The traditional reading for the Second Sunday in Advent is about John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. John is certainly an interesting character, but let’s face it: he is probably not the most beloved Biblical personality.
John is one weird dude. Look at what he eats: locusts and wild honey. Eating locusts was not unheard of, and Leviticus chapter 11 even spelled out the kinds of locusts you were permitted to eat. And sure, they have a lot of protein, but I had a cicada fly right into my mouth one time and it really wasn’t that appetizing. John was eating locusts by choice.
And then he has honey to go with the locusts. Well, if it works for Great Plains Pizza, I guess it would work for locusts. But have you ever gone after wild honey? Harvesting honey from domestic bees can be a lot of work, but harvesting wild honey is not only a messy job, it can be dangerous. We try to get our kids to sit up straight and have some semblance of etiquette at the table, and John just has a grab and go meal of locusts and wild honey.
And then there is the matter of his clothing. I can’t say that I’ve worn camel hair, but from what I understand it makes burlap seem nice and soft. An odd fashion choice, to say the least. He is an outdoorsy, hardworking kind of guy – so why not flannel? Why not Carhartt?
John looks odd, dresses strangely, eats weird stuff. He is not interested in social niceties and he is not the kind of guy you want as a role model for your kids.
John should have been a priest. That’s the way things worked back then. A son was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. Even Jesus honored the tradition, becoming a carpenter like Joseph. But not John. Not only did he reject the priesthood, his life was a critique of the religious establishment. His clothing reminded people of the prophet Elijah, who had a lot to say about society and kings and politics and justice. John’s style and dress and manner were all designed to upset the apple cart. John was rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.
But these are mostly superficial issues. We pay way too much attention to the way a person looks or talks or dresses or what they eat. OK, fair enough. But beyond appearances, and maybe more to the point, John is just plain annoying. Especially in this season of the year. John has a lot of nerve.
We have decorated our church so beautifully. We can drive around and see the beautiful lights and displays. We want this to be a happy time and we want to enjoy our carols and parties and shopping and food. And into the middle of our holiday season comes this guy with a harsh appearance and even harsher message, calling us to repent. Our reading from Mark is pretty lean – Mark does not give a lot of details. But if you read Matthew, you’ll find John heckling the religious leaders, calling them a brood of vipers. Can you believe that? A brood of vipers. Come on, it’s the Christmas season. Can’t we just be nice? Can’t we just get along? You’ve got to admit, if somebody like John showed up at our Christmas Dinner and program, it would be more than a little annoying.
John is rude, he is annoying, and yes, he is even embarrassing.
There are certain brands of Baptists who teach church history with a little tract called the “Trail of Blood.” This started in the 1800’s, when strongly anti-Catholic folks sought to counter the idea of apostolic succession – that there is an unbroken succession of bishops going back to Peter, the first bishop of Rome - with a kind of “church successionism.” Their thesis is that down through the centuries, there has been an unbroken succession of churches with Baptist-like beliefs, even if they didn’t have the name Baptist. Well, you can’t really make it work; they’ll claim almost anybody who was outside the Catholic Church as a Baptist, even wildly heretical groups, as long as Rome disapproved of them. At any rate, they trace Baptist history back to the early church, and guess who was the first Baptist? That’s right. John the Baptist. No reputable historians buy this, but there are people who will claim John as the first Baptist. As if that were a good thing.
Let’s face it, Baptists have an image problem. Some people equate Baptists with Jerry Falwell types, or even worse, with Fred Phelps, and the Baptist label can be an impediment to outreach – some people wouldn’t consider going to a Baptist church. Well, a strange guy eating bugs and wild honey, wearing camel hair and a leather belt, preaching in the wilderness about turning from sin and insulting good church folk is probably not going to improve our image.
Taken on the whole, what picture emerges of this strange prophet? He is rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. He flaunts convention and tradition, disrespecting his elders. He scoffs at authority. He was the poster boy for disestablishmentarianism before the word was invented. He forages for food. He has fashion issues. And on top of it all, he is called a Baptist. We work hard to not be thought of as barefoot and backward and obsessed with hellfire and damnation, and then every Advent, John comes along and undoes all of that.
John is rude and annoying and embarrassing. But the worst thing is – are you ready for this? Here’s the worst thing. The worst thing is, he may be right.
Don’t you hate it when people like him turn out to be right?
Let’s look at his message. His message is about preparation – getting ready. In introducing John, Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins and baptizing those who responded.
It’s a novel idea. It’s not the way we usually prepare for Christmas. When people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what comes to mind? You probably think first of all about your shopping. Have I bought something for everybody on the list? Will that sweater fit dad? Will my niece be happy with an iTunes gift card? And then you may think about cooking. Will we have ham or turkey for Christmas, or maybe do something different – what about enchiladas or lasagna? And what about all the baking?
And then, you may think about getting the house ready. You need to put up your outdoor lights. You need to get the tree up. There is cleaning and straightening and decorating to do. At our house we are trying to get ready getting ready for the college Christmas party tonight. And then, some of us get ready for Christmas by getting our calendars sorted out. We have to synchronize our schedules and fit in the school concerts and the church dinner and the work Christmas party and that play or concert we want to go to, all while working around the ISU basketball schedule. And then we have to arrange get-togethers for the family. Maybe both sides of the family. Maybe 3 or 4 sides of the family.
We are busy doing what needs to be done, making preparations, when John the Baptist shows up and sticks his nose into our Christmas, calling for repentance of all things. He is abrupt, and it is not at all convenient. But maybe we need to be inconvenienced, just a bit. Maybe we need to be embarrassed about what we have made of Christmas. Maybe we even need to be offended, just a bit.
We need to ask ourselves: after all of the shopping and parties and TV specials, after all the cookies and fruitcake, after all the carols and family dinners and gift-giving, what has changed? We go through these days leading up to Christmas, and in a few weeks, it’s back to the regular routine of life, and then we do it all again next year.
There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s nice to have a change of pace. There is certainly joy to be found in all that happens in this season. But there is a reason that this is the most stressful time of the year. And it is possible to forget the reason for all of the celebration in the first place.
It’s like the woman I heard about whose child asked, “Mom, why do the Christians keep trying to mess with Christmas by putting all this Jesus stuff into it?”
Maybe we need a character like John to shock us back into reality. John calls us to repentance – to turn around. Repentance is not something we like to talk about, and it’s not often something we think really applies to us. After all, it’s for sinners – real sinners, people who don’t go to church like us. Or, we think of repentance as a one-shot deal that we took care of years ago, when we were baptized. In our better moments, we might say, “OK, we all need to repent from the materialism and self-centeredness that affects us all. We know we’re not perfect and we could all stand some improvement.”
But that is still a shallow understanding of repentance, shallow in that it is rather vague and general. Tom Long described repentance in this way:
Whenever we return to an old and well-worn passage in the Bible and do not, through nostalgia or willfulness, have it to say only what we expect it to say, but allow it to encounter us anew, creating new and demanding possibilities for our lives, we have repented.Repentance comes in many ways. When in our hurried life we visit someone and are able to set aside thoughts of tasks that have to be done and errands that have to be run and work waiting for us really and listen, when we are truly there in the moment, we have repented.
When we invoke some experience in our memory and discover, in our remembering, more evidence of the hand of God there than we first saw, more signs of the grace of God than we ever knew were there before, more call for gratitude to God than we have yet expressed, and we find ourselves wanting to live a different, more faithful and more obedient tomorrow because of what we have discerned, we have repented.
Whenever we return to the faith we have been given, to the gospel we have heard so often, to the stories which have been told again and again, and find there not a retreat, but a renewal; whenever we discover that all that God has done in our common yesterdays is pointing us anew to the Christ who comes this day, to forgive our sins and to make possible a tomorrow of faith and joy, we have repented.
Or, when we are able to set aside judgment of others long enough to look and see their need, or we are able to set aside our critique of others long enough to see their gifts, or we are able to set aside our fear of those who are different long enough to see our common humanity, we have repented.
Today we lit the candle of peace. Peace can sometimes be seen as a kind of warm fuzzy feeling. Sometimes people are asked a question something like: “If a genie were to grant you one wish, what would it be?” We all know the correct stock answer: world peace.
Imagine a Miss America contest where a finalist is asked the question – if you had one wish, what would it be? And instead of saying, “I would ask for world peace,” she said, “I would ask for repentance.” Home viewers would gasp. They would think she had gone off the deep end.
But what if we really did seek repentance? And what if, instead of looking for others to repent, we listened to John, and we ourselves repented, and looked to Christ? I have a feeling that would go a long way toward bringing peace – in our lives, and maybe even in our world.
Still, you have to admit that John is an odd duck in the run-up to Christmas. Someone asked the question, “What would it be like if John the Baptist showed up at the mall?” Think about that for a minute. It’s quite an image, isn’t it?
Just imagine: it’s ten degrees and snowing outside, but this guy shows up in sandals and a camel’s hair coat. He passes up the Pretzelmaker stand, preferring the bag of locusts he brought with him. He sets up shop near the fountain with signs saying, “Repent!”
People are asking, “Who is this guy? Somebody call security!” But he is such a powerful preacher that people actually listen. Children hear him and leave Santa’s line, tugging on their parents’ coats and asking, “Who is that man?” Teenagers stop and laugh but wind up staying and listening. And it all starts to make sense. John says, “Turn your lives around,” and people want so badly to do just that, because our lives need turning around. The lights, the trees, the carols, even Santa are forgotten. And people start asking, “What shall we do?” Johns says, “Repent and be baptized,” and they are, right in the mall fountain.
Something that caught my attention as I read the text this week is that John did not go after people. He didn’t seek crowds; crowds sought him. He set up shop out in the wilderness and people flocked to him from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself. John’s message drew people. He had something they needed. Maybe repentance is something we all need.
John had issues, no doubt, but he had fire and passion and a deep belief that things could change—that change is possible. And it is. And maybe we prepare for the change God has for us, maybe we prepare for Jesus’ coming, maybe we prepare for Christmas, by repenting – by turning around, by turning toward Christ, by opening our hearts.
John was rude and annoying and embarrassing and offensive. And worst of all, John was right. Amen.