December 13: A Magnet in the Wilderness

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday of Advent

Why would you put up with someone who verbally berates and threatens you – and even follow after them? Most people either fight back, or run away as fast as they can. What kind of person would put up with such abuse – from anyone? Very few I know. Luke says it worked well for John the Baptist. He was like a magnet, attracting crowds into the wilderness with his warnings and threats.

I’ve never tried his approach. If I did, you’d probably follow me to the wilderness, and make sure I stayed there. I wonder why it worked so successfully for John. I envision John, wild-eyed Jesus freak, standing on a downtown Jerusalem corner, waving his arms, and yelling at everyone in earshot. Suddenly he stops his rant, turns, and walks right out of town. A crowd follows him. At the edge of the wilderness, John turns abruptly, and explodes: “You brood of vipers. Are you here to save your hides?” Well, John they’re here to be baptized – get a grip. John, do you know how hard it can be to get a crowd into the church today? Folks, please do invite someone to come to church with you, but don’t call them a snake if they show up. That’s not very helpful. Instead try, “Glad you’re here.”

People do seem more spiritually driven these days, but not necessarily toward the church. They hunger. They’re restless, searching for something. They’ll try the latest technique to boost their self-esteem; attract prosperity, peace, happiness and positive thoughts. We’re evidently lacking something big, given all the books, CDs, and DVDs that promise to fix what you didn’t even know you had wrong. Maybe people followed John – because his message struck a chord.

John is honest: “Being a church member won’t save you. So, you’re descended from Abraham? Sorry – that won’t help. If you’re ready for God’s reign, you’ll bear fruit – people will notice it in your life. God will become more than a noun for you.

“Okay,” they ask – “What should we do?” You repent, turn and focus on God, and then get baptized to show you mean it. Bear fruit of your experience with God. You’re not joining a club. You’re starting a journey.”

Do we believe we have anything to repent of? We are here, while others are snoozing or sipping coffee. They’re the ones who need to do some repenting. We’re pretty good, decent, religious people, aren’t we? Repent – why us? “You have two coats. Give one to someone without a coat.” So, I drop off an old coat at the Thrift Shop, which is a good thing – but not quite the change I believe John’s after. Honestly, I do have more than I need, and plenty don’t have enough, and too often I still want more. Sort of crazy when you think about it.

“What should we do?” Christian writer Donald Miller says if you watched him, you’d probably think he believes he’s the most important person in the world. He sadly admits he cares about his own food, his shelter and happiness more than he cares for anybody else. Maybe he’s just too hard on himself. Or could be that he takes John seriously. Are we self-addicted, too? Maybe we could consider repenting – look inside, be honest with ourselves and God. Dare we take responsibility for the fruit we bear, accept blame and not pass it along? Maybe we’re not big on repenting because it’s so darn hard – so scary.

John says someone bigger and greater than he is coming. So watch out what savior you fall for. The one God sends will get into your heart – your life, turn you around. Watch out. He starts inside on us – by loving us unconditionally and he breathes his spirit, his life within us. That changes us – from the inside out. No we can actually love our enemies and those who hate us. We can care for the sick, prisoners, the ne’er do wells, and even con-artists. We can be merciful to those who are mean and unmerciful. We proclaim God’s love and the light of divine forgiveness, especially for those who’ve been told God won’t love them as they are – and even for those who think what we do is a waste of time – irrelevant to the real world. Tall order, isn’t it? Yet we can do it, and often are, because we are not alone.

Now for the tough part. Would anyone suspect we follow Jesus if they watch our lives? This is serious, life-changing stuff. We repent – so God can make us bearers of justice, forgiveness, mercy, grace – and most of all, to proclaim that God really does love us all. Would anyone know that if watched us?

But you didn’t come out today to get slammed with repentance. We don’t repent in Advent anymore. John just spoils the mood for Christmas. We can save up our repenting for Lent. Yet I still wonder what would we look like to others, if we did turn more fully toward God? That’s what repentance means. We turn from the direction we’ve been headed – toward God. If we did I suspect we’d find God’s waiting to give us a life worth living. What do you think? Dare we risk it?


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