Advent belongs to John the Baptist, the voice that cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John pointed to Jesus and said, behold the Lamb of God. His prophetic words announce the Christmas season, and we get ready to celebrate the birth in Bethlehem. John is the trumpet that parts the curtain on the stage of the world. Now the savior of the world comes striding forth in glory, bearing salvation and opening heaven’s gates to all.
But we have a sanitized picture of John because he points to Jesus, and we see Jesus on the other side of the tomb, in eternal glory. There is benefit in trying to bring John and his wilderness message forward to our own times and to ask whether we can learn from him before we rush into Christmas. If we could reenact the drama that John played on his stage in the wilderness, then we might arrive at Christmas with a new understanding of Jesus.
John must have been in town often enough to make a few disciples and then he invited them to visit him in the wilderness. After they came, they invited others to come with them the next time. Soon it could be said “everybody” was going out to hear him. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees went to hear him. They were the true pillars of the community, with the Pharisees being the political and religious leaders and Sadducees being mainly the priests and the families from which the priests came.
These people were somebody. They were not low-life or bad guys or disreputable characters. And when they come to be baptized, what does John preach to them? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John is speaking to people who furnished leadership, stability, orderliness, safety, and respectability to their community and to society. We would not be comfortable in such a society, given our interest in democracy and individuality, but it worked in first century Palestine. What was wrong with their viewpoint of God and mankind in general is that they deemed themselves to be self-sufficient.
They didn’t need the approval of others. They had put God in such a small box that they didn’t really need him either. I think it is safe to imagine their response. They didn’t know they were on the wrong track. They didn’t know their viewpoint of life and God was just plain wrong. They didn’t know they needed healing; they truly had no idea they were mistaken.
Surely that is easy for us to understand. If we are tending to our usual business in the usual manner, we will not take kindly to someone who approaches us with the declaration that we need to be cured. Most of us have the idea that we are in control, at least to an acceptable degree, that we are reasonably self sufficient, that we are aware or self conscious enough that we don’t need someone to do our thinking for us. But how many of us need a dose of truth? The task for any communicator of the Gospel is to preach truth. John spoke truth.
Anyone who goes in search of godly interests should want to hear the truth. And however we feel about truth, either from wanting to hear or wanting to tell, the truth is, all is not well in the world. The task of the preacher is to unmask the illusion that all is well in the world. The duty of the listener is to lay aside safe masks of respectability and self-assurance.
We don’t respond well to people who unmask illusions by which we live, people who tell us that mankind is dependent upon God and each other. We who cherish self-reliance would rather do it ourselves. When the heart is curled in upon itself, we are unable to see that eternity intersects with every moment of life. I wish I could keep God in a box on the shelf six days a week, maybe on a shelf in this building, and let him out Sunday mornings.
But he lives also in our neighborhood, across the street, and at your house, and wherever we carry on the business of living day by day. Now we run head-on into Advent, and John the Baptist, and the annual trek out into the wilderness. We are called back to the reality that we are the baptized people of God who know where this story is going and how it will move from Bethlehem to Calvary and two of the disciples who didn’t recognize their companion in the walk to Emmaus. It is because of that ending of the story that we should not be afraid to unmask our illusions about ourselves. It is only when we come to truth about ourselves that we can then have a vision of the possibilities.
The truth is that we are children of the God of love. God speaks his word of love to us in the sacraments of the family of faith. It is with the simplest symbols that he speaks, but the symbols carry an eternal reality. We have been washed clean of our self-centeredness. We have been adopted by our father in heaven. We have been made brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ.
We have been renovated and invigorated by the living spirit of God. We are fed with the bread of eternal life, a bread that is indistinguishable from the body of Jesus of Nazareth broken for us on the cross and inseparable from the glorified Christ of Easter morning.
God has spoken his word of love to the world since creation’s first morning and he continues to speak his word of love to us in the life of the church today.
When God tells us we are his, then life is set right. Life starts anew, filled with God’s grace. The world, particularly with the advertisements so prevalent just now, the world has an altogether different definition of love and grace than God has.
We need to keep reminding ourselves of the difference. In the ads for Christmas gifts, love is re-translated into giving someone a warm fuzzy feeling, or someone giving us a warm fuzzy feeling.
We are encouraged to do that with the transaction of a gift. Now of course an exchange cannot be both a transaction and a gift at the same time, but most of us ignore that detail.
At home we ask, “Did they send us a Christmas card last year? No? Then I guess we can take them off our list for this year.” That’s a transaction. Or maybe it goes this way. “You mean they gave us a gift at the family dinner last year? Well, we’d better have something for them this year.” God’s grace works differently, to say the least. He receives us by his grace. Our deceptions are unmasked, our illusions are set aside, and the reality of God’s grace touches us where we hurt. Then we run into Jesus’ word for our conduct with each other, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It’s said that the “meaning of love for someone is to accept that person at heart level with grace.” That is the only way in which we can enact Jesus’ word to us to be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. We can accept the other person at heart level with grace. It may be difficult to accept another person with grace. But that acceptance with grace is what is different from the world’s definition of love as a transaction. With God’s grace firmly implanted as the guiding hope for daily living, then we can understand other symbols and other images inspired by the reality of Jesus Christ’s arrival in the world.
We turn to the picture painted by Isaiah. Just try to imagine what would happen if we were to put a wolf and a lamb in the same enclosure, or expect a leopard to lie down with a three-week old goat. Picture a calf and a lion and a ready-for-veal bull all on the same tether, being led by a little child. It is too much to imagine, a lion eating straw or a child laying her hand over the hole in the ground where a snake waits to strike.
But we read this lesson and nobody laughs out loud in disgust or in derision. We have a funny way of looking at things in the church, with these symbolic pictures of a peaceable kingdom that never will pertain. Yet we look at these idyllic scenes and call it the reality of the kingdom that was ushered in by the birth of Jesus Christ. His emergence onto the world scene means that God’s kingdom will finally prevail over all the evil and disorder and catastrophe in human living.
Our perception of reality can be transactional relations with others, and a god kept safely away from life. Or our perception of reality can be dependence on God and each other, grace-full relations with all our fellow travelers, and feeling the nudge of eternity forever at our elbow.
As baptized people, we know where we must come down. The season of Advent gives us the reminder that since Jesus is always coming, we must put into practice every day our decision about what a difference his coming makes.
Advent calls us to make the decision again and again – and he is coming soon.