|John the Baptist, oil painting by Jack Baumgartner, used with permission.|
What is John the Baptist doing in Advent? Wouldn’t he still be crawling around on the floor when the first Christmas rolls around? And yet he is a central figure of Advent, the one who prepares the way, or who cries out, “prepare the way!”, depending on where you put your quotation marks, so both, really. The grown-up John who comes into the scene after Jesus is grown up too, bellowing in the wilderness about what God was about to do, what God was already doing without us even knowing it... What’s he doing here?
Who are you John? You Advent invader…
What do you think about out there when the crowds have gone home and the stars are glowing above you and the sounds of the desert creatures and the wind are all the noise that’s left? What keeps you awake, tossing and turning? What gets you up in the morning, for another day of camel hair and locusts and yelling yourself hoarse with passion and fire?
You are pissing people off, you know. You don’t live much longer than this – you’ll die soon for telling Herod like it is and calling him out on his adulterous marriage. And you don’t get much sympathy from the establishment after your criticism of them and your direct competition – baptism for repentance? Really? The people can get that in the temple. The grace and forgiveness of God is already available. For a fee… But you do it for free? All the while saying something greater is brewing and you’re just a sideshow, a warm-up act?
I’m sure you heard the story over and over in your childhood, in those few short years your ancient parents had left - between all their prophet grooming, their stories of prophets of old and messages to Israel and encouragement to listen, listen, for the voice of God, the surprise of God that would bring life to deadened wombs and laughter to creaky voices, lay mountains low and raise valleys up, bringing hope and wholeness – between all of that I am certain you heard tell time and again of when Mary came to see your mom, the moment the fetus you bumped belly homes with the embryonic Messiah, as you jumped for joy, recognizing already that everything was changing and there was nothing to do but celebrate it.
And the messages, all those prophets swimming in your mind, taught to you from Torah, spoken in story from your priest father and your devout mother – it must have meant more to you than to others…
did you three carry this secret promise, this crazy truth that you had come from impossibility and God had broken in and nobody knew it yet but the time was coming when they would all see…?
Did you ever forget? And wake up knowing there was something to remember and then have the truth wash over you in wonder once again? That God was making good on all those promises of old, that God was coming in.
Did you recognize him in the prophesies? Jesus, I mean. Did he seem like the one? Tell the truth now – was he just so ordinary? Or did you know all along?
What was it like, by the way, the day he came to the river, the day you plunged him under the water and the sky opened up and the voice of God claimed him? After the elation that it had come at last, were you psyched to retire? Be finished with your message? Or was it anti-climactic? Or disillusioning? Who are you now once the one you’ve prepared the way for has arrived in our midst?
If you knew then what you know now, would it all have gone the same?
Mark begins all of it with you, you know. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God,” then he has you bursting out like you could contain the secret in silence no longer, the message ripening within your young body and mind until you had to get out of the city, flee to the wilderness and give the message room to breathe, give it space to expand or it would swallow you and everything else with its magnitude, power and incredibility.
The others don’t begin with you – Luke and Matthew, they tell Jesus’ genealogy and his birth, and the book of John starts with the very, very beginning, with the Word of creation, but Mark starts with you.
Where would you begin the story?– I bet you’d go back to those prophets – your lifeblood, your mother’s milk, your father’s breath in your ear, whispering their messages and hope.
You’d begin the story by saying there were those who said it was coming… remember those voices? Remember those promises? Then you’d say, It’s true. It’s coming. It’s already begun. You spoke fantastic visions as well, baptized with the Holy Spirit? The very Spirit that hovered over the water at Creation claiming and cleaning us? Now? It was a fact, you spoke these things like they were a fact – preached the future with a present tense. With a bold confidence. Perhaps because you yourself had come from the impossibility that was becoming. You believed it and made them believe it too.
I heard someone say once that ‘Repentance is what happens to us when the truth of who we are and who God is enters our lives and scatters the darkness of competing ideas.’ (N.B.W) What did it look like to see so much repentance on people? Could you see it in their eyes? Was it relief? Joy? The darkness scattering, the truth seeping in… Did their faces change as the light entered their lives? Did people feel lighter coming up out of the water than they did going down? Did seeing it strengthen your own hope and belief?
Did you know how they looked at you? How they saw you? You must have. You dressed like Elijah, you sounded like Isaiah, you were a prophet and the people came. They came from far and wide to hear you, catch a glimpse of that modern day prophet who was just like the ones of old. But the others thought you were dangerous, crazy, threatening. Did that bother you? Once someone well-known and respected who spoke in front of crowds told me that what was hardest was the admiration, being admired, because you feel you either have to live up to people’s expectations or disabuse them of their notions, is that how you felt? Is that why you were always so quick and forceful to point out that it wasn’t about you at all, that you were paving the way, clearing the clutter, making the paths straight because the one who would bring life to the world was coming -?
I know what’s ahead for you too, John – when you’re in prison and you hear about what Jesus is doing and you send your people to Jesus to ask if he “really is the one who is to come or if we should wait for another?”, when you question if it all really is real. Even you! That doubt and fear are such an integral part of faith that even YOU wondered, faltered, you, who told everyone else it was coming, had those scary secret moments when things didn’t look like you thought they would and you weren’t sure if you could trust what you had believed.
And his answer to you was, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Did that bring you comfort as you sat in prison, just days away from dying? Did it put it in perspective, that what the prophets had said was really happening, and they had seen it with their own eyes? Did it bring you peace?
I’d bet you never heard that after he sent away your messengers he told the crowd that you were a prophet, just like those of old, actually, more than a prophet, he declared, the One who announced the Messiah. Then he said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
I think you would have liked hearing him say that. About the least being great, the poor and forgotten being lifted up that way in God’s kingdom, I mean. Maybe even more than his message to you, it would have affirmed that this is all really happening after all- God’s kingdom really is breaking in, showing how upside down we have it all. You would have liked hearing him say that; I know it.
When you died it crushed him – he left everyone to be alone with his terrible grief. Did that shake his faith, I wonder, bring him to doubt? That even though God has begun and the light is in the world, the darkness is still here too, for a time? How did he reconcile that?
How can we?
What would you say to us now about that, John?
There is no place for you in my nativity, John, you know that, don’t you? You aren’t even a bit-player here – you come later, and earlier too, actually, but not right then, that cosmos-altering moment when God broke in, when God came for good.
You come along with your pronouncements in this second week of Advent, and the third too, but you don’t even make it all the way to Christmas Eve. By then you’ve done your job, you’ve prepared the way and told us to as well, and now it’s all about the main attraction.
So, what would you have us remember or keep?
What would it look like for us to be ready to receive this Savior when he comes?
You see, we have the benefit of hindsight, we get to see all of this WAY after the fact, so we don’t have to stand on the banks of that river with the mud in our sandals and the insects buzzing around us, listening to you roar out your message and wonder whom to believe –wonder whether what you say is even remotely possible, or whether you’re just another fanatic off his rocker. We know who you are and how it all goes down from there.
So we can ask you now, and we’re willing to hear, what would you have us do?
How can we be ready to receive our Savior?
Ah, but you’re long gone. You’re silent now. And so it’s on us.
See, John, it’s like this every year.
It might have been all new and amazing to you, but we’ve beat this thing to death with jingle bells and sentiment and buried it in a sea of candy, carols and wrapping paper. We’ve put Jesus in the manger and we like him there, he’s so cute and clean.
And it comes around every year, too, so if we really take you seriously, how can we keep on believing?
Preparing the way, preparing the way, for centuries we’ve been waiting and talking about all of this like it’s real, year after year we prepare the way, like you told us to, but what about it anyway? What should we be doing now? Saying now? Does God still come? Is God still coming?
We need a little taste of your honey and fervor, I think, a sense of wonder and awe once again, a longing to be stirred enough that it feels like absolute refreshment to be plunged under and feel the water roll off us with all that keeps us in darkness, to be baptized into a promise that holds us even when we can’t see it. To repent.
What should we do, John? Things are a mess, and we’re not very good at doing very much to fix it, and also at the same time most of do the best we can with what we’ve got but still never feel like it’s enough. What is it all about, John?
But you would never really say, would you? You’d just point your finger again at him and tell us God has come. In the flesh. Right here.
“I’m just using water, people,” you’d say, “he’ll immerse you in the Holy Spirit, you’ll be surrounded by the life-creating breath of God.
So get ready. It will be. God is coming. God has come.”
And you’d leave us to the repenting, and let the truth and light invade us once again.
We are here today to do as John did. To speak fantastic visions of hope and peace like they are a fact, the future unfolding before us, within us. To anticipate with his same wild joy, the in-breaking of God and prepare for it to happen, whenever, however it happens.
Last week we took up the call of the prophets, to lament on behalf of a broken world, and today we take up the call of John, to foreshadow a future that is coming, to live from a reality of love and hope and peace that flips all of this upside down.
Today we are eating bread and calling it Christ’s body, even while calling ourselves the body of Christ. We are drinking - grape juice, calling it wine, - then calling it the blood of Christ, and then saying that this means something, that it has something do with life and promise, and it beckons us and seals us into something bigger than we’ll ever understand. Into God’s with-us-ness, and our with-God-ness.
And today we’re welcoming someone into membership, which is to say, we’re celebrating that we are all members of the Body of Christ, but that inside that vast and wonderful identity, those of us here in this place are on loan to one another for this little portion of our journey, and we get to be for each other the ones who fulfill promises made over us by those gone before for this time. We get to be with each other the lamenters and foreshadowers, the prophets and preparers, who make room for grief, make room for repentance, and who speak words of comfort and hope in a broken world. We get to be the wild and joyful reminders that God is with us.
So let’s get on with it.