(Isaiah 11:6-9; Matthew 3:1-12)
The house is beautifully decorated for the big Christmas party, and all the guests are loving it. The tree stands majestically in the living room; its lights emitting a soft, warm glow. We’ve adjusted that little nightlight behind the manger scene to give it a cozy, holy feel. All the cookies and Chex mix and hot cider are arranged on the dining room table, eagerly being consumed by our grateful guests. Seasonal music is playing softly on the stereo – the boys choir from King’s College, Cambridge. We move joyfully through the gathering, exchanging pleasantries and holiday greetings. We stop for a moment by the tree to inhale the scent of fresh pine, and are about to exhale our contentment …..
…..when suddenly, without warning, John the Baptist comes crashing into our living room! He flips on the overhead lights, and we are left squinting until our eyes adjust to the bright harshness that comes in with this madman. Like hot cider that burns our tongue, John himself blazes white-hot. He’s got a winnowing fork in his hand and he’s yelling like a street corner preacher. Forget the cookies and chex mix. Forget the dulcet tones of the choir. All holiday music has been drowned out by this man who has no intention of blending his voice or evening singing in the right key. “You brood of vipers!” he bellows, standing on the living room coffee table. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! Either bear good fruit or be thrown into an unquenchable fire!”[i]
No faster way to kill the Christmas spirit, is there? Somehow we missed John the Baptist on the Christmas party invite list! Who let that guy in? And yet, from a liturgical standpoint, this is precisely what Advent does. It throws John the Baptist into the mix. And we’re justified if we feel a little put off by his presence, whatever time of the year it is. Because John, as our party guests certainly discovered, is not the “warm and fuzzy” type. He is loud and obnoxious. He reeks of camel hair and locust pie. And he doesn’t give a hoot whether you like what he says or not.
It sort of reminds me of a Saturday Night Live skit that was all the rage a few years back. It was a lovely Christmas meal that the family was gathering around the table for; and yet “Debbie Downer,” as the character is calls, consistently puts a damper on everything. She reminds her newly-engaged sister and fiancé that about half of marriages end in divorce. She tells her mother, who slaved over a hot stove all day, exactly what turkeys go through before they arrive on the table. And she casually mentions that there really is nothing to be thankful for since they’re all going to die someday anyway. John the Baptist is something like that – except Debbie’s annoying whine has been replaced with a blood-curdling scream.
So, let us dispense with the pleasantries here – John certainly has – and let’s just ask ourselves: why is John the Baptist showing up in our Advent season? Why is he, of all people, the herald God has given us to announce the arrival of the Prince of Peace? Here’s Jesus, born in a manger and surrounded by loved ones. Such a peaceful, pastoral scene. And that there’s John, barging into our lives with his wild ranting and raving. And we are left feeling like we’ve had our Christmas hijacked by the likes of an annoying street preacher who just won’t shut up.
The manger and the “Screamer.” The baby and the Baptist. The two don’t seem to fit. And yet there they are, side by side in chapters 2 and 3 of Matthew’s gospel. Even though we know that the baby Jesus and the adult John were separated by many years. For our purposes, for our ongoing Advent journey, the birth of Jesus and John’s ministry in the wilderness are yoked together – John declaring for all to hear:
I baptize you with water
but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
It is, of course, Jesus he is talking about – not the baby Jesus from a chapter earlier, but the grown-up one, his contemporary. It is Jesus, he says, who will fulfill all that God has set in motion. And the time for this is not in some far-off, distant future. The time for it is right now.
And maybe that is what annoys people about John the Baptist so much. I mean, certainly the screaming and ranting, the scathing language and in-your-face attitude. But it’s the immediacy of his message that, when you get right down to it, offends us. We don’t like it when people tell us what to do, and we like it even less when they’re pushy about it. When they don’t give us time to get ready, to adjust our thinking and our routines.
The time is NOW! It’s funny, because it sort of flies in the face of what we are told Advent is all about, right? Wait, we are told. Don’t rush , wait……. And then there’s John: No, the time is NOW! Repent, NOW! Be baptized, NOW!
How do we reconcile John’s crass immediacy with our holy Advent waiting?
It’s quite the paradox, isn’t it? I mean, think about the lovely visual that familiar Christmas hymn paints for us:
Silent night, Holy night
All is calm and bright
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
It is a beautiful tune, and I am really looking forward to our children’s program tonight on the story behind this very hymn. But can I get my John the Baptist on for just a minute and share with you – and many of you know what I’m talking about – share my experience on what happens when a newborn baby comes around? Silent night?? An infant tender and mild?? SLEEP in heavenly peace?? Sleep?? Were those first few days the most precious moments ever? Yes! Were they sacred? Absolutely. But also chaotic and exhausting and unpredictable. And loud, so so loud. A little like John, to be honest!
Tell me why a baby’s scream at 3am sounds so much louder than that exact same scream in the middle of the day? I love the comedian who describes the physiological affect a newborn’s cry has on their parent. The sound waves from the infant’s mouth travel directly to the parent’s ear, through the ear canal and right into the central nervous system. There, he says, it links up with specific nerve fibers in the parent’s spine, put there for this very purpose, which contract and expand muscles to force the parent to get out of bed and rush to the infant’s crib. They don’t even have to think about it![ii]
I wonder if part of our Advent journey involves dealing with the tension between silent nights and infant cries; between holy waiting and a rush to act. Like a friend of mine always likes to say: make haste, slowly. Could it be that John’s party-crashing kind of travels through our spiritual nervous system and causes us to stand up and take notice of the wonderful things God is doing in our midst? So Advent itself becomes that tender, screaming child. It is loud and bombastic, as we wait. It grabs our attention, as we ponder and prepare.
It’s an experience like no other because what God is in the process of doing is unlike anything God has ever done before. This new thing we rush into and wait for will top the parting of the Red Sea, where God’s people were saved from slavery. It’ll surpass all those judges and kings God called to leadership. It’ll be louder than all the prophets combined, stronger than a thousand Samsons.
It is change, my friends; the very essence of change. That’s why we have to prepare for it, and that’s why it has to happen now. It is change at the most fundamental and transformative level; so much so that mere words can’t describe it. Only images – images like the one the great prophet Isaiah paints in our other scripture today:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
One of my minister friends, on an Advent Sunday morning, was sharing this passage with the children in their Children’s Time in worship. And as she did, she showed them a small statue of a lion lying down with a tiny lamb figurine resting on its outstretched paws. She asked the children to tell her what they saw. One little boy piped up, “Well, it looks like that lion is about to have himself some dinner!”[iii]
Which is exactly the point! Advent is that intersection where the harsh realities of the real world and the hopeful promise of God’s world collide. And you know what we find at this collision? We find a God who is adamant about closing the gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. Let me say that again: we find a God who is adamant about closing the gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. Close it shut, so there’s no collision at all.
In Advent, we find a God who longs to see the streets safe in places like Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and Ferguson, Missouri. In Advent, we find a God who wants to see that a life in Africa or Harlan, Kentucky is honored every bit as much as a life anywhere. In Advent, we find a God who longs for the day when a weapon isn’t fired and a missile isn’t launched because there’s nothing that needs to be fought over. And to think – all of this is set in motion by a newborn infant in an animal stable; and a nomad baptizer who eats crickets and refuses to keep his mouth shut.
My friends, that is the kind of world that Advent ushers in. It causes us to take pause, and it implores us to act. It is quiet and peaceful and serene, and it is loud and booming. It is all of those things at the exact same time.
It is an Advent world that stands up and takes notice of the baby in the manger. It is a world where God comes crashing our little Christmas party, over and over and over again, because a little “crash” every now and then just might do us some good. It is a world that unsettles us – because we begin to see with open, clear eyes the stark contrast between the way things are and the way they ought to be. This world, like Advent itself, upsets our schedules and agendas and routines. And out of that very reality, it reminds us of God’s steadfastness, God’s loyalty, and God’s eternal grace. And if there ever were something totally worth the interruption, my friends, it is certainly that.
So next time ol’ John comes crashing our Christmas party, know that his arrival, although quite unexpected, is very much expected. Silent Night, Holy Night. Wake up! Sleep in heavenly peace. Repent now! Winnowing forks and unquenchable fires – and yes indeed, it is a little child that shall lead us all.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. And may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
[i] Based on an article from “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship” by Kimberly Clayton Richter in Journal for Preachers, 28: 1, Advent 2004 (Columbia Theological Seminary), 5-6.
[ii] From the video Bill Cosby as Himself.
[iii] “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship,” 6.