December 10, 2017
William G. Carter
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in 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 the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
If we want to have a spiritual Christmas, we will inevitably run into John the Baptist. This strange prophet makes his annual December appearance. He never gets his picture on a Christmas card, and if he did, the message would be, “For our house to yours: you brood of vipers, repent from the wrath to come.” John is direct. He is rude, even to the point of being offensive. Word is that his father had been a Jerusalem priest, but John is standing outside the bounds of the Jerusalem temple. And he is speaking up.
He seems an odd caricature, a prophet right out of the pages of the Old Testament. There hadn’t been any Jewish prophets for five hundred years. The landscape had been quiet. If God had been speaking, it wasn’t in a Voice loud enough for anybody to hear. Suddenly, there is the voice of thunder: let there be John! He appears. The inference is that he comes directly from God, if not biologically, certainly spiritually.
To reinforce the shock of his arrival, the Bible describes his appearance. John dresses like a wild man and smells like a camel. He’s covered in animal skins and he eats bugs.
Yet don’t ever be distracted by his appearance. John is a messenger. The purpose of his life is to point down the road, to alert us to Someone who is coming, Someone who makes him look small and insignificant. He’s talking about Jesus, of course. John asks, “Are you ready for him to come? Are you really ready for him to come?”
That’s the Advent question. We can answer quickly and say, “Yes, of course we want him to come.” We’re tired of a godless December. There is the constant bombardment of noise, with favorite carols played so frequently that they sound like jackhammers. The mailbox is full of catalogs we’ve never heard of, hawking products that we didn’t know we wanted. The appeals for donations are overwhelming, souring us on some of the very causes that we normally cherish. Yes, we’re ready for Him to come.
And John stands up on a rock, “You think you’re ready? You really think you’re ready?” With that, he hollers at the top of his lungs, “I splash you with water, but the One who is coming will set you on fire.”
Well now, wait a second, nobody said anything about fire. Fire is pure energy. It’s dangerous. Fire consumes. It burns down houses. Fire purifies. Everything burned away. Fire is such a powerful symbol. Do we really want God to come like fire?
It’s a good question. A lot of people want something much tamer in their religion. It’s OK to have an experience of God’s all-consuming glory, but if we could, let’s keep it to an hour and sing only happy songs that we already know. And it’s OK to have our conscience tweaked and our hearts appealed, but please don’t make any real demands on us.
The poet Annie Dillard was raised a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh (in America, that’s like Presbyterian Central), but when she was a teenager, she made an appointment with the pastor at Shadyside Church to say she was dropping out. The whole thing seemed to focus on conformity: fit in with the crowd, be respectable, couch your truthful speech in innocuous inanities, and above all, don’t ever go overboard with your religion. Annie had enough of what she perceived as a culturally sanctioned substitute for religion.
Her pastor said, “Oh, you’ll be back someday.” Annie wasn’t so sure.
Years later, after she won a Pulitzer Prize in literature, Annie reflected on what it would be like to truly encounter God. It seemed such a contrast to the over-domesticated approach to religion that usually masquerades as faith. So here’s what she says in one of her books:
The higher Christian churches -- where, if anywhere, I belong -- come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect in any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
“I baptize you with water,” says John the Baptist, “but he – the One who is coming – will baptize you with the fire of God’s Spirit.” The true God comes to repair and redeem the world, which is a way of saying the world can’t stay the way it is. We can’t remain the way we are. There will be a disruption of the status quo and a restoration of what God has intended all along.
Are we really ready for that? And if we are, how will anybody know? As John will say in another text, we have bear fruits worthy of repentance. That is, it’s not enough to simply say that a difference is necessary. We have to act like we are changed. We must produce the kind of behavior that shows our renewed allegiance to God.
Every day, it seems the morning news brings another sordid account of how all kinds of people have gone off the rails. I don’t need to tell you what you already know. People do unspeakable things to one another. There are lawsuits filed every day, some of them justified, some of them not. There are crooks getting away with their crimes, and some of them even get their pensions restored.
We don’t like to deal with uncomfortable truth, especially about ourselves, especially about the things that have been done to others, and the things that have been done to us.
Perhaps the most unsettling news is the continuing revelation of public figures who cannot keep their hands to themselves. Many of them are men with a whole lot of power and money, and these are merely the ones who make the news. It is as if John the Baptist is calling us to a time of reckoning, and it’s far from over. For far too long, some people in our society have plundered others, assuming they had the right to do whatever that wanted. Now the awkward truth is begun to be revealed and named. This year, Time magazine’s Person of the Year is the whistle blower.
As a woman in my own family said recently, “It happened to me. I never said anything because I just thought that’s the way men are, and I didn’t think it would do any good to speak up.” I assured her it’s always the right time to speak up, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s controversial, even when it’s going to stir up controversy. For it’s not only wrong to hurt another person; it’s equally wrong to believe you are not worthy of speaking up about the hurt that has been done to you.
Listen, this is uncomfortable. I know. And as a pastor, I want to push the conversation to a higher level. Here is what matters most: Who has the maturity to tell the truth? Who has the moral courage to do something constructive about it? And who is able to ask honestly for forgiveness -- and who is Christ-like enough to grant it?
I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, because there is no superiority in my soul. And neither do I think we should callously point the finger at some outsider, particularly a public figure we don’t like. It’s a lot more constructive to take a good long look in the mirror, acknowledge what we have done, ask God for mercy, and then go about rebuilding whatever relationships we can.
Today John the Baptist holds up the mirror. He invites us all to take a long look. He doesn’t do it because he’s mean. He holds up the mirror because he has been sent by God to prepare us for the Christ who is coming. And he asks us if we are ready for him – if we are really ready.
And he does it, because all of us are the beloved daughters and sons of God, all of us, without exclusion. There is a dignity to be claimed which will not allow us to be perpetrators or victims. God is come to set us free – and the way that God does this is by giving us the courage to tell the truth, the truth about ourselves – and the truth about God. It is indeed the truth that will set us free.
In one of his poignant reflections about human life, the great mystic Thomas Merton has this to say:
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use my life in desires for pleasures and thirsts for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and clothe myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
In other words, a lot of the time we are faking it. We pretend we are something we are not. And life goes askew when we only for ourselves, either to maintain our false sense of power or to give in to the wounds of our victimhood. But here is the truth, said Father Merton: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.”
This is the same God who says, “I love you. And I love your neighbor as much as I love you. And I want all of you to live in the justice of my peace, and to prepare your souls for the day when I am completely among you.”
The day is at hand, my friends, to come home to God. The day is near. Live as those who belong to the day.