Advent 3 – Luke 3:7-18
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Luke 3:7)
(This is a revised 2009 reflection. In my new 2012 Advent reflections I’m ignoring more traditional interpretations of the Advent/Christmas scriptures. Of course, you may read this and think, “Hey Larry, this 2009 piece is also ignoring the obvious!”)
I pedaled by the sign attached to the fence and chuckled. Really more a nervous laugh because the morning’s cold and not many people are around and I’d entered a section of Woodward Park that contained open fields and paralleled the San Joaquin River and felt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . isolated.
According to the local news, someone recently reported they might have spotted a mountain lion (or cougar as they’re sometimes called) in this park. Warnings were posted. Like this hastily printed sign in the photo.
I also chuckled because I’ve been thinking about John the Baptist. I suspect not many people on this cold lonely morning are contemplating the Baptist’s ancient words. But I was. And so, nervously chuckling at the warning signs, I’m recalling his every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Cut down. Gulp. It’s another Advent-inspired, get-ready-for-Christmas threat. I shiver a tad. It ain’t summer after all (well, at least that’s my excuse).
The Baptist challenged the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River.
Hmmm, a warning along a river?
Out here, in a regional city park on the north end of Fresno (fifth-largest city in California), I’ve seen deer, rabbit, bobcat and coyote. The park hugs the San Joaquin River. At 330 winding miles, it’s the state’s second-longest river. I’ve hiked around lake basins in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, high on the rugged crest, which mark the San Joaquin’s alpine birth. Between Fresno and the granite peaks are subdivisions, parks, dams, highways and fast food joints. Still, the river is a corridor, a pathway from wilderness to civilization. I’m not surprised when I see bobcat or coyote in these lowlands.
But a cougar, an elusive predator, is a different story. But . . . I’m on a bike! Couldn’t I outrace ‘em? Later I learn they sprint 30-35 miles per hour. Get pedaling, Larry. But . . . I won’t bump into one because Fresno’s huge, with over a hundred square miles of streets and shopping malls. However—yikes—a cougar’s territory covers thirty square miles. That narrows the safe acreage. And they’re also big cats. I’m not quite six feet tall. An average full-grown cougar, tail to head, would drop the “not quite” from that footage.
Let’s return to the safer Jordan River.
Advent is cranky with its Biblical warnings. We want to get to the kid in the manger, but first we have to travel through wilderness. John keeps appearing and though what he preaches doesn’t always presage Jesus—Matthew’s beatitudes seem not to jive with a winnowing fork or chopped trees—I hesitate to ignore the guy on the honey and locust diet. Maybe I even chuckle, well, nervously.
I know Christmas warnings. As a little tyke—knee high to a grasshopper my grandmother would’ve said—I awoke one early Christmas and decided to sneak a peak at the presents. My older sister joined me. Was it her idea or mine? Who cares? With my parents slumbering, and the tree loaded with presents, we crept into the living room and spied the bounty. We’d open just one present. And after all, officially it was Christmas morning, in a dark not-a-creature-is-stirring kind of way.
The present I selected came from an aunt and uncle, a spring-loaded pistol that fired rubber darts at a target. Might as well test it. I had no idea what my sister unwrapped. Probably a doll or clothing. Something quiet. I set up the target with its bull’s-eye painted on thin, slick metal and pulled the trigger. Thwack! Cool. Thwack! Hooray for Christmas! But then I sensed the presence of a third person in the shadows of the yuletide dawn.
My mother. Eyes afire. Her house robe billowed like the wings of an avenging angel. I froze. My sister froze.
Then my mother spoke, emitting a guttural, primal sound that probably caused the tree to shed needles.
“Get to bed. NOW. And don’t leave your room until I tell you to.”
I’ve sometimes looked back at that just-before-Christmas encounter and picture my parents awoken from well-deserved sleep and discussing who’d confront their dull-witted children. Did Mom win or lose?
Of course we want to scurry toward the manger and get to the good stuff and good news.
And yet those warnings matter.
Long ago my mother, no longer in the avenging angel mode, gave my wife and I a ceramic manger scene that she’d painted. Every year my Advent jobs include positioning the colorful shepherds and stately camels and, of course, the baby Jesus. As I place the crèche on the mantel, gentle with each unique creation, there’s no John the Baptist figurine. Of course not; he doesn’t belong among the traditional manger characters.
But maybe, in my imagination, the Baptist lurks just out of sight. He warns us to be careful in our Advent sojourn.
And that big cat along the wending course of the river? Did someone spot a cougar or did they mistakenly observe an overgrown feral housecat? Or perhaps they glimpsed a tawny-coated dog slinking through the underbrush?
I traverse the lonely trail, remaining alert, moving between wilderness and civilization, between dark and light, between my childish foolishness and adult faithfulness. Between Advent and Christmas.