First Sunday After Epiphany
The trail descends from the pavement above, concrete giving way to packed mud, quartz, and shale, roots running here and there across the path. Below the trail, the ground slopes, settling into a creek that eventually flows to the Arkansas river. Throughout the late summer, and well into the fall, this slope would be pocked by the orange trumpets of chanterell mushrooms, fruiting from the unseen mycelium below the surface of the soil. On our weekly walks in the woods, my daughters would compete for the privlege of cutting them from their stems, collecting them in the cloth bags we’d brought for the purpose.
This was one of my family’s first attempts at foraging, going for the ready pickings of easily identified mushrooms that no one else seemed to be harvesting in our local urban woodland. There was something delightful about gathering food each week from the forrest floor, food that we’d done nothing to earn other than noticing its ripeness for the taking. My small exercise in gathering was a reminder both of the abundance of the world and of the reality that the best things available are not what we can buy, but what we can accept as gifts.
John the Baptist seems to be one who knew this truth. In Mark’s otherwise spare narrative, he offers us a good deal of detail about John’s dress and eating. In both cases, John’s needs seem to have been fulfilled from gathering the resources of the wild, the abundant and sustainable food of insects, the rich flavors of honey, the skin of a camel.
To be a forager requires a deep attentiveness to the landscape. It requires patience; it takes waiting and watching. Honey would have been a hard-to-find food. My family has stories about one of my ancestors who would throw flour on wild bees and then track how long it took them to return to a water source. With this method he’d eventually find their hive. I don’t know the method used in John’s day, but I’m sure there was one and that whatever it was took hours, if not days.
In all of that waiting, I imagine that John learned how to see gifts when they came. He learned then, to be ready for the Holy Spirit, which both brings gifts and is a gift. What John could offer was not a gift in and of itself. He couldn’t make honey, or locusts, or camel skins; he had no control of the Holy Spirit. He could teach others how to be ready for the gift, how to see it when it came, how to go searching for the gift that was surely there and waiting–he could offer the baptism of repentance.
Repentance is not the gift in itself, but it is the preparation for the gift, the making ready in order to see. Gifts can come without it of course, but they can easily be missed. I’d seen hundreds of chanterelles, wondering if they were edible, before I sat down with a mushroom field guide and confirmed my guess. The gift was there, but I wasn’t ready for it. If I hadn’t done the work of preparation then I would have missed some good food or, worse yet, mistaken a chanterelle for a poisonous lookalike. I needed to reorient my vision in order to really see.
Baptism ushers us into the family of God through a double movement: the repentance and clearing of death, the gift of new life through the Spirit. We need both in order to enter into the life of God, both gift and giver. We see this in Paul’s encounter with the disciples in Ephesus. They are described as “disciples,” so they are already on their way toward being the church, but what they lacked was the gift of the Spirit. They’d done the work of making ready, but it is only when Paul comes that the gift is finally given (a gift Paul was himself given and passes on, as all good gifts must move).
On this Sunday, as many churches celebrate baptisms, giving again the gift that has continued to circulate through the church from its beginning, let us also remember with John the need for repentance, for the given world of wilderness and the waiting required to discover the gifts God is giving all around us. It is only through such work that we can again ready ourselves to see the gift of the Spirit that continues to breathe life among us. The alternative is that we might miss the gift and instead grab hold of one of its poisonous lookalikes, the commodities of happiness and fulfillment sold in the markets of our culture.
Instead, repent, go to the quiet place of the wilderness where you can listen. God’s wind is moving over the waters and creating a new world. Will we be ready to welcome it?