Back when I bought my black suit coat of fine wool, the cleaning tag on it read: Dry Clean Only. I hesitated before taking it to the clerk, mostly because I knew dry cleaning used harmful chemicals that, if not disposed of with great care, end up in our rivers, lakes, and drinking water – this was before there were any Green Cleaner’s. But I needed a new suit, and this was the one I liked, so I resolved to limit my dry cleaning to once, maybe twice a year, and now of course, to take it to an environmentally friendly Green Cleaner, when I do.
Sometimes, I have to admit, the Green Cleaner process can’t get out really bad stains, and only the old fashioned dry cleaning really works! Ground in dirt, coffee spills, salt rubbed off the car, all gone - and it looks just like new. Best thing is, all I have to do is pick it up, they do all the dirty work!
Last week, at our Villa in the Caribbean, there was a sign by the wash machine: Do not use bleach – bad for septic! St John’s is one, big, giant, volcanic rock, of an island, jutting up in the sea. Even if you could dig down through it, there’s no water there to bring up, so your fresh water on the island is a gift from the skies, which open up regularly to relieve the heat of the tropical afternoons. And so pretty much every building is fitted with wide gutters to catch the showers as they rain down on red roofs and are carefully sealed in ample cisterns. Waste water, collected in septic systems, is treated and returned safely to the ocean, as long as no bleach is added to this closed eco-system of reusing and recycling. When my sister-in-law took a chance and washed a mixed load one day, thinking she had washed her colorful towels once before, she was un-pleasantly surprised when the whites came out all pink! “A little bleach will take care of that,” she said – “when I get home!” Nothing like dry cleaning or bleaching, like a “fullers’ soap,” to make things white and clean again!
Though John was a man well down on the list of Important People in our gospel reading, this Baptist, son of Zechariah, had a special job there in the wilderness, by the Jordan River. He came to do what God called him to, wash us clean. He was preparing “all flesh,” all the people, to re-Exodus and re-enter, into the Promised Land. John was the Voice on the margin between the desert and the River Jordan, crying: the Advent of the Messiah has arrived, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” for “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.
That was John’s job, but, a wholly impossible job really! How to make way for the Son of God? How to make us ready to re-enter, to come home to a new place we’ve always meant to be? To re-enter us, a whole people, through a baptismal washing, and to prepare us for the brilliant vision of the salvation of God here in this crooked world – a salvation for “all flesh.”
Of All those leaders Luke mentions at the time of Jesus’ birth -- the Emperor in Rome, the Governor Pontius Pilate in Judea, and Herod in Galilee, his brother Philip in the region to the east, and finally, the high priests in the Jerusalem temple, Annas and Caiaphas -- the Word of God passes all of them right by, and comes to – of all people – the guy camped out on the margins in his camel hair coat – it comes to John, a Voice that cries out, and evokes a déjà vu experience of Elijah and Moses. John the Baptist is called on to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, where everything old is new again, finally. At the boundary line between the Wilderness and the Promised Land – John is our Dry Cleaner, our bleaching white agent, our “fuller’s soap”. Even though John’s time and his call is short, his message is purposeful and unique, calling all flesh to be ready for “the salvation of God” and the Advent of Christ.
I wonder if John ever took his camel hair coat into the Jerusalem cleaners – you can be sure it needed it, living in the wilderness, but I doubt it! And there was such a place, actually, just outside the capital city. It was deliberately zoned outside the city limits because of the strong odor that came from the lye-like cleanser they used. This home-made bleach cleaned many a coat and tunic in Israel – mostly of sheep’s wool, however, and not camel’s hair! It was a hard work of scrubbing, and a pungent odor like bleach, but it totally transformed each garment from old to new again!
Is it possible for us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord – to be dry cleaned and lye-cleaned? Can we really prepare ourselves for the salvation of God, for this new kingdom, which will turn the world upside down, and inside out? To repent, as John the Baptist cried out, meant to turn around from the way you are going, and walk in a new direction – and follow Jesus, to bee cleansed like the strong, smelly, chemical-y, fuller’s soap, to make room in hearts and lives, for Jesus to be born.
Can we make our Baptismal robes white enough in this washing? By the time we get to Christmas, will we be ready for the clean white swaddling clothes, and the glistening white stars in the night sky? How do we prepare our robes to be ready for the royal birth? Each must make ready in our own hearts of course. But harder yet is all flesh making ready together!
How do we balance our budgets, for instance, whether family, church, or nation? Is there such a thing as a shared sacrifice? Can we be honest about who is in need, and who has more than is possibly sustainable in this ecosystem of God’s creating? How do we care for our precious resources and make our environments, both natural and social, sustainable as we dry clean, and lye clean, and make ready? Where is the boundary line between our old life of waste and pollution and our new life of living with the new-born king, this precious child wrapped tightly in brilliant white bands of cloth? Where does the boundary line lie, that asks us to live together in our freshly washed baptismal clothes, so that “all flesh” shall see the salvation of God together?
Like our environment and eco-system, we live in a shrinking and self-contained world, where “all flesh” live inter-dependently, and so in some important way, we are called upon as white-robe-wear-ers to care for “all flesh” even as we know how to take good care of ourselves.
If we don’t all prepare the way for the Advent of Love and Grace-itself, the birth of this child-king, none of us may be fit to receive it.
But, we are well ready, who trust in the one who comes like the gift of the opening skies, which rain upon us, washing us clean, and showering down on us, the gift of life. Remember your baptism, and like a fuller’s soap, be bleached of all doubt! John prepares us for this in-breaking of the Christ-child – for the advent of salvation for all flesh is nigh!