December 4, 2005
Mark 1:1 – 8
The host for the celebration of Advent is John the Baptist, and what he is serving us is locusts and honey. These are the two foods that the Gospel associates with John. But before we turn up our nose at his menu, we should realize that these foods are more spiritual than gastronomic. These foods are intimately connected with John’s message. Unless we interpret correctly what he ate, we will not be able to understand what he preached.
Why locusts and honey? Let’s start with the locusts. For the young people here who might not know what a locust is, it is an insect similar to a grasshopper. In the ancient world locusts were a sign of utter destruction, of plague, of complete loss. Locusts would travel in swarms of millions and when they would come to an area or a field they would consume every plant. No green thing was left; no seed was uneaten. Locusts mean destruction. Honey, of course, is the sign of plenty, of abundance, as in the “land of milk and honey.” Honey was a strong symbol in the ancient world of the bountiful nature of God’s blessings.
These two foods, then, represent the two sides of life: the good times and the bad times, the gains and the losses, the joys and the sorrows. What John is telling us by his diet is that the diet of every person consists in these two foods. In each of our lives we have a certain amount of honey, and no one can get through life without having to swallow a few locusts. The food of John the Baptist describes the lives that we live.
This is how John’s food is connected to his message. John the Baptist has one of the clearest messages in the Scriptures. We heard it today in the Gospel, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s message is that God is coming. God is coming, and that is good news. When is God coming? Here’s where the food comes in. God is coming in both the locusts and the honey. This connection makes John’s message a real challenge, for it takes faith to believe that God is coming to us in both the good times and the bad.
It is easy to believe that God is coming to us in the honey. When we watch our children play and they are healthy and happy, when we look into the eyes of our spouse and realize that we are loved, when we finish a job and know that it is well done and it has made a difference, when we find common ground and reconciliation with an enemy, in those moments it is easy to believe that God is coming. It is easy to see God present in our blessings.
But dare we believe that God also comes to us in our pain? Can God be with us when we worry about a family member who is struggling with depression or Alzheimer’s, when we have to face divorce, when we lose our job, when the doctor tells us we have six months to live? Dare we believe then that God is still coming to us in our lives? Our faith tells us that we must. Our faith does not ask us to pretend that the bad times are somehow good times. It does not ask us to imagine that our curses are actually blessings in disguise. But, it does say that in each and every circumstance we must believe that God is coming and we must prepare God’s way.
The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart is known for one peculiar teaching. It is this. Eckhart says, “Whatever happens to you today is the best possible thing.” I repeat, “Whatever happens to you today is the best possible thing.” Now when you first hear this sentence, it sounds like nonsense. Indeed it is nonsense unless you understand it correctly. It is not telling you that being diagnosed with cancer or losing a child in an automobile accident is the best possible thing for you. That would be scandalous and wrong. But what Meister Eckhart is saying is that whatever happens to you today, whateverhappens to you today, God is still coming. No trouble can keep God away. No blessing is too small, no tragedy is too deep, to stop God’s arrival. And, if God is coming, that is the best possible thing for you.
This then is the strange and challenging menu for Advent. Such food may be offsetting, but I suggest that we pull up our chairs to the table. If there is honey on your tongue, savor it. Appreciate the sweetness of your relationships, of your successes, of your gifts. Delight in God’s blessings. But if you look down and there are locusts on your plate, do not despair. Even when you wake up to another morning with a heart broken because of the loss of someone that you love, even when your family is in shambles, even when you are weakened by sickness, do not despair. God is still coming. No trouble can keep God away.
The voice of John the Baptist continues to call out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” How God is coming to you in your pain I cannot say. But that God is coming is the Gospel. In that we must believe. Whether with honey or with locusts, God is coming—and that is the best possible thing.