3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
In verse 4 of Matthew chapter 3 it says, “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Call me crazy. I discovered this purely by accident. But when John the Baptist is described I happen to envision my brother Josh. As I sat thinking about how I would describe John the Baptist, Josh immediately comes to mind he went to Clemson, was a counselor at Asbury Hills, and he taught multiple spiritual life retreats and his final seminary project were on survival. He tricked me when I was 7 ½ months pregnant with Enoch. I was the campus minister at Winthrop Wesley and we had organized a camping trip. I was used to staying at King’s Mountain State Park where you can park right at the campsite and bring board games, all sorts of snacks, and loads of gear. He talked me into going across the street to Crowder’s Mountain State Park. The campsite was a 1.8 mile hike!!! Josh definitely wants to be a man living on the land and he’s convinced that we all should take plant classes so if we have to go to my grandparent’s farm, we can eat. If the Zombie apocalypse comes no one is going to come anywhere close to Greeleyville or Williamsburg County so we’ll be safe there. Now you might be imagining someone who is “rugged.” No, not necessarily. Scraggly – with his cut off khakis and flip flops. Definitely tenacious and stubborn. He can MacGyver anything. Fearless? Josh reminds me of John the Baptist not merely on his live on the land exterior, but he has the boldness and the bullheadedness of purpose that I’m sure that John the Baptist had.
John was not afraid to march to the beat of his own drummer. He was not afraid to be different. He was not afraid to be prophetic – no matter the cost, no matter the friends he lost, no matter if people pointed at him, no matter what they whispered at him, no matter if people called him an odd duck or weird or strange.
As they lit the Advent wreath earlier, we heard from a different Gospel writer, Mark, as he begins with a quote from Isaiah about John the Baptist.
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark and Matthew both explicitly name John the Baptist as the one the prophet Isaiah talked about.
Fast forward through Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, through the temptation of Jesus, and the start of Jesus’ public ministry to John the Baptist’s imprisonment. In Matthew chapter 11, verses 2-6, “2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’”
Jesus wanted to continue John the Baptist’s legacy, making it complete, in him. The prophets had foretold this. Jesus’ wanted to build on John’s teaching, baptizing not just by water but by the Spirit. Jesus wanted to continue the revolution that John had started. Jesus also stepped to the beat of a different drum so he understood. In fact, he created the drum. Jesus asked John’s disciples to take back what they could hear and see. Remember, Keep Awake, from last week’s text, we don’t know when we will cross to the other side of Jordan and no one knows the hour or the day, but we should be prepared all the time. We should live like Christ calls us to ALL the time. We should do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God 24:7:365. It’s not out of guilt, it’s not about us earning our salvation, it’s out of joy and hope and love of God and neighbor. It’s practicing what you preach no matter the cost or how hard it is. Again, Jesus asked John’s disciples to take what they could hear and see. If Jesus came back today, what would he hear and see?
Would he see us being hateful to one another by our sharp, critical, pessimistic, glass half empty, doomsday brand of legalistic Christianity?
Would he see our country so divided that each of us demonize the “other” calling them ignorant or unchristian or conservative or liberal or independent?
Would he see us loving our neighbor that may be different from us or just the ones we’re comfortable with, the ones we like, the ones who dress appropriately for church or who fit in and know the words to all the creeds?
There’s got to be a different WAY. The world has got see a different way. The way of love. Light. Hope. Because if we’re not offering it than who is? If we can’t offer a prayerful, calm, hope-filled word than what are we doing here? Are we playing church or being church?
We lit this candle on the Advent wreath symbolizing Christ the Way.
Do we know the way? In John 14:6 says, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s pretty clear. I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. Model my behavior. Be my light to the world.
Pope Francis writes in his “Evangeli Guadium” or The Joy of the Gospel, the first official document written entirely by Pope Francis, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
“More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving.”
“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.”
“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Amen. Prophetic words that have much to teach us.
Pope Francis knows something of what the prophet Micah spoke of in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus calls us out and helps us to see. He’s not passive aggressive. He does it in love. He gets to the heart of us. He cuts through the rationalizations and why’s and excuses and he looks at us and we begin to squirm because in our heart of hearts we know we’re wrong. We know we shouldn’t put our stock in tradition, ritual, rules, or anarchy, laissez faire attitudes, ambivalence to everything.
We may pile up all sorts of opinions and points in an argument or debate, but in the end, with Jesus, love is the last word of all – God’s love for US, for all the world, and all of creation. During this season especially, let’s react first in love, not in judgment. I know it’s hard for some of us. It often seems like we’re merely reacting to what happens, instead of setting the course. I learned this advice in defensive driving class that I always carry with me, “You can only control your car. You can’t control what another driver does, how he or she acts, or whether or not they tailgate you and speed around you. You can only control how YOU react to the situation.”
Speaking of tailgating, as we move through the Christmas shopping season, let’s not let our overflowing shopping carts prevent us from seeing where Jesus is steering us. He wants us to focus on him, not on luxurious lifestyles. As country singer George Strait noted,
You don’t bring nothing with you here
And you can’t take nothing back
I ain’t never seen a hearse, with a luggage rack.
If we buy things in order to have that fuzzy, warm feeling – it’s going to leave us empty, unfulfilled, and with maxed out credit cards. This may be a tough path to walk, but fortunately Jesus strengthens us. He baptizes us “with the Holy Spirit” (v. 8), filling us with his presence and power. The Spirit of Christ offers us love, joy and peace, as well as other spiritual gifts: “patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These gifts are the marks of a Christian life, and are the clearest signs that a person is moving along the path of Jesus.
There is a story about a group of tourists visiting the Vatican. Their tour guide had told them about the famed Sistine Chapel: the place where the College of Cardinals meets to choose a new pope, the room whose ornate painted ceiling is Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
One aspect of the Sistine Chapel comes as a surprise to most first-time visitors: its size. It’s a rather small room. One young man was so eager to see Michelangelo’s painted ceiling, he dashed in one end of the Sistine Chapel and out the other. He mistook the Chapel for some kind of antechamber. The tour guide had to chase after him, saying: “Come back, you missed it — and this time, remember to look up!”
It’s the sort of mistake that’s so easy to make during Advent. It’s so easy to confuse Advent with a waiting room: to dash through these four short weeks, arms laden with packages, eyes cast downward, busy, busy, busy. Just like Amy Grant’s Christmas song, “I need a silent night, a Holy night. To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise. I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here. To end this crazy day with a silent night.” Advent is a destination in its own right. To make him room. To prepare the way. To keep awake. If we fast forward to Christmas, we’re missing out on the soul work God wants us to do this Advent season. Doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.
So walk the talk this Advent season. Dig into scripture or an Advent Devotional book. There are some on the Missions table in the Fellowship Hall. Do a specific prayer focus or take part in an Advent picture challenge. Do whatever you need to do for YOU to connect with God during this season. Did you hear what I said? Do whatever you need to do for YOU to connect with God during this season because a baby is coming and He can be your Lord of Lords, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, and Everlasting God. He proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He will change your life if you let him.
- Preached on Sunday, December 4th.