John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”
Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle.
While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be.
Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people.
And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.
That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.
J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.
Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.
J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cried out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people all are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
“A hopeless situation.”
That’s how she described herself while sheltering against the church from the wind. Above her mask I could see a tiredness in her eyes, a tiredness that was further echoed in her story. No job, no family, no food, no money, no hope.
Meanwhile, a van full to the brim with a family drove by and, even though all the windows were up, we could still hear all of them singing at the tops of their lungs, “It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”
I handed her a bag of food, offered to pray with her, and when she walked away I couldn’t tell if it had made any difference at all.
Can you imagine anything worse than being in a situation without any hope? Being forced so strongly to the margins of life that there was no one you could call to bail you out, no family that would welcome you in?
Hopelessness can derail individuals and families. And even though, at this time of year, we light candles and string up sparkly things, and decorate Christmas trees, and talk about hope in places like this, the sting of hopelessness can still hit harder than just about anything else.
God’s people Israel knew hopelessness. During the Babylonian Exile, the time in which Isaiah speaks his confounding word of comfort, they were a people who knew no comfort.
It’s challenging for people like us, today, to imagine, at all, what that time was like for God’s people – they had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their worship, their status, roots, stories, identity, and just about everything else.
They were truly strangers in a strange land.
They were swallowed up by their oppressors and compelled to adopt a way of life that ran counter to all they had ever known.
They were in a hopeless situation.
And, to make matters worse, the Lord of their ancestors had commanded them again and again to take no other gods save for the Lord God. Their idolatry, their wanton disregard for the commandments resulted in an exilic punishment.
To put it plainly, they brought it upon themselves.
And they were hopeless to do anything about it.
But it is precisely here, to a hopeless people, that God speaks through Isaiah:
Comfort, O comfort my people! Speak kindly to my people, remind them that the penalty for sin has been paid. A voice is crying out – Prepare the way of the Lord! The valleys will be lifted up, the hills will be brought down, God’s divine leveling will come to fruition. God’s glory will be revealed and all will see what God can do. A voice cries out – People are like grass, they wither and float away. But God stands forever and ever! So do not fear! God is coming with might! He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom.
Chances are, some of us are familiar with at least part of this proclamation from the prophet – In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. We hear those words every Advent in reference to John the Baptist who, spoiler warning, prepares the way of the Lord.
And J the B, as I like to call him, was no ordinary fellow.
He is rather alarming, coming straight out of the desert dressed in animal skins while eating insects and yelling about repentance. And, according to Mark’s Gospel, its precisely J the B showing up on the scene in ancient Palestine that marks the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
J the B has never been fully understood, and for good reason.
He shows up out of nowhere, and before we really get to learn much of anything, he is beheaded for crimes against the state. So for two thousand years he has stood in the midst of this season, with his strange sense of fashion and bewildering diet and discomforting theology completely out of sync with his age, our age, and just about any age.
Advent, for better or worse, is a time set apart in the church when we make a conscious effort to recover some of the strangeness from the strange new world of the Bible – and John embodies it all. Because, like J the B, Advent is rather peculiar. It’s out of sync with time.
As we talked about last week, Advent is about the time between time, the already but not yet, the pause between the once and future king.
To put it in musical terms: Advent is God’s great caesura…
The best parts of Advent are those that give us the courage and the conviction to rest in the tension of who we are, and what God has done for us in spite of who we are. We take time Sunday after Sunday to look toward the darkness into which, and for which, Jesus arrives.
Advent, in a way, is actually a lot more like Lent than we often make it out to be. We take stock of who we really are in order to come to grips with what it is, exactly, that Jesus does for us.
J the B arrives, confused for Elijah, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He does so, to take the hint from Isaiah, to prepare the way of the Lord. There’s something about recognizing the condition of our condition that enables God to do the work that we so desperately need because all of us, whether we like to admit it or not, are hopeless cases.
It takes quite the Christian constitution to affirm the truth of Isaiah’s words: we are like grass and flowers that wither and blow away. Sin isn’t just something we do, it’s who we are. In ways big and small we regularly (like the Israelites before us) rebel against the Law of God, we insist on laying down at the altars of countless idols, and we are forever determined to be the masters of our own destinies.
Just take a look around – Covid cases spiking yet again, economic uncertainty as jobs are not rebounding, evictions are piling up as rents can’t be paid, and there’s no sign that any of it will slow down any time soon.
Obviously, some of this is out of our control, but some of it lies squarely with us and our unwillingness to love our neighbors as ourselves.
I know it might not seem like it, but confessing our sins is actually very good news for us. There’s a reason the Catholics have been doing it for millennia. There is a documentable psychological benefit to confessing our faults and failures, we literally release endorphins in the brain when we do so. But confessing our sins also benefits us by putting us squarely in an Adventen frame of reference.
Light is only light because of the darkness it shines in.
Grace is only grace because it cancels the power of sin.
Resurrection is only resurrection because it refuses to let death be the final word.
That’s a stark and frightening thing to admit but it’s part of the Christian witness. The message of John to a hopeless people, the message of Isaiah to an exiled people, is better for us than all the trimmings and the trappings that this season usually holds. All of the advertisements and pressures and assumptions only provide a shadow version of our own reality.
That’s not who we are.
We’re Christians! We’re sinners!
We’ve come to worship today, albeit in a way none of us quite imagined back before the pandemic struck, we’ve come to worship in some part because we know we need these words from Isaiah and from John more than we need the mall, and the wrapping paper, and the light shows, and the curated Christmas playlists, and the never-ending holiday-themed Lifetime Movie marathons.
We know we need these words from the prophets because we know we need Jesus – he’s the only hope we’ve got.
Without Jesus, we’re just a people in exile stuck in a hopeless situation. But Isaiah and John show up to prepare us for the appearance of God’s own self in the person of the Messiah. They remind us that God is active in the world in ways seen and unseen and it is upon the work of the Lord that the universe hinges.
But, how might we prepare for this? It was one thing to wander around during the days of J the B and find ourselves dunked into the Jordan river repenting our sins. But we are a people stuck in Advent between the once and future king – we already know what awaits us in the manger and on the cross.
What, then, is the right response to the triumph of God showing up?
The Beyonce of the Episcopal Church, Fleming Rutledge, makes the case that, during Advent, we should keep the tune O Holy Night stuck in our gray matter because when God shows up, the only proper response is to Fall On Your Knees!
Think about it: when the reality of God breaks in on from on high, the only thing we can do is recognize the great chasm across which God chose, and chooses, to traverse for us. When we see how God is God and we are not, we can’t help ourselves but fall to our knees in reverence.
J the B stands at the edge of time. He, in himself, holds the words of the prophets while pointing to the One who transfigures the cosmos. Advent, then, looks not just to the birth of a baby in the manger, but also to the long-awaited day of the Lord when rectification reigns supreme.
In Jesus Christ, the once and future King, the new day of righteousness is made incarnate. The old age of sin and death is crumbling away and in the coming kingdom of God there is the divine shepherd who gathers the sheep into his bosom.
That’s what J the B came to declare – our deliverance is nigh!
And how shall we respond? Fall On Our Knees!
God is going to level out all things. The mountains are coming down and the valleys are moving up. Creation will be reknit and all of us along with us.
Despite the language we might hear about in church about how it’s our job to prepare the way of the Lord – God is doing this work regardless of whether or not we participate in the divine clearing project.
And, frankly, its not going to be easy for people like us. For, God’s work of divine leveling means laying ourselves open and vulnerable to a vision of reality that is God’s will be done and not necessarily our own.
It means living every moment of our lives in anticipation of God’s bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.
It means relinquishing our most cherished (and therefore flawed) understanding of what we have earned and deserved.
It means being ready to give up all of our privileges and advantages in the world on behalf of those who are stuck down in the valleys of life.
Again, this isn’t going to be easy. Particularly for a people drunk on our own self-righteousness.
We don’t like admitting our faults and failures.
We don’t like confessing our privileges and advantages.
We don’t like repenting of our wrong-doings.
In the time between time, Advent, we can (with the help of the Spirit and the church) take a good hard look in the mirror and confess the condition of our condition. That’s how repentance works – it is a change of life, a reorientation, a turning back. And we can’t turn without admitting that we need to turn in the first place.
But even if we can’t bring ourselves to confess the truth. God is still in the business of making something of our nothing.
For God does not desire the immense brokenness that surrounds us. God in Christ is reconciling all things to himself. The old age of Sin and Death was run by death and division. But in God’s kingdom, what we are preparing for and are being prepared for, is run on reconciliation, grace, and mercy.
So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sin. And this proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. The Kingdom of God is near. Amen.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
In Advent, we begin again.
It’s notably strange that we, Christians, continue to repeat ourselves year after year with this bewildering season. We pull out the purple paraments, we decorate our Advent wreaths, and we start singing tunes about “ransoming captive Israel.” Advent, for better or worse, is a season all about waiting – waiting for the birth of Jesus in the manger AND waiting for his return at the end of all things.
And, every year, we spend this season living into the tension of the already but not yet.
It’s just the best.
And yet, Advent can feel like a drag. We hear, week after week, about preparation, but it’s not altogether clear what we are preparing for. Sure, we’ve got to get the lights up on the house and purchase all the perfect presents and send out the color-coordinated family picture, but what does any of that have to do with Jesus?
The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with the beginning. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He, prophetically, points to the sinfulness within each of us to make sure we know what it is that Jesus is showing up for. He calls us to look into the darkness inside of us, and then points us toward the One who will rectify the cosmos, including us.
This is no easy task.
Therefore, Advent can be a little frightening as we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the One who shows up to cancel out our sins. But Advent is equally a time for celebration! We celebrate because Jesus has already done the good work of rewriting reality, and we now simply wait for his return and the knitting of the new heaven and the new earth.
Advent is a time in which we balance out both the beginning and the end all while looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn will break from on high. Advent is both convicting and celebratory. It is the church at her very best.
Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way:
“Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers…What we are watching [waiting] for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether he wedding present-china has been chipped. God is, instead, the funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch [wait] for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun!” – (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)
So here’s to the season of repentance and celebration where we begin, again! Amen.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”
And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.
We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.
He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.
And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.
At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week.
Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do.
Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”
Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”
And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!
In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be.
He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!
And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.
I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.
I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”
Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.
And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent.
The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!
I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.
But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.
And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.
God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!
The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.
Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.
Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.
We, brood of vipers.
John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.
Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal.
I don’t like feeling judged.
But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.
Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.
There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.
In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.
And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage.
What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…
All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!
But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.
His name is Jesus.
So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself.
In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.
But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.
This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.
Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.
Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.
If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.
This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent.
He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy.
He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy.
He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.
Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Scott Jones about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Scott is the host of my rival lectionary podcast Synaxis. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the greatest crossover podcast of all time, Top Gun references, shaming people in church, sin as unbelief, self-justification projects, evangelism as the heart of mission, witness vs. with-ness, doing crazy things in worship, praying to baby Jesus, and John the Baptist as the OG PK. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Am What’s Wrong With The World
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “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.”
“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!”
“Repent, for the end is near!”
The words echoed across the campus.
He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.
Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.
But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe?
And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.
Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.
The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.
This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”
And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.
The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.
And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.
It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful.
The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.
The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.
The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.
A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.
He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!
Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.
But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.
Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.
And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.
They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.
John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.
John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world.
John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “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.”
These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.
I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.
I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”
He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”
Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom.
In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.
And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.
Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear.
But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?
The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:
We cannot save ourselves.
We cannot save anyone else.
And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival.
Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.
It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.
We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.
We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.
And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.
Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.
Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.
A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.
We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.
It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen.