Most people don’t like him. Most people would be just as happy if we skipped him and went directly to the sweeter stories of Mary and Joseph, unexpected pregnancy, and visiting angels. But in Advent before we can get to the babe in the manger we first have to deal with the crazy prophet John the Baptist – and that is a good thing.
It’s a good thing because without crazy John and his not so crazy message, too many Christians would turn this time before Christmas into one big sugary Hallmark card. John saves Christmas from being too cutesy, too easy, too comfortable. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. … You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John comes to tell us that beyond the sweet image of the holy child lying in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, a few farm animals, some shepherds, and a heavenly host of singing angels – there is the incredible reality that God has broken into human history and the awesome responsibility we have to change our lives as a result.
I like John for several reasons. First, I like John because there is no dissembling, no fakeness, no slick manipulation in this Judean preacher. He is the archetypal Old Testament prophet, dwelling literally and figuratively apart from the status quo of Jewish society. He is not part of the Temple culture of priests, sacrifices, and ecclesiastical hierarchy. Rather, he walks in out of the wilderness, a religious ascetic who could care less about anything other than proclaiming the word of God. Without the Baptist, Christmas can too easily become a sentimental story about a beautiful baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. John reminds us that in Jesus the Kingdom of God has drawn near and if that doesn’t scare us just a little then we really don’t understand what’s happening. Mark Twain once said that most people were bothered by the passages of Scripture they didn’t understand. Twain was always bothered, on the other hand, by the passages of Scripture he did understand.1 In this morning’s gospel, John bothers us with his call for repentance, with his demand that we bear good fruit or face the consequences.
Secondly, and most especially, I like John because he gets himself out of the way. As strange as he looked with his camel’s hair and wild honey, John was incredibly popular. His authenticity and strong message attracted scores of followers like moths to a flame. People came from all over to receive his baptism of repentance. But in all of his preaching and all of his teaching, John never pointed to himself. He never made his own ego the focus of his message. He deflected the loyalties and power he might have acquired, so that Jesus might take the stage. John’s role was to alert the people to the King who was at hand and he played his role well. He was a transparent window through which people could see God, through which people could see the Messiah who had come into the world.2
When I was in high school there was a young biology teacher who touched many of our lives. He stood about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed all of 140 pounds dripping wet. He was meek and mild in appearance but he was deeply passionate about the mystery of all living things and the God who created them. However, he was so small and looked so young that during his first week at school one of the senior football players, who was also a hall monitor, pinned him against a locker during lunch hour and threatened him with ten demerits believing he had caught some sneaky ninth grader hanging out where he wasn’t supposed to be. Very shortly thereafter, this newest member of the faculty grew a thick black beard to avoid any future confusion. That beard became his trademark.
In spite of his stature, it was his passion for God’s creation and the way he could reveal the wonder of that creation to his students that attracted so many of us to this teacher. For him the Bible and the microscope, the woods and the good news of the Gospels naturally went together. In class, on field trips, on summer bird banding adventures, he opened for us the deep mystery of the loving God in whom all living creatures live and move and have their being. Like some ancient monastic holy man, he had very few personal possessions, he gave away most of his income, and he lived to share the goodness of God. He too was a transparent window. When you were with him he pointed away from himself to the God he saw in nature. After one of his classes or one of his trips I rarely went home thinking how wonderful he was, rather, I often went home thinking how wonderful God is and all that God creates.
What’s our take home for today? What’s the message you and I should leave with on this second Sunday of Advent? Well, among other things, it’s the truth that like John the Baptist, like my biology professor, you and I are supposed to be the transparent windows through which people can see something of the God we know in Jesus. We can’t just say we are Christians. We have to live so others can tell we are Christians. John proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand. We are supposed to live into the truth that the Kingdom of God has arrived. Our lives should point to Christ. Are you patient with others, gentle with others, truthful with others, open and welcoming of others? Do you call someone out for a racist remark, a hurtful joke, or do you just let him/her go unopposed? How often do you stick up for the underdog, go out of your way for the stranger? If you call yourself a follower of Jesus could anyone tell? Melissa and I may wear clerical collars and carry Prayer Books but we know very well that our children will learn much more about the God we serve by what we do and how we live than by anything we might say to them directly.
This Christmas season as the stress and demands of the holidays begin to close in around you remember that Jesus really is the reason for the season. We should be pointing to him, honoring him, preparing our hearts and minds to receive him. Everything else is just wrapping paper. John the Baptist spent his entire ministry pointing to Jesus. This Christmas and indeed everyday, you and I are invited to do the same. Amen.
1. H. King Oehmig
2. Donald S. Armentrout