me a little. To the regular people at the beginning of the story, Gandalf was a stranger who was twice as tall as they were. The hobbits were simple farmers who didn’t pay much attention to what happened in the big world, unless it somehow barged into theirs. They didn’t understand what was over the horizon. They also saw Gandalf as a man who came to shoot off fireworks, the best fireworks one could ever see, for certain, but somebody who was too goofy to pay serious attention to. They thought he was a bad influence on the Baggins family, first Bilbo from the book The Hobbit, and then Bilbo’s nephew Frodo. People who were close to Gandalf grew weird and were never the same again, like they were in touch with a different reality.
John the Baptist was someone with an entirely different kind of fireworks. He was a man in the middle of nowhere preaching a difficult message in a difficult time. He worked on the banks of the Jordan River, in the middle of a desert, hair unkept, living on whatever he could find to eat, sleeping where he could, close to survival. John the Baptist was preaching conversion, not to some ideal dream of peace, but to a reality that was about to happen. John the Baptist comforted the afflicted and afllicted the comfortable, especially in today’s Gospel. It’s easy to wonder why the elite of Jewish society was coming out to John: he was someone quite outside of respectability, and the Pharisees and Sadducees had everything to lose by coming out. They probably came out of curiousity. John couldn’t believe it: he challenged them to do more than just show up; he challenged them to show him something to indicate that they were getting the message.
The reality about to happen is the reality that is described in the reading from Isaiah. It was written to a people in exile longing for home; it was written to a people who had experienced a reality as far away from the lion laying down with the lamb as could be.
Paul calls us to change our lives in the light of this reality of the Kingdom to come; he calls us to change our lives in the light of Christ’s return. When we speak of Christ’s return in glory, we aren’t speaking of some dire future as described by some Christians: full of frightening images and divine wrath. We are speaking of the coming of the time of the Lion and Lamb; where the fullness of the Kingdom will be better than we can imagine. We know what the future holds for us as children of God: Christ wins, we win, Creation wins, life wins.
We pull away from this future when we focus on making ourselves too comfortable. We pull away from this reality when we are so invested in the status quo, when we would rather things continue as they are, when we have too much to lose if things were to turn upside down. We pull away from the reality of the Kingdom where the Lion lays down with the Lamb when we want to live in peace in our little land of the Shire, fence ourselves in, let the rest of the world do what it wants as long as it doesn’t bother us, because the world isn’t going to leave us in peace and Christ isn’t going to leave us in peace either.
It takes leaving our comfort zone, leaving our wanting to get more, leaving our desire to make ourselves comfortable and who cares about the rest. It takes a willingness to go out into the desert, confront what’s out there and what we fear, to listen to a wild man we would rather avoid. Being a Christian is about being willing to leave things behind, whether it is our homes, or our closely held opinions, or our security, or our vision of how the world ought to be if we only had control of it.
We gather at the Banquet table of the Kingdom here when we share the Body and Blood of Christ. The day of the Lion and the Lamb is already breaking in; the future is already happening in the present. The voice of John the Baptist calls us to be different, to rearrange our lives, our attitudes, our mind sets to conform to the new kingdom and asks us what we are willing to do to show that we embrace it. When we come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we embrace the future day of the Lion and the Lamb and proclaim that we are willing to follow whatever road that future leads us down.