Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. – Hellen Keller
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Message from November 30th – 2nd Sunday of Advent Worship by Pastor Pokora
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hold the eggnog. Pull the roasting chestnuts from the fire. Ask the nine ladies dancing and the ten Lord leaping to sit down and take a load of their feet. It’s the second Sunday of Advent and John the Baptist has come to town.
Of all the personalities in the New Testament, John the Baptist remains one of the most eccentric and enigmatic. Biblical theologians place his story at the beginning the of the public ministry of Jesus and, as a consequence, he gets looped into our Advent narrative today.
You may well recall, only two gospels, Matthew and Luke, have anything to say about the birth of Jesus. Both the Gospels of John and Mark begin their story of the life and ministry of Jesus with his baptism by John in the river Jordan. While all four Gospels are laser focused on the proclamation of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, they tell that story from their own unique perspective. But all agree on one thing; John the Baptist got the ball rolling.
Our modern celebration of what we call the Christmas season begins with the narrative of the birth of Jesus, but quickly evolves into stories of Santa Claus and his eight tiny rain deer, the Grinch who stole Christmas and other stories too numerous to mention. When you think about it, Christmas has become more a product of Madison Avenue marketing firms, and the likes of Best Buy and Walmart, than of the Christian faith. I remember back in October, walking into a local Shell gasoline station and seeing a forlorn Christmas tree standing in a dusty corner. That Christmas tree, largely ignored by people buying cigarettes and pop at the cash register, was a vivid reminder for the Christian community that our version of Christmas has been hijacked.
The beauty of placing John the Baptist squarely in the middle of any Advent season is he sticks out like a sore thumb. No one can sentimentalize or create a smarmy Christmas story out of the camel pelt John the Baptist wears. You can watch Christmas themed stories on the Hallmark Channel from now until 2 a.m. and never see once a program with anything related to John the Baptist. And that is just as well. John is left alone to be who God called him to be.
Our lectionary uses the Gospel of Matthew to tell John’s story. We learn John suddenly appeared in the wilderness proclaiming the kingdom of heaven had drawn near and required repentance for forgiveness of sins. His message builds upon the prophesy of Isaiah. We read, “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his pathway/” Matthew places John squarely in the long line of stark, imposing, and uncompromising prophets. Like Ezekiel Jeremiah, Isaiah and all the other prophets, John comes to rattle the throne of the powerful, scatter the money of the wealthy and humble the self-righteous.
What an appearance John made for himself! He wore a camel’s pelt with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. Maybe he was a Biblical version of a vegan. I suppose some people thought him a sideshow attraction, like the famous bearded lady of carnival fame. We read: “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the regions along the Jordan.” In fact, however, some people were so moved by what he said, they were baptized in the river Jordan and confessed their sin right then and there.
John had a transforming impact on those who came to hear him. But there were others where the change was more for show and tell. Listen to what John says about the Pharisees and Sadducees who came for his baptism. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John tells them to walk the talk. The outward sign of baptism means little or nothing, unless accompanied by an inner act of repentance.
John’s encounter with the Jerusalem establishment is only a prelude to what will come. His role is to be that voice in the wilderness, to be the prophet who points to God’s ultimate agent of redemption, Jesus Christ himself. Here John puts himself in perspective. He says: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The word of redemption has been followed by a warning that a true change of heart and conversion must be forth coming. Religion for show is a no-go.
This story of John the Baptist fills a hugely important role for our own Advent season. Many people have never heard of or do not understand the difference between the four weeks of Advent and the 12 days of Christmas. Every year Christ must come again in Advent to restart the changes that should have taken place last year but did not stick. We may have professed repentance last Advent and intended conversion in our hearts, but the will was often not there to follow through with the good intentions.
It’s like a conversation I once had with Mary, the receptionist at the Fitness Center. I told her how difficult it was for me to go to the fitness center on near zero temperature days and swim laps in the pool. As I drive to that pool, my body, thinks of every good reason to avoid jumping into the water. It’s easy to swim laps in July, but not cold December or January.
That’s how it goes with many things in life. We start with good intentions, but the discipline and follow through necessary for real change is lacking. We fall back into bad habits and laziness. This regression is surely true of changes that ought to occur in us Advent. When the cold winds of January arrive, the warm fuzzy Christmas spirit disappears, and we regress to square one spiritually. We pack the Christmas tree ornaments away, throw the evergreen tree out on the curb for the garbage man to pick up and revert to our old ways.
John the Baptist comes as a healthy antidote to the manufactured Christmas spirit. The other day a friend of mine posted pictures of Christmas decorations in Dubai. People celebrate Christmas in Japan and China, though they know nothing of Jesus Christ. The point being the Christmas season can be co-opted, losing its reason and no one knows or cares. Just keep the cookie and eggnog coming, while Elvis Presley sings “it’s a Blue, Blue Christmas” on the radio.
No one fools around with John the Baptist. Walmart cannot get a handle on him. He brushes aside the colorful lights strung inside and outside our homes. He sees through the temporary sentimentality that bubbles with singing the song White Christmas and speaks to us of true repentance, conversion, and faith. He calls us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.