An analyst of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described a cycle that repeated many times in Hopkins' life by using three terms: Encagement, Naturation, and Grace.
Encagement described the depressive phases all too common to Hopkins. He literally felt imprisoned, even at times suicidal. His poem "Carrion Comfort" is probably the strongest example of this extreme negative emotion and the self-assessment of his situation that went with it. There were a lot of reasons for these emotions, and there were difficult things in Hopkins' life, especially in the area of personal relationships, that drove him to despair.
Hopkins turned to the natural world for some solace and the seedlings of hope. "Naturation" was the analyst's word to describe how Hopkins looked into the natural world -- trees, birds, seasons, more -- to find some comfort in the face of depression. You can trace in his poems the movement from despair upward toward a kind of hope. "Spring and Fall: To a young child" is a good example of the earlier kind, and "Pied Beauty" is perhaps typical of the later ones.
Grace describes what Hopkins was like at his spiritual and emotional best. Having encountered the green, growing world and having been pried out of his own sinkholes of despair, he speaks in glowing terms not just of the emotional encounters with God (though he had plenty of those) but in authentic spiritual terms of the beauty and sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ that shapes and forms Hopkins' entire worldview. Hopkins in these stages could write paeans of praise like "The Windhover: To Christ our Lord" and many others that are nothing short of delightful both conceptually and in his inimitable use of language.
Why dig into Hopkins in this section of Luke?
The Jewish people were very much caught in something like "encagement" at this point in their history. For four hundred years they had longed for God to speak to them, but no prophet had arisen. They had longed for the completion of their Babylonian exile, and a return not only to their land (which had happened long before) but for God to take up residence in the temple at the heart of Jerusalem. They had tried, through their own efforts, to take up the mantle of being God's people, most notably through the Maccabean revolt nearly two hundred years before. While that episode had resulted in a brief period of Jewish independence and even sovereignty, the resulting Hasmonean dynasty became corrupt and was finally defeated and occupied by Rome. So when John comes on the scene in the wilderness, the people have been living discouraged, defeated, depressed, dejected for generations.
How many of us live parallel struggles? We have grand hopes but we don't see God moving to fulfill what we think he's promised. We start to doubt his word, sometimes we even doubt his goodness and his faithfulness. It is easy at such times to drift toward a jaded, agnostic cynicism. Either that or we fall prey to self-centered theologies that promise us prosperity and provide ways to manipulate God through our religious practices, telling us that if we just have enough faith and tithe faithfully enough (or whatever the obedience du jour happens to be) God will do what we want. We regain the illusion of control.
We never get to control God's timelines. The life of faith is always a balancing act between learning patience and crying out "How long, O Lord?" But the fact that God doesn't operate according to my calendar doesn't mean he is unfaithful or has forgotten his promises. Far from it.
The Jewish people experience a kind of "naturation" in John's preaching. They come out of the cities to the edge of the wilderness, out to the Jordan valley. Like Minnesotans migrating to the North Shore of Lake Superior, they go to the place of beauty and abundance, and the encounter with God's created world is refreshing. I sat in my recliner this morning for a while reflecting on my own context here on the shores of George Lake and what a healing place these seventy acres of natural beauty have become for me. I watch the fawns and their mothers, the rabbits and the woodchucks and the great blue heron that roosts in the willow tree along the edge of the bay, the beaver that has found something he really likes just off our north dock. All of these are balm to my encaged heart, and they turn me bit by bit toward the faithfulness of God.
John's preaching might not sound much like "good news" to us, but it is. John reminds the people that behavior is important, that turning away from their self-centered agendas (including the theologies of prosperity) makes room in them for God to work. In response to John's proclamation, the Jewish people begin to discover a revival of integrity. This is not the self-centered, controlling morality of the Pharisees but rather it is a desire to align themselves with God who, John says, is up to something.
And that is the core of John's message. He points beyond himself to the One who is coming. Authentic revival will only happen if God moves. John says that God is about to move, that the Messiah is standing among us right now, that the inbreaking of God's action is right around the corner. When Jesus arrives, the surprise will be that he comes not with vengeance (though there will be judgment for those who insist on their own way) but rather with Grace. Another John would write a few years later, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And we beheld his glory, glory as the only son of a father." John the Baptist tells the people that God is moving, and their weary hearts will be healed when he acts.
Just then, Jesus begins to make his way to the river bank. More tomorrow.