Camel Haired Messengers of God

A Bible Study Reflection for Advent 2, Year B

Authors: Tom and LT

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Tom had just finished reading the Gospel lesson when he jumped right in:  “This is one of my favorites…have you ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, or Godspell?”

LT hadn’t.  He was quick to apologize, “No, I have not.  Honestly I did not grow up reading scripture so this is all very new to me.”

Tom continued, gently explaining to this younger college student some less than familiar detail about the story of John the Baptist.  Most people know Tom as a quiet, hard-working man of the street who works manual labor jobs whenever he can.  They are unlikely to realize his profound knowledge of scripture, although his quiet devotion to weekly church services and his interior calmness clearly source from somewhere.  As he confessed to LT, “I even spent a couple years considering the Catholic priesthood.”  It had been a while since his seminary classes, but he was happy to share more about some of his favorite details from the story of John the Baptist:

“The part I always liked about John the Baptist was, well, ‘living on locust and wild honey.’ It’s just one of those things you can’t ignore. Wild honey is easy enough to do, but I don’t know – I’m not supposing that they were chocolate-covered locust. No, believe me, those things are like really really ugly…they multiply like flies, and they eat everything. So him eating locust when usually what they’ll do is eat all the food in a particular area and drive the area into famine because they’ll take food plants as tall as corn in a matter of minutes…it’s eaten down to the bare ground.”

“Being clothed in camel’s hair had to be pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes the medieval monks would deliberately wear a hair shirt; it’s incredibly itchy and it would help them to remember one of their vows is poverty, and at the time they had this whole thing about ignoring the body and moving towards the spiritual. So the hair shirt, which was very uncomfortable; it helped them mortify themselves; a denial of flesh kind of thing.”

“They were related, you know…John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus.  John was born first, but both Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth heard that they were expecting around the same time. And she…Elizabeth…was considered too old to be bearing children anymore. And Mary, obviously with a virgin birth, well that’s a real eye-opener, but in the same family one comes first and the second one follows – just to prepare the way. To get into people’s head that someone greater than John the Baptist is coming, ‘I’m just his messenger,’ but a messenger helping Judea and Jerusalem prepare for the coming of the rightful king. Which is pretty cool.”

“Unfortunately, though, John was beheaded…he became very politically unpopular. King Herod was quite corrupt, but he was excellent at getting along with the Romans, who allowed him to be the king of Judea. The last thing he wanted in the world was anybody talking about a new king coming; that a messiah was coming. Half the people thought he was going to be a political messiah…this savior to come save the people here and now. But all Jesus was focused on was being a spiritual messiah that would enable his people to deal with jerks like Herod and the Romans, who were conquerors and anybody that fought that would usually get crucified.  Well, we know that story.”

LT was listening intently; you could hear his building interest in this story winding piece-by-piece out of Tom, telling it as though narrating his own block-buster movie.  It was LT who posed the next question: “Where is God in this story, in your own life?”

Tom grew thoughtful.  “God in my own life is a quiet presence that’s kind of a background hum. Not all the time, because I get distracted like anybody else could. I get a little bit too concerned about things that I really shouldn’t worry about too much. You know, like am I going to have enough income? I’m approaching retirement, it’s like (jokingly) ‘oh can I retire in style?’ You know, that kind of thing. Well, the big answer for that one is ‘no’ for me, but I’m not going to be concerned about it, you know. But I always felt that God was a good, strong part of the background hum.  The bible is helpful to me because it helps me understand what exactly that hum means. If you’re standing near a raging river…well, the sound of water will always be a background hum in your life, but it has nothing to really tell you about how much just the raw power for change that river can contain in itself.”

This resonated with LT: “I definitely would agree, I feel the same way. Just from my own experiences, I feel like God wouldn’t constantly be there trying to control you. He’d kind of nudge you towards the right direction whenever you got too far off what you should be doing.”

Tom continued, “I always hear some people saying “if God cares so much about us, why does he allow people to die and little children starve to death and people getting murdered or overdosing or whatever.” Well it’s no question that God could do that, but then we’d never have free will if that were the case. We’d never be self-governing. We’d just be little wind up toys.”

LT agreed, “Free will, in my opinion, is what makes life worth living.”

“Sure,” said Tom, “risks and all. It’s funny because when my friend overdosed, I had warned him like five times “You don’t know what’s coming in from Mexico. You got fentanyl, ketamine, and heroin all mixed together and it’s going to kill you if you keep going with it.” And one day, he disappeared for a second…came back two minutes later he was carrying his stuff premixed. He went around the corner, it was at night, came back, and just fell out right in front of us. He had the antidote for opiates, naloxone, he even carried that with him. But it wouldn’t have done a thing about the ketamine. And the fentanyl was highly questionable if it was even strong enough to do anything like that. Oh, and he was drinking on top of it that night. It was just tragic how and why it ended. It’s an unreal number of people that die from overdoses. It’s been something like 36,000 deaths this year so far.”

This message felt very real to LT, too:  “Yea, it’s a real epidemic. I obviously can’t comment on why other people do it, but my friend did it because we both grew up in such a way that our parents were always busy. We were young, we were stupid. We didn’t have much else to do, and we figured that the best thing to help our families was to just try to make our own money. For a while we both got into dealing, but the difference was that he started using. For him, it was just an escape from life, and it didn’t end too pretty…ketamine, that’s something that seems to come up too much.”

Tom knew this, too: “Yea, really. And the opiate antidote is just totally ineffective on that.”

LT began to see the message, “I guess the best you can do is just learn from others and hope to carry on.”

Tom became nostalgic, “Yea, and try not to ever get into the same mindset that leads to that. Our friend had any number of issues going on, but there was no one of them that would lead to a deliberate suicide…but he was doing hardcore drugs since he was like 14 years old so he was already used to them. And the “not me” syndrome was really clear in his behavior, “oh it’ll never happen to me”, but, well it did.

LT could empathize.  “I am almost positive that is a magical side effect of doing drugs. Everybody has that “not me” syndrome.”

“Exactly,” Tom said, “it’s magical thinking.  I’m glad that I was able to avoid it, and still will. You know, I’ve had broken bones and I’ve had oxy and things like that. They alone are too good. As soon as I was feeling like I could deal with the pain, it’s like “no, I don’t want another prescription, no thank you.” But you hear about these kids whose moms and dads are on some hardcore high-strength oxys, and they leave it in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Kid hits eleven, twelve, thirteen…”Gee, well, mom and dad take these all the time and it seems to work for them.” You know, they’re in the adolescent struggle: “let me try a couple.” Which might be fine and dandy, but when that becomes ineffective, then they’re on the streets looking for the real hard stuff.”

The message was becoming clear to both of them at this point.

For LT, it all related back to the ice-breaker we had done earlier, naming the saints in our lives:

“In the ice-breaker, I mentioned my friend Brian. Brian was a close friend of mine who I grew up with and basically viewed as my brother. I consider him my angel because I accredit him with why my life has turned around. When we were in our early teens, we used to sell drugs as a means to cover our own expenses and wants without adding financial burden to our respective families who were already working very hard to make ends meet. Eventually, the financial burdens that our families bore became very prevalent which added onto other struggles that we were both going through related to school. Looking back now, it wasn’t anything unbearable, but in the moment as a teen, it feels like the world is falling apart. As a coping mechanism, Brian started getting into hard drugs. This went on for several years, and although I never joined him, I still held the same depressing mind set as him. This all changed when he overdosed. His death made me rethink my life and realize that everything I had been doing was wrong. I did everything in my power to turn my life around from that point on. I stopped selling drugs and distanced myself with what I viewed as the wrong kind of people, I started to talk and connect to my family more, I began to value school and the idea of aiming for a better future instead of feeling sorry for myself and giving up. As the years went by, everything seem to fall into place. I made new friends that were better influences on me, I became less bitter and violent, I finally had a good relationship with my family, and I went from someone who was constantly flunking tests and mouthing off to teachers to someone who excelled in school and was no longer seen as a troublemaker.”

Tom nodded, “Oh yea, I could see how it could be a life changer if you were paying attention. So it was the actual act that delivered the message to you?

LT continued, “Yea, before I didn’t really care about school, or anything. It was just a lot. Thinking back now, I was just being really unreasonable or just stupid. And now what, 3-4 years later, I’m the first in my family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college and hopefully graduate.”

Tom and LT, strangers before that day, continued to exchange stories with each other, delivering messages of hope and peace amid lives of complexity, loss, temptation, challenge, repentance, and reconciliation.  The sound track to their lives continues on, the continual hum of God’s presence making God known through messengers of all forms: the rough-haired wake up calls of addiction and death, the belovedness of friends and family, the support of people who once were strangers but who find common ground, as we all do, in the Good News.

God has a way of bringing us together on this journey, reminding us that even in the darkest chapters of our human lives, we are never alone. Pairing Tom and LT together for this bible study was, by all human accounts, purely random. But not so much with God, who knows our stories and knits us together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Good News sometimes breaks through in those people and situations we least expect, even those whose camel-haired appearance and locust eating ways might otherwise cause us to turn away.  As Tom said, it’s all about paying attention.

Who or what are the camel-haired messengers in your own life?

 

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