(Preached at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, December 6, 2015)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
It is good to be with you saints, on this second Sunday of Advent. We’re already almost halfway to Christmas, which is somewhat amazing to me. I am certain some of you are far more organized than I have managed to be and already have your homes decorated for the season.
As I was thinking about getting our Christmas stuff out of the basement, I thought about my friend and her son. Ever since he was a little boy, he’s been sneaking into their family room and replacing the characters in their nativity scene with Star Wars figurines that he got with McDonald’s Happy Meals once upon a time. He’s in college now, but he still does it. Every year. As quickly as my friend whisks Yoda out of the creche and puts baby Jesus back in his proper place, she returns to find the shepherds replaced by R2D2 and C3PO.
It’s a family tradition. It’s a bizarre family tradition. Some of the ways in which we mix up the sacred and the secular in our Christmas preparations are lots of fun, but also bizarre. We include all sorts of things that really have nothing to do with Christmas or Jesus or anything remotely religious.
But don’t you think this text from Luke we just heard is also pretty bizarre?
I mean, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. John the Baptist regularly shows up in our Advent readings around this time every year. But John’s arrival always feels a little bit like finding Darth Vadar in the nativity scene. There’s something about John that always catches me a off guard. Even though he shows up every year, he doesn’t seem to quite fit.
There’s nothing sparkling or scrubbed or festive about John. He hasn’t appeared in any Christmas pageants that I’ve attended and I’ve never seen him grace the front of a Christmas card.
And small wonder. Let’s be honest. John would stick out like a sore thumb in most of our Christmas celebrations. John didn’t wear the right clothes, just a ratty old camel hair tunic and a big leather belt. After all that time in the wilderness, he probably didn’t smell very good. He wouldn’t keep his voice low and respectful, and he probably didn’t bother to wipe his mouth after gorging on locusts and wild honey.
And if John the Baptist did appear on a Christmas card, it have to say something like, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.”
or “In this season of joy, let us gather round the Yulelog,which burns like the unquenchable fire of hell that is going to consume you for all eternity.”
From the minute he arrives in the gospel stories, John the Baptist sticks out like a sore thumb and you just know he is going to end up offending someone. He can’t help himself.
And of course, he did. We know this about Zechariah’s boy: he is going to make a whole lot of people mad.
He will offend the religious establishment in Jerusalem; especially the priestly Sadducees who make their living from the money people pay to make sacrifices for their sins. John shows up and starts giving baptisms away for free, thus putting him in direct competition with the Temple.
John will further insult the religious professionals by telling them that they are not God’s favorites no matter how privileged their position. Being a child of Abraham doesn’t automatically make one sufficiently righteous, according to cranky cousin John.
And to top it all off, John is going to infuriate Herod. John calls out Herod for dumping his first wife to marry the wife of his half-brother. And we all know how that turns out for John.
But I’m skipping ahead in the story. In our text today, John is doing what he does best – yelling.
“Repent! Repent!” yelling at the top of his lungs just like a downtown soapbox street preacher and calling the crowd that’s followed him out to the wilderness “a bunch of venomous snakes.” Not the way to win friends and influence people, is it?
But it is John’s way and his particular role in the Advent story.
John shows up in every Advent season to call us out, to prepare us, and to prepare the way for the One to come. Maybe it is a terrible, thankless job, but John is the one to do it because John is a prophet. Prophets do the tough, thankless jobs in Scripture, saying the things nobody else will dare say.
Prophets like John are inspiring to those who have nothing to lose. But prophets are downright threatening to those with the most to lose – all of those political and religious powers that Luke so deliberately calls out in the beginning of the passage. Those names are not there by accident. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, his brother Philip, and Lysanias. The high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. Those who have the most to lose hear John’s prophetic words as threat, not promise. And they are the same powerful people who will find Jesus threatening, so threatening that they will kill him.
We sometimes think of prophets as fortune tellers or sooth-sayers, but in Scripture prophets are truth-tellers. God’s truth-tellers in the face of apathy, prejudice, and greed.
And there is John the Baptist, appearing in the wilderness looking all the world like a crazy man, this larger than life figure who, at every turn, wants us to know that the good news of Advent has nothing to do with the lies swirling around in our own messed up lives or political systems or even religious structures.
The good news John preaches in the wilderness is about something entirely new that is about to make its entrance way out there on the horizon.
And while we wait, we are to prepare ourselves by turning away from lies that kill and crush and harm.
We are to repent and turn toward God’s truth, which is drawing closer and closer with each breath we take.
John doesn’t know exactly who he is or why God has chosen him to bring this truth. He also doesn’t know the name of the One who is to follow. But he knows the truth and he’s not afraid to say it out loud, shouting it if he has to. Prophets are like that, and if you ask me, prophetic voices are getting more and more difficult for us to hear.
When Pastor Donna asked me if I would preach this Sunday, I did what most pastors do when they are invited to guest preach:
I looked back at what I preached three years ago on this same text from Luke and to see if there were parts of that sermon I could use for today.
But after a computer search, all I could find from three years ago was a half-finished sermon on John the Baptist. Which was pretty strange.
Then I noticed that there was another sermon for this same date marked in all caps: REVISED. And I remembered.
Newtown Connecticut. December 14, 2012. Three years ago.
Three years ago, I was writing my Advent sermon on John the Baptist when news broke about the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
So I abandoned John the Baptist and wrote a brand new sermon using a text from Matthew. I used the seldom-preached text about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents when he receives the news of the Jesus’ birth. Three years ago, I wrote:
“It is hard to bear such sorrow especially at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of our faith owns the cultural stage. But Matthew reminds us that the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — casting shadow of violence, agony and death.”
I was pretty upset three years ago.
This year, I sat down to write this sermon for today, a new sermon about John the Baptist and this text from Luke.
And as I was writing on Wednesday afternoon, another mass shooting flashed in my notifications. This time in San Bernardino. 14 dead. The worst mass shooting in the U.S. since Newtown.
How long, Oh Lord, how long?
In the shadow of this latest tragedy, one of so many tragedies in the world this year, John the Baptist is challenging me again and the impulse to abandon him was strong.
Because, I look at John standing out there up to his waist in the wild swirling water of the Jordan beckoning me to trust God’s promise that there is another story, a better story, coming. That darkness isn’t the final answer. That light and life is coming.
Frankly all I want to do is stay on the shore where the earth beneath my feet is dry and safe and reasonable.
And let’s face it — there’s nothing remotely reasonable about John the Baptist. He has forsaken every safe and familiar thing in the world. He has given up the comforts of home and culture, tradition and family; John has shrugged off all of it to become a man with a single purpose: To call out to us standing up there on dry land and tells us a truth we do not want to hear:
The truth is there is nothing packed away in our Christmas boxes and traditions that can save us in the way we really need to be saved. Nothing can save us that is familiar. Our ancestors can’t save us. Our educations and our accomplishments and our clean clothes and candlelit sanctuaries cannot save us. Our feasts and our carols cannot save us.
The only thing that can save us is to wade into the dangerous, churning waters of Advent with John the Baptist and be so transformed that we may bear good fruits of peace.
The good fruits of joy.
The good fruits of righteousness.
And the fragile, tender fruits of love.
The time has come. The time is now.
To rethink everything.
To prepare. To proclaim. To prophesize.
To make space for the only One who can save us.
To make space for the complete and total transformation of our lives fueled by what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe that existed before the dawn of time.”
Scary stuff, brothers and sisters. Those flashing eyes of John the Baptist are difficult to stare into. The shore is warm and dry. Those baptismal waters look dangerous and deep and you can’t see the bottom. To step out is to risk so much.
Given the hundreds of news reports about the events in San Bernadino over the lat few days, it is likely you missed a tiny little news article about Pope Francis and a statement he made shortly before new of the mass shooting occurred on Wednesday. Even as gunshots were ringing in California, in Rome the Pope said something rather prophetic:
“We are used to bad news, cruel news and to even bigger atrocities, which offend the name and life of God…we need a revolution of tenderness…from here, justice and all the rest derives.”
Perhaps John the Baptist will never be mainstream enough to appear on our Christmas cards or in manger scenes or in ornaments on our trees.
But perhaps the Pope’s call for a “revolution of tenderness” will help tune our ears to hear John’s plaintive song in a new way this year.
If you can get past the flashing eyes, the camel hair coat, the booming voice, we might hear John’s song in the wilderness for what it is – a love song.
We can stand with the crowd of people asking John “What then shall we do?” to prepare the way for the One who is coming. And we will hear the prophet voice’s telling us that repentance is not about judgment and shame or guilt or blame, but about love.
John’s song is about love of neighbor.
It’s about opening up our hands and sharing what we have with those who have nothing.
It’s about treating each other fairly and tenderly.
It’s about doing justice. Loving kindness. Walking humbly with our Lord.
John’s song is an old, old love song, one that the prophets had been singing for hundreds of years before him. And the love song that Jesus continued to sing when he walked the earth. And it is the love song that we are given today.
And when we sing along with John the Baptist, we will be embodying the revolution of tenderness that dares to proclaim: that God himself took on our flesh and came as a weak, vulnerable child into our world.
And do not deceive yourselves: he came into this world, not another world, not a perfect world safe enough for a child God.
He came into our world, a dangerous world where people shoot children and social workers and young people at sidewalk cafés as they drink wine and laugh with their friends.
He came into our world, where millions of refugees flee unimaginable violence and grinding poverty, and crowd together in camps, trying to stay alive. In Africa. In Asia. In the Middle East.
He came into our world, where black teenagers armed only with a knife are shot 16 times on a Chicago street, where police officers kiss their children goodbye and leave the house not knowing if they’ll return, where cab drivers in Hazelwood are shot for having the wrong last name.
He came into our world that has seen too many prayer vigils, a world that knows how dark the darkness can be, how deep the pain can go, how gripping the fear can become, how endless the grief.
This is the world he entered as a child. The real world. A world beyond our Christmas cards.
And we call this child the light, the light that shines in the darkness. And as hard as it is to believe sometimes, the darkness did not overcome him, and it has not, and it will not.
Let us pray:
We thank you, God, for the song you entrusted to John the Baptist and have given to us – a song of justice, peace, and most of all love. Give us the courage to sing in our own time about your dream for a different kind of world. May we be tender people in this Advent season, preparing our hearts to receive the One who is coming full of grace and truth. In Christ we pray. Amen.
 Chronicles of Narnia (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)