Each Advent John the Baptist briefly takes center stage to warm up the crowd for Messiah’s arrival. The Jews had been on pins and needles, waiting and expecting Messiah to arrive at any moment. Now is the time. Actually John warns, not warms the crowd. John’s a lot like Santa – into that naughty and nice business. If you’re nice – get baptized and you’re in. Naughty – well, don’t wait for God to have to hunt you down and hurt you.
God gives John his orders – repent, your sins are forgiven. Baptism seals your promise. No more sacrifices or keeping Torah. God has taken forgiveness and salvation out of Jerusalem, into the wilderness and everywhere – freely offered – not just the domain of priests and Temple. Only God can sort out the messes we make, including churchly ones. As a matter of face, God has already done that. Not everyone knows, and some who’ve heard can’t believe it. We’re not ready for God, and God’s not ready for us until we get serious for God. John calls sinners to repent – turn toward God. Jesus brings love, forgiveness, and welcome from God. Who would you prefer – John or Jesus?
John’s message is, “Shape up.” Jesus says – “God so loves the world he sends me to let you know.” John the Baptist – “Repent, or God’ll take an axe to you.” Jesus says, “Repent, so God can take care of you.” John warns that joining a church or being baptized is not enough. Jesus tells stories of prodigals who get a royal party for returning home. John is shrill, demanding and scary. Someone recently told me his encounters with pastors of his youth scared him right out of the church. Fortunately, now he’s found one where people actually love and serve God, not themselves – and not condemning others. He’s meeting Jesus again for the first time, as Marcus Borg said.
Now, here’s the problem. You don’t get to choose one or the other. John and Jesus come as a package. Truth is, we are a mess; we easily lose our way. That’s why Jesus comes. John, like Isaiah, prepares us for the way – so all can see God’s salvation. John holds nothing back – it’s important we get this right. If you realize you’re dozing, asleep, fiddling around – Sleepers Wake! Set your hearts right and you’ll see all God is doing. Salvation is drawing near. God’s saving plan looks a lot different than Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Really, could we not all use a bit of redirection about now? If you don’t think so, stand over there with scribes and Pharisees who mutter about John, refusing his invitation, and so miss God’s coming in Jesus.
Where do you find God at work in unexpected places today? Luke places John and Jesus amidst emperors, governors, rulers and high priests, on history’s main stage. Who are lowly John and Jesus in this crowd? But God, so – unexpected – shows up in a credential-less, wandering Jew; a locust eating prophet – a lowly couple, smelly shepherds, and Gentile kings who know a real king, when they find one. God straightens crooked spots, smooths rough places through all sorts of unlikely people – maybe your pew-mate today, even you, or even me. Do you remember these worldly rulers? No – they’re forgotten footnotes in a larger story. We do remember John and Jesus. So, if you feel overwhelmed, overlooked, lowly and nothing – God says, “Get over yourself. Change direction. See my salvation and spread the news.”
An old friend called the other evening. She had been married to a minister. Didn’t work out so well. She was pretty much over the church, until a friend invited her out of her comfort zone to volunteer at a senior center. She’s meeting people she didn’t know existed, with problems she didn’t know people had. She’s also attending a rather unlikely church for a refined mainline woman. They hold noon Bible studies for their neighborhood. Then they feed the hungry around them – offer art classes to the homeless, tutor latch-key children, all in their church building. And those who come find God in people like my friend, Mary, and Mary finds God in them – and in the pastor who asks in worship, “Anyone want to lead a prayer for us today?” Once a quiet, shy man raises a hand, comes forth, tries to speak. Nothing comes out. The pastor steps in, puts an arm around his shoulder, speaks for him – thanks God for this scared man, and for all the people there. And valleys are being filled – and rough places are being made smooth – and all people are seeing what God’s salvation will do. I told my friend – “Mary, you thrill my soul. Good to hear a church being a church, for a change.”
Thomas Merton said all has been given to us in Christ. We need to experience what we already have. It’s Advent, and John the Baptist calls us to repent – to unfocus from ourselves to make room for Christ who wants to put everything in your hands. Stop and look at all that’s given you. Experience it. Live it with abandon.
What’s wrong with the church these days? We’ve lost our center – a passion for God. Advent is the time to hit the pause button – and ask ourselves, “What more do we need?” God’s out there sending some unlikely people to unexpected places – and they’re seeing God’s salvation. What are we waiting for this Advent?