…and on the Sunday morning after…

I have written and preached in the past

about the difficulty of having John the Baptist intrude on our Christmas preparations;

it is familiar ground for me.

I am sensitive to what seems like a distraction in the lectionary every year,

for I am driven (along with the rest of you) toward the more comforting,

more familiar territory of seasonal Scriptures.

The main event is looming –the nativity is set up-

this week I purchased the tree –

and yet, once more we are enduring John’s warm-up speech.

Given the events of the last three days, however –

dozens of children damaged or dead

at the hands of damaged individuals in China and Connecticut –

perhaps John’s intrusion is worth our time.

 

“Your heritage cannot save you” he says to the indignant children of Abraham;

“Your good intentions are no good to God…” –

for these had come to John in the wilderness seeking the safety of his baptism.

They were, instead, singed by the fire of his indignation.

John offers a troubling metaphor: “The garden of God faces a pruning…”

And suggests that it is time to consider what their so-called faith has produced.

 

I wasn’t instantly sure that being hollered at by John the Baptist

was a remedy for the pain and grief that has been inflicted on humanity in the last 72 hours.

A wild-eyed man from the desert may remind us too much of those unfortunate souls

who have fallen through the cracks in our mental health system,

and become (at best) annoying diversions in our normal routines,

and (at worst) the source of horrific headlines .

But John’s voice is the voice of truth and reason, in spite of his appearance.

John’s conviction that God is ready

to overwhelm us with the power of divine mercy, justice and liberation is too sincere to be ignored.  John confronts brutal truth with brutal truth – the dismal with the divine –

and offers a hope that cannot be denied.

 

John is just laying the ground work, but you cannot help but admire his style.

Blunt.  Unapologetic.  Careless of his own safety or reputation –

the more I reflect, the more I am convinced that John offers an instructive model

for ministry (and many other things) in the 21st century.

In his dangerously direct fashion,

John points directly to the revelation of God that comes in Jesus (the one who is to come).

Not worried about offending lesser sensibilities,

not slowing down for extended explanations,

or caring one iota about how the message makes his audience feel,

John is concerned with getting the message out.

 

A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is what John offers (according to Luke).

He appears in the wilderness, and offers this cleansing ritual against the coming kingdom.

He draws crowds on the strength of his unusual approach, his heavy-handed preaching

(and, no doubt, because of his unique appearance).

Luke jumps right to an encounter with some who have gathered in curiosity –

and we are treated to an instant lesson in the theology of John…

beginning with an insult, and followed by accusation and threat.

(who wouldn’t want that on a Sunday morning…)

 

 

 

 

But what does that mean, Baptism of repentance?

It means that you who call yourselves the people of God have lost sight of God in every possible way.

It means you care more about reputation and appearance

than the divine principles of mercy, justice, love and grace.

It means that your traditions cannot atone for your sins –

your buildings cannot grant you sanctuary –

your religion cannot place you in the presence of the living God.

 

This is hard news to us, but we are used to hearing hard news;

news that defines itself by body counts and broken promises.

The reporting of these events give rise to arguments about social policy and cultural expectations,

but no where do the pundits offer hope.

Hope does not feature in the news of the day,

because hope is a political trick, designed to earn votes, not trust –

so John’s news, delivered with threat and accusation,

should sound different to us;

it should sound wonderfully promising to us.

 

Open your eyes, says John.

Share from your abundance – do not play games with the wealth that is God’s gift to you.

Do not “work the system” to enhance your importance.

Do not imagine that God does not know you well enough

to be grieved by your petty offences against one another…

 

Jesus leads us in this direction too,

but when Jesus says it in the gospel versions of his speech,

it is tempered with love and understanding and the very mercy of God.

John simply tells it plain.

And it becomes GOOD NEWS!

 

There is hope, John promises, because God can see beyond our brokenness.

There is joy in God’s promise deliverance from our wretched despair.

There is mercy for those who suffer and those who cause suffering…

Once we recognize the truth that John has prepared us for.

It is both the truth of our failure, and the truth of God’s success –

And we meet these truths in Jesus;

born into poverty – nurtured in uncertainty –

persecuted in jealousy – killed in anger – raised in glory.

 

That’s not a Christmas message – it is the Christian message;

independent of season, sorrow, or sadness.

It is our Good News – even on this day.  Amen

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