We had a special guest on Sunday, as John the Baptist filled our pulpit. John is a bizarre guy – he eats locusts and honey. He wears a camel skin and a belt. His hair is unruly and his beard is unkempt. He stands knee-deep in the water out in the wilderness, and he calls us to repent.
Repentance looks forward to Christmas? It sounds strange if not as bizarre as the messenger who brings it. Shouldn’t we be out getting our shopping done and our trees up? (That was what I did this weekend. I’m glad John was here to fill in for me). Advent faith “bears fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8).” John calls us out from the water because we know God’s grace by the One who brings it. John reminds us of our need for such grace. In our Advent longing we wait and hope and listen. Much of repentance does the same.
What I enjoy about John the Baptist is that he stands on the edge. Not the cutting edge of fashion (he is a throwback to the prophet Elijah), nor the edge of some cliff we almost propel over in our rush to Christmas. Rather I think of him on the edge of a fold, a crease, a place that will be tucked-in, or torn through. Maybe it is that package you have been longing to wrap and get under the tree so that when you give it away that edge, that fold, that crease, rips open into a new possibility. As the gift is given the package is opened, and the edge gives way to something neither seen nor thought of before. John is like that too. He comes in the old style of the prophets, preaching God’s message from the edge; that we’ve lost sight of what is important, we fail to see those around us, and this is not what God intends for us. John calls us to repent and see. Repent means turning around to go in a new direction. From the edgeJohn points to a new direction. Repent. Turn around. See God again; he’s been waiting for you on the other side.
When we do turn around, we see something different than what we’d expect for Christmas. Not a warm fire to cozy up to as we kick off our slippers and start sipping eggnog. Instead we see Jesus on the threshing floor, with a winnowing fork to clear out that which keeps us lost in a holiday cheer that forgets him all too often. John reminds us by his pointing. “Don’t look at me, look to the One that comes after me. I’m not even worthy to tie his winter boots or carry his slippers.” (I took some liberty with the translation of sandals, but come on, it is cold out there!)
The strange part about John is that he gets two Sundays in Advent. We won’t see him again here this year, John has other speaking engagements and our kids will be telling the Christmas story in our pageant this Sunday. If you read ahead to Matthew 11:2-11 you’ll see the doubts in his ministry unfold. John ends up in prison, and his followers come asking Jesus if he is the One John prepares us to see. Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer; he rarely does. Instead Jesus simply points out what he has been doing. “Look around. 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 they see it? Did John? Do you see it around you?
In our age it seems hard for us to see it. “Where are the Christmas miracles?” we ask. John asked too. He wondered from his lonely prison cell if Jesus truly was the One he called people to see. Yet Advent faith takes the fear out of our doubts and transforms doubt into wonder. Wonder is the birthplace of hope. In wonder comes the Christ child in the manger. John helps us see, but only Jesus can open our eyes. Christmas miracles happen when we see. John stands on that edge ready for us to tear open new possibilities and behold the greatest gift ever given. Jesus waits to see the look in your eyes as you behold him with that paper shredded on the floor.
I think of many times in my own life when the obvious went overlooked, when I tripped over the right path, when the message didn’t quite sink in, when my habits were more life-taking than life-giving and I was consumed by my own wants rather than the needs of others. You probably have too. John calls us to repent. He stands on the edge of a gift so pure and life-changing that once we tear into it we can never go back. Jesus is here, on the threshing floor, laying claim on you. Water cannot extinguish the fire Jesus brings. The life he has come to change is yours. Look hard and wonder as you begin to pull on the edge.
Thanks John for hanging on the edges to prepare the way; the packages are accumulating under the tree ready to be opened. The greatest gift awaits us all.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)
“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 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.” (Matthew 11:2-11)