Advent Two - John the Baptist

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 people.

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 transform you.

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.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan