By: David H. May, Rector
Last Sunday and again today John the Baptist is front and center calling for God’s people to, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and to ‘make straight his path in the wilderness’. And you know – maybe I’m hopelessly hopeful or sadly naïve – but I think we would, truly, if we knew what that meant for us and how to do it. If we could only hear, in the cacophony and contentiousness and wilderness of this world we’re living, if we could only hear this one voice calling.
When I was little and my family was heading to North Carolina or West Virginia to visit our grandparents, we four children and my parents crammed into a station wagon with all our bags and sometimes pets and headed off on what was usually a five hour drive. Before driving off, we often got lined up outside the car for a little talking to. My mother usually took the lead and would say things like, ‘look, no fighting, keeps your hands to yourself and no picking on each other’. And then she or my Dad would add, ‘if we have to pull over to straighten you all out, it will be a ‘reign of terror’ I promise you’.
Of course, there was no way we could make it five hours in a car like that as little angels. Inevitably, at some point flying down the road in the middle of some fracas or brouhaha in the back seat, we’d sense that the car was abruptly slowing down, the blinker was on and we were pulling off the road. This brought a sudden hush to we four kids and one or the other of us would say, ‘uh oh, reign of terror’.
And these days when as much as anything it feels like our nation and all of us with it are crammed into a station wagon on a really long road trip and no one is keeping their hands to themselves and there is a whole lot of picking on each other, I long for a prophet to be at the wheel who would suddenly slow down the car, turn on the blinker and begin pulling over and making us all suddenly get very still and very quiet except for here and there one of us saying, ‘uh oh’.
And in the silence and the stillness that follows, can we hear a prophet speaking to remind us how far we may be wandering from desiring what God desires and loving what God loves and caring about what God cares about.
Which is what Advent wants to prepare in us where we slow down, put on the blinker, pull over and wait, not for a reign of terror but a word from God to restore this fevered world.
Today we learn that John the Baptist is in prison now. Herod has put him there to shut him up. Herod has gotten sick and tired of John shining light on things Herod didn’t want any light shining on. And worse, John has stirred up the people with a desire for new life for themselves and for God’s righteousness which is the kind of thing that could end up unseating powerful people, including Herod.
And in prison, John gets word of what his cousin Jesus is doing and what he is saying. And what he hears stir doubts in him. And he sends word to ask Jesus, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
John was a prophet of fire, proclaiming that the time was fulfilled and the Messiah was coming. And when he comes, he will baptize with fire. When he comes, he will separate the wheat from the chaff and the chaff will be burned up in a furnace of fire; the Messiah will lay the axe to the root of every unfruitful tree and bring it down. The righteous will be vindicated and tyrants and bullies and the wicked will be utterly destroyed.
Now John knew his Bible. He knew that images of a fire-breathing Messiah were there in the Holy Scriptures. And surely those images are. But, to quote the great preacher and scholar Tom Long, “Anyone [including John the Baptist] who reads the Old Testament and finds it to be a book solely about God’s wrath and vengeance has seen a few trees, but missed the forest. To expect God to come only as a destroyer and not as a savior is to distort the essential message of the Old Testament and to miss the character of God.”
Of course, its not just John who wants God to step right into the middle of this crazy world with a reign of terror and whip the tar out of the bullies and tyrants and bad guys and sort things out and if there are winners and losers, oh well. He’s not alone.
Who can blame him? He has spent his whole life proclaiming that the time of waiting for the Messiah is at an end, that he has come. But, things haven’t really gone the way he expected. He is in prison. A single word from the Messiah would bring the walls of that prison down. But the walls still are standing. The wicked still prosper. The innocent still suffer. Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “every time John urges Jesus to strike at the rotten wood of the world, Jesus keeps handing the axe back. Stern, austere John ate locust in the wilderness. Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party in town. John said, cut down the tree, while Jesus says, no, work in a little manure around it and give it another year. While John crossed the street to avoid traffic with sinners, Jesus sought them out and invited himself home to eat with them. Worst of all, while John had spent his whole life warning people to repent and save their souls, Jesus came along and told them to leave the saving to God.”
Is it any wonder that John wonders ‘are you the one?’ In answer to John’s question, his disciples bring back what Jesus has given in response. Not getting lost in the forest of God’s mercy and love for the trees, Jesus says: “tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is not a bad world trying to make itself good. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a broken world that God’s mercy will mend.
Years ago, one of the great preachers of the past generation, Sam Lloyd, was serving his first parish as rector. It was the Church of St. Peter and the Redeemer in Chicago, and Sam brought his brilliant learning and spacious, generous spirit to his work, preaching and teaching with truth and power. But it was to little effect. In a church that seated hundreds, Sam was lucky to get a hundred in attendance on a good Sunday. One Sunday night, he was at the church. The parking lot and all the spots on the street near the church were filled with cars. But it wasn’t for a church event. All those cars had brought people to an AA meeting going on down in the church’s basement. Sam ran into an AA who had come upstairs to use the rest room. He stopped the man and said, ‘excuse me, how many people are down there?’ and the man said, ‘who knows, a couple hundred maybe, it’s packed; a lot of us are standing around the walls because all the seats are taken. With the holidays and all, it’s like we need each other more than ever.’ Sam let his frustration get the better of him and he said, ‘I don’t understand, I work my tail off for this parish and I’m lucky to get 40 or 50 in my church. I don’t understand’. The man looked at Sam and said, ‘it’s simple. Look we’re all here tonight because we know we’re broken. Do you?’
Jesus said, “tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
This is the work of the true Messiah, and his church, and what we are meant to prepare the way for.
This isn’t a bad world trying to make itself good. It’s a broken world that God’s mercy will mend. And so, desiring what God desires and loving what God loves and caring for what God cares for, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.