Each year in Advent we bump into John the Baptist. It’s always a surprise—why should someone like him ruin our holiday spirit? It’s awkward and we don’t know what to say because he’s blunt, way too comfortable being confrontational. He dresses funny so that folks make snarky comments about what an oddball he is. To associate with him is social disaster. Who is this guy to think that he can call our values into question? Of yeah. He’s Jesus’ relative, a cousin of sorts. And God sent John ahead of Jesus to help prepare our hearts for the Messiah. This makes it an even more difficult encounter. We don’t want to let him interrupt our Christmas preparation. But we know we should listen to this spiritual guru who is an unlikely melding of Howard Stern and the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury.
The lectionary directed us to Matthew 3: 1-12 this past Sunday:
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Part of what turns us off to poor, crazy John is his exhortation. For 2000 years he has called out for folks to do some serious spiritual self-examination and to subsequently confess their sins. Our warm, fuzzy feelings for the Christmas season diminish as John asks us to remember what God has done for us.
“Yeah, I know! I remember!”, we want to yell back at him. “God is good. Jesus is awesome. Now go back to the place you came from and leave me alone! I want to string up a few more lights!”
Alexander Whyte was a fiery preacher whose parish was Free St. George’s in Edinburgh. His preaching was so direct it unmasked any pretenses the congregants had carefully put in place. Author John Kelman stated that to hear him preach was to take your life in your hands! Remember Dr. Laura on the radio? People called in for her advice and she gave it! I remember some people would nervously preface their story by saying, “Now don’t yell at me but….” Or “Please don’t get mad at me but I did this…” And she would lay into them—and her words made sense—and more people called in the next day. As hard as it is to hear criticism, when we hear the truth preached with forceful conviction we often come back for more. In their book, Resident Aliens, authors Willimon and Hauerwas write, “Indeed, one of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry.” Do we need more preachers who imitate the style of Simon Cowell of American Idol who could blurt out hurtful truth to some skinny, awkward singer without batting an eyelash? We cringed to hear his harsh critiques but we knew he was right and tuned in for more!
John is an odd duck. The loving acceptance we treasure about Jesus is offset by John’s fierce admonition. In this strange pairing of young men we learn that 1)we are cherished by God but also, 2) responsible to the One who created us. John’s message was too dangerous to be spoken from a pulpit in the Jerusalem Temple. So, in his scratchy burlap overcoat with a partially chewed cricket leg lodged between his teeth, he migrated to the wilderness so that the only people who would hear him were those who wanted to. In John’s time–and ours–folks migrate to the cities to earn their living. Cities offer connections, conveniences, options. John chooses the desert for his lecture series, a pulpit on the margins, and folks flock to him! The Jews knew the wilderness as a place of judgment—where their ancestors had wandered for 40 years because of their independent spirit. But it was also a place of redemption. So John urged folks to submit to a good cleansing through confession of sin and immersion in the Jordan River, calling it baptism. The sun beat down with inescapable heat as they hiked out to John’s parish praying for a new life.
Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II. He erected a monument to himself to ensure that his name would go on into perpetuity. He chose the wording, hired royal stone masons who carved these glowing words onto the massive leg of a statue carved in his image: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” The broken remnants of this statue were discovered in the desert of Egypt, surrounded by burning sand and only the toughest of creatures who can endure the heat. This ancient ruler is now remembered for his pride rather than his power. The kingdom about which he boasted was devalued from major to seriously marginal!
Some people don’t want their paths straightened out. They don’t see themselves as crooked. The nature of politics hasn’t changed in the course of human history much, has it? In Matthew 3, verses 7-10 of this passage, we witness the power brokers of the Jewish people making an excursion out to the desert to scope out this nut case who was getting such rave reviews. John spotted them from afar and didn’t make their arrival easy. They were, after all, on his turf so he preached at them, calling them a brood of vipers who assumed they were entitled to extra protections and privilege. If they thought a second term was their due, they had better rethink that because God could pull new recruits seemingly out of nowhere who would pick up where they left off. His language is characteristically strong. I remember hearing a story about folks hanging onto trees for dear life as a tsunami swirled beneath them. These terrified human beings, whose circumstances changed in one terrible freak moment of nature, found that they were sharing those upper branches of trees with snakes whose slithering trails were awash with raging waters. That image stayed with me, a double terror of flood waters and vipers desperately hanging in trees together. “You brood of vipers!”, John yelled in front of the crowds. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Some people don’t want their paths straightened out but John gives everyone a chance.
The wilderness sermon is delivered in the present tense: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We don’t need to wait for some future date when God breaks into our story. God is here now in the person of Jesus so we better make sure we are ready. From John’s ministry we know that those most receptive to God’s Word tend to be found on the margins. Those of meager stature act out of their conscience and sometimes a movement is born that shifts from the margins to center stage.
When Greta Thunberg was 8 she heard about environmental warming and urged her parents to change their lifestyle. Her mother, an opera singer, agreed to give up flying thereby sacrificing her career to follow her young daughter’s convictions. They adopted a vegan diet and Greta began to preach her message in her hometown of Stockholm, Sweden. A diagnosis of Aspergers and Obsessive/compulsive disorder at age 11 only sharpened her focus on what she is willing to stand for. Standing outside the Swedish parliament building, she held up a sign stating “School strike for the climate.” Other students followed her lead and a global effort was born called Fridays for Future. Now 16 she has the attention of world politicians, has inspired grassroots movements around the world and received more awards than most of us will earn in a long lifetime. From the margins of Sweden to televised world summits, Greta moved from the margins to a global stage.
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students banded together to make a statement to the nation that enough is enough. They organized March for our Lives, thereby emboldening similar student groups to demand action by adults to protect our school children. Students Against Gun Violence is a campus movement aiming for change in Michigan State University’s policies. From the margins of Parkland, Florida and a central Michigan campus to national news, students march their message for change and inspire other young people to take action for their futures.
The keynote speaker at the Michigan Conference Annual Meeting (of the United Church of Christ) in October was Rev. Doctor Starsky Wilson. He was the pastor of Saint Johns (the Beloved) Church in St. Louis at the time of the Michael Brown shooting. Starsky is an African American, United Church of Christ pastor who responded to this racially charged situation by getting involved. He was asked to serve as co-chair of the Ferguson Commission whose report in 2015 unmasked the breadth and depth of racial inequality in that part of our country. While serving on the commission he was sometimes bailing people out of jail. In an interview he shared his theology: “…I’m very clear that the place of the church is always on the side of people with the least power…the church was a way of making sure that I was still connected to issues related to marginalized poor children.” (Faith and Leadership, April 19, 2016) From the margins of an inner-city United Church of Christ to the policy makers of Saint Louis, Starsky and others urged repentance for social sins and redemption for those on the margins.
Not all of the reforms I’ve mentioned stem from spiritual convictions. But, as Christians, the changes we seek to make in our world stem from our commitment to serve in the name and power of Jesus Christ. Like John, our message echoes Christ’s calling to serve the least of these who have been overlooked. On the margins of the city of Grand Rapids, in a town called Rockford, we stood for justice this past week. Last week we opened our building and hearts to three families who were given food and sanctuary here. In our worship service, when I asked folks to raise their hands if they had helped in some capacity, every part of the sanctuary had hands held high. Folks from the United Methodist Church next door were be another set of hands that took care of the shelter needs two of the week nights. We have covenanted as two neighboring congregations to work together to cover the needs of our Family Promise guests on the weeks we are assigned. Two people slept at the church each night just in case they were needed. The night I stayed over there was noise in the kitchen after 10PM. The other “chaperone” checked and met up with one of the guests, a woman who was staying the week with her three young boys. When he asked if he could help her with something she answered that she was looking for where she could place her “Elf-on-a-Shelf.” She carried traditions with her from her past, when they had their own space. Our church building became their home for one week with needs being met and traditions being carried on. Her boys would know to run around this new space to find their little friend. Perhaps this made the transient life of living in a shelter feel a bit less threatening. We are prepared to host up to 15 guests each week that we host so this could be described as a marginal movement. What is 15 beds when faced with staggering numbers of homeless families who need safe lodging? But we, who experienced it, know it was not marginal. It was BIG!
John preached that God was at work in the here and now changing things, calling us to repentance for the ways that we have failed to live out our faith. Advent is this beautiful season that reminds us to renew our trust that Christ is at work. He is working even now to transform our broken world into a place that showcases His glory. In Advent we reflect on the unbelievably good news that God came down to our level, broke into our world in the birth of a helpless baby born to poor parents for whom there was no room at the inn. Never again, we affirm in Advent. We will make sure that our hearts are ready for Him. We will sort through our lives so that the chaff—the fluff, the spin, the detritus, the propaganda and flattery—can be blown away and only the holy substance that has potential to grow will be left. The images John uses assure us that this process is no cake walk! So we focus on the promise that, no matter how far we may have wandered from God’s plan for us, God-in-Christ keeps pointing the Way back home. Wilderness is never far from mainstream traffic. Wilderness can be found in the pews and in families whose smiles on Christmas cards make it look like everything is fine. But we learn in the course of our days that brokenness is our common denominator, the hushed unifier of humanity.
The life of faith is a challenge. But the promise through the birth of Christ, a baby born in the margins of the Roman Empire, is that the God who brought the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom, will save us from our preoccupation with chaff and reorient our focus to the grain, the substance, the life-giving faith that continually brings us from the margins of society to the embrace of a Savior in the holy company of the overlooked and forgotten. No work could be more important!