An amazing gift accompanies the
master story teller. He can take an ordinary event OR an
earth shattering event and weave the reporting in such a
manner that the way it is told creates an effect on the
hearer. Story tellers can create an atmosphere that is
charged with emotion and meaning with mere words. The
gospel writers were exceptional at this and sadly those
of us who only hear their message in bits and pieces on
a Sunday morning or in our short daily devotions miss
this wonderful experience.
I was blessed to hear a reading
of the Gospel of Mark once from beginning to end as it
might have been heard by fledgling congregations, new
disciples eager to hear a word about the spread of
Christianity, how the news of Jesus was affecting people
around the known world and what it would have meant for
them. They would have gathered around the reader anxious
to hear all that he had to say. And so he would tell it
in a way that would be remembered long after he had
moved on to the next congregation. Told in that way,
every scene in the story builds to a crescendo of
meaning…Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
The gospel of Matthew is no
different. The portion you have just heard about John
the Baptist is an event that is familiar for most of us,
but have you ever stopped to think about how it is
placed in the sequence of events? Matthew begins with a
description of Jesus' ancestors back to Abraham
cementing him securely to the promise that had sustained
the Israelites for generations. We hear of his humble
birth but are reminded of the prophet Isaiah's
declaration that he would be Emmanuel - God with us.
Next comes the arrival of Wise Men - not Israelites who
have been waiting for centuries but men who have studied
the heavens and the earth and have recognized that an
amazing thing has happened in the world and want to be a
part of it.
Then there is Herod's secretive
plot to get rid of this threat to his political career
followed by Mary and Joseph's hurried escape into Egypt
while all the male children under age two are
slaughtered by armed soldiers rushing through villages
and towns amid the anguished screaming and crying.
Finally, calm. Herod has died
and the child and his family return to their homeland
and Jesus grows up.
A mere baby had been born and
before he could even utter the words Mama or Papa, he
had turned the known world upside down. And then calm.
We assume that life returned to some kind of normal for
the average Israelite and years went by.
Then Matthew suddenly introduces
John. The very words are that he appeared in the
wilderness….as if he hadn't been there before, but he
was now! Course we have available for us from the other
gospels much more about John's life and his relationship
to Jesus than is given to us in this story…and that is a
shame. Because we miss the impact of Matthew's style of
writing. Out of the blue this strange looking man,
dressed in fur and skins eating bugs and honey comes
into the picture and he is warning people to turn their
lives around….and they do it.
I wonder how many of us would
pay attention to some hippie or some rapper if he came
striding into our neighborhood, proclaiming that we
needed to repent of the direction our lives had been
going. We would probably seek to have him arrested
because we would be fearful of him. The thing is, the
world hasn't changed much over the centuries. Events
like the mass murder of infants continues to go on
somewhere in the world every day and many of us have
become immune. We hear it on the news, but somehow it
doesn't change us. If it happens in our country, we are
outraged, we react, we repair the damage, and we try to
return to life as usual, we become complacent again, and
maybe a little more fearful, a whole lot more
suspicious, but we haven't changed.
Well, the appearance of John the
Baptist came not too many years after an extremely
tragic event and he called the people to repent of
returning to complacency. He called them to repentance
to prepare their minds and hearts for something -
someone so much bigger and greater than anything they
had ever imagined. He knew that when Jesus came it would
not be life as usual. Normal assumptions and
expectations would be turned inside out and upside down.
Values would be challenged. Business and ethical
decisions would be reevaluated in the light of God's
will, not their own. He wanted them to know that the
events of the recent past were significant moments that
should have motivated them into a new way of life.
He was appalled by those who
were in positions of leadership, who had led the people
into misunderstanding and further chained them to
oppression and fear. He challenged the very foundation
of their power. Many of these men were in their
positions because they had inherited the titles. Their
families had long standing influence for centuries, but
they had lost their focus of serving God by serving the
John was not polite. He did not
paint a Kodak moment or a Hallmark greeting card with
sentimental rubbish on the inside. He was no Santa Claus
bearing prettily wrapped packages. Instead he warned
them that the coming of Jesus, the Advent of the savior
would mean huge changes. When Christ entered their lives
it would be like the man on the threshing floor or the
refiners fire. A person's life would never be the same.
Just a glance from Jesus would bare one's very soul,
stripping away all the excess, burning all that was
unworthy and unuseful for life and leaving one naked and
revealed in the light of the fire.
That was the message of John.
Get ready for that moment when Christ comes into your
life. It isn't that one can erase a lifetime of
mistakes. Those will remain and they will be part of
your formation. But allow them to be the mistakes that
inform you, awaken you to a different way of being. Be
open and receptive to the Holy Spirit that is waiting to
Let's look at our lives as we
approach this awesome Holy time of expectation. What has
happened in us since the time we were born, new and
innocent? What cultural influences have taught us to not
be motivated by pain and suffering? Why do we continue
to allow poverty and hunger in a nation of such
technology and wealth? Why do we run from the violence
on our city streets leaving it for "someone else" to
take care of instead of banning together and addressing
it systematically and thoroughly? Why do our children
fear rejection, humiliation, violence, and failure? Why
do so many answer dilemmas with suicide? What is going
on in our family, social, and educational dynamics that
keep our children and us from facing their challenges
confidently and willingly instead of with cigarettes,
drugs and alcohol? Why are the most popular movies and
games these days about horror and violence?
I believe all of this says
something important to us about our readiness for Christ
to come again. We need a savior because we can't seem to
get our lives focused on what is really important. We
cannot drift back into complacency and business as
usual. We cannot think that the coming of Jesus has much
to do with Christmas trees and decorating our houses
with lights. Those are but symbols of a much bigger
reality of what Jesus is all about. Jesus is the light
of the world, meaning he will bring new understanding.
The greens are all about new life. Let us focus on the
meaning behind the symbols.