It is hardly possible to me that I have been your pastor for near six months now and that we are already cruising in to our first Advent season together. One of the things I have learned about you is the wide array you of distinct stories you each have to tell. I am fascinated by the particularities and peculiarities which make you each a part of this body of Christ, and I realize the richness and depth of character we have among us. And so as we begin this season of Advent, I wanted us to journey together into the realm of story. I wanted us to have the chance to reintroduce ourselves to the characters and major players in this Advent drama, for they are part of our family as well. And their ancient stories shape the human story. Each week through Epiphany Sunday we will unearth one of the movers and shakers of this time, one of the cast of characters who heralded the birth and ministry of the Messiah. And this morning we begin with perhaps one of the most animated of all, John the Baptist.
It is a strange twist of the liturgical calendar which places a lectionary story about John the Baptist as a man in his 30s preaching in the wilderness a mere Sunday or two before stories about his mother, Elizabeth, who at the time we will meet her next week is pregnant with him. A bit of reverse foreshadowing, perhaps. I still have yet to figure out the mysterious and at times downright strange ways of the lectionary. But, I guess we should never be surprised when things get a little wacky when John the Baptist is involved, for he is not one who would be called orthodox, nor would we name him king of the understatement.
John wasn’t your average devout Jew circa late 20s A.D. First, there was that whole style thing. While most men were covering up from the sun by wearing soft linen or wool robes (but never both together, for that was taboo, and definitely a fashion no-no as well), John the Baptist distinguished himself by dressing in the fur of camels, which would have been like saying he chose his clothes out of the bin out back behind the Salvation Army store, in the pile of what was rejected. His clothes were styled after those of the Bedouin Shepherds who dressed for protection as they traveled through the middle of nowhere in the wild wilderness east of Jerusalem and they weren’t the standard dress of the day. And the food he ate, well let’s just say that he was not a gourmand by any stretch of the imagination. He wouldn’t have known a balanced meal if it was placed in front of him. John subsisted on a starvation diet of mostly wild locusts which rained down in abundance from the trees, and a bit of wild honey which could be easily found in the area. A diet perhaps less tasty than crunchy. But more important than what John put in his mouth were the words that were shouted out from it. For John the Baptist was a take-no-prisoners, fire-and-brimstone, holy-roller, preacher (with a capital “P”), and he minced no words as he rattled off the inequities, sins, wrongs, and hypocrisies he was witnessing. He was rough around the edges and not afraid of conflict. His admonitions and prophesies were scathing and his locust-scented breath blew across the wilderness wrathfully. He was, as the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “God’s own air raid siren.”
And yet, John’s message was reaching people, for he had amassed quite a following. Taylor goes on to say that “A helicopter flying over the desert east of Jerusalem would have looked down on a colorful string of pilgrims that stretched from the city to an encampment by the river—John’s church—where he heard people’s confessions and renewed their hope that God had not abandoned them.” (http://www.nationalcathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/bbt981213.shtml)
The baptizer’s voice was heard in the midst of the sands of nowhere and his words had drawn the attention of not just the marginalized and helpless, but also of the most religious, the Sadducees and the Pharisees who loaded themselves onto their camels to make their way out to the margins to listen to what this shabby hooligan was saying, or rather who he was saying it about.
I want to interrupt our little story before we get into John’s loud pulpit-pounding phase of the story, the narrative hook of the Advent and tell you a little secret. John the Baptist has not been my favorite Advent character. This particular forerunner of the Messiah always scares me a little with his bombastic voice, with his strange diet, with his condemnation. He reminds me a little of a second cousin of mine, a loud and dear man in oversized spectacles who was always a just little too loud when he pontificated on local politics, someone who could stir my Swedish grandfather into enough of a frenzy that my he might start saying words like “criminy.” This cousin usually was speaking the social gospel, and I grew up to love him and his ideas, but his bluster and his passion and the way he could sometimes spit food out of his mouth when he got really worked up at the holiday table always turned me away a little first. I would imagine I’m not alone here as we talk about our brother John the Baptist, for we Midwestern UCC folk aren’t usually those who prefer to have our pastors shake their fists and call thunder down upon them. Or perhaps if you are, you called the wrong pastor into your fold…
Advent is not generally a time when we want to hear John’s loud, threatening voice, even if we are intent on preparing the way for the one who proclaims. For we may have different ideas. We like our Advent warm. We like to approach the coming of the Christ child, the coming of a soft baby with cozy expectation. We like to bask in the quiet reflective nuanced hushes, the soft dim lights and hushed hymns. It doesn’t always seem fair that we have this lunatic evangelist in our face screaming with all this moral righteousness, does it? Can’t we just fast-forward to the stable, and the angels, and that smell of soft baby hair as the infant lies his head in the crook of our neck? Can’t we just breathe a sigh of relief that God makes a way to us again, this year, in this human form?
No. No, friends. I’m sorry. We can’t. I can’t. For to reach that place of peace there’s some stuff we’ve got to do first. And John the Baptist does have a message for us to hear and understand, across time and distance. There is a truth he speaks that must be proclaimed as we turn our hearts toward the Advent mystery.
First of all, as we unpack John’s rant we need to remember that he was not exactly preaching to us. Matthew is recounting for us a little confab between John the Baptist and the Pharisees and the Sadducees who had traveled out to the wilderness to hear him speak. Those who were the priestly, law-abiding Jews, those who were obsessed with dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.” Those who had felt threatened by the power of this unknown prophet in the wilderness. John reminded them, without mincing words, that their obsession with the law and with the rules and with the politics of the day, was blinding them to a few things. And they couldn’t be saved by who they knew, or what prophet they followed. He reminded these priests and leaders that they seemed to be forgetting their covenant with God, forgetting that it was their job to usher in the reign of God’s love. “And oh by the way,” the Baptist said, “by aligning yourself with the powerful families and special interest groups for your own political gain, you’ve gotten a little too big for your britches.”
In short, John was preaching a message of hope wrapped up in a scathing rebuke, a reminder that by participating in a dry, same-old same-old ritual of religion, that these Pharisees and Sadducees had forgotten to grow in their faith and neglected the important work of preparing for the coming Messiah who had been promised. And so John’s most scathing words, you know, the ones about being a brood of snakes, was not really meant for our ears, but for theirs.
But even having recognized that, I’m not sure we’re off the hook (and here’s where I go all John the Baptist on you, so get ready). John the Baptist has another admonition which is universal in its appeal. One which I think we dare not lose sight of, those of us who begin the Advent journey this season in 2010, and it is this, “Repent.”
Repentance is sort of an overwhelming word, isn’t it? It’s not one we hear a lot in the UCC. Not one we hear a lot from this pulpit, but maybe we should. To repent means to “turn around” or rather, “to chose to turn toward God.” And what is so frightening about that? In fact isn’t that exactly what our Creator calls us to do on a regular basis? Aren’t we called to become new? Aren’t we asked to hear the voice of the one who invites us to awaken? To seek light in the dark cave of our hearts? To allow ourselves to prepare a space that Christ may be born again this year? To proclaim our “yes” to the hope that truth and justice may find a way to the earth again? To name ourselves as bearers of that Christ light? To be active participants in building the community of God here on earth?
The writer Frederick Buechner says it better than I ever could in his book Wishful Thinking, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” ( p. 96).
It is the first Sunday of Advent. And it is time for us to repent, collectively and individually. It is time for us to heed the call of our crazy uncle John the Baptist, the one who we may want to dismiss, the one who scares us a little with the loud voice, the one who isn’t exactly the life of the party. But, friends, he is the one who we need to hear as we begin this church year. He is the one who still asks the right questions about what and who we place at the center of our lives. And he is the one who cuts to the heart of the matter about where our priorities must be if we are to proclaim the good news .
It is time on this first Sunday of Advent for us to turn our faces toward the light of God, to make in souls space to bear new life. It is time for us to align ourselves with God’s call for peace, and equality, and justice. It is time for us to look honestly into our own souls and decide what changes need to be made. For we only have four weeks, and new life shimmers on the horizon, and all we can do is murmur in wonder an awed, “Wow.”