2nd Sunday in Advent
Here he comes again! He’s like the crazy relative you hoped would go to someone else’s house for Christmas. John the Baptist shows up in the scripture readings for the 2nd Sunday in Advent the way he does every year. And just the way he does every year, he barges in singing lyrics from Isaiah the way Handel set them to music in Messiah and the way Martin Luther King, Jr. so often quoted them.
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.” (Luke 6:1-3)
That sounds good, but he’s just getting started! After he has a few more cups of eggnog, he really gets going. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He declares that he’s just the warm-up act.
“I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” (Lk 3:16-17, The Message)
About this time, we’re ready to go searching for a happier, warmer, cozier scripture. Who really wants or needs John the Baptist before Christmas?
And the answer is that we all do!
Christmas in Our World
If the Jesus we expect is the Jesus we meet in the rest of the gospels, there’s always house cleaning that needs to happen in the deepest rooms of each of our souls. There are always crooked paths that need to be made straight, low places that need to be lifted up, dark corners that need the light, shattered relationship that need to be repaired, broken hearts that need to be healed, and confused priorities that need to be put in proper order. The prophetic words that John quoted and that Jesus demonstrated make plain that the message John delivers is not only for our personal lives but are to demonstrated by practical behavior and political action. And here’s one of those places.
Empty Chairs at the Christmas Table
Look closely at these faces. They are the four Oxford, Michigan students who died this week in the latest of our all too common school shootings. Picture their empty chairs and gifts they will never open because another student received his Christmas gift early and used it to kill them and wound seven others. Add to theirs the faces of all the others who have died as they did.
What would John the Baptist say to us?
He begins where we all begin, with heart-aching sadness.
Comfort, comfort my people!
says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
But John doesn’t stop there, and neither should we.
Look into these faces and ask if there isn’t something seriously wrong with our gun-addicted culture; something crooked about the way we live so that ours is the only nation on the planet with more guns than people. What would John the Baptist say to a country where “Christian” people are willing to put laws in place to protect the sanctity of life before birth, but are unable to put in place gun safety laws that the majority of our citizens support?
I sometimes wish we didn’t need to hear from John during Advent. I’d like get on to Bethlehem without taking the road that goes through the wilderness. But the Bible and the long traditions of the faith won’t let me get away with that.
We may not have invited John, but he comes to find us to get us ready for the coming of the One who can “change us from the inside out.”
Howard Thurman, who grew up in Daytona Beach, was raised by his grandmother who had been a former slave, and became a leading theologian in the first half of the 20th Century, prayed:
Sensitize our spirits, our Father. May we not shrink from the present intensity of our experiences lest we turn away from the redeeming power of Thy Perfect Love. Amen.
Grace and peace,