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 First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

3rd Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013

Have a John the Baptist Christmas!

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

             It still looms, one hundred fifty years later, as the greatest crisis our nation ever faced.  And one hundred fifty years later, we are still learning lessons from the American Civil War.  Not surprisingly, our greatest crisis also produced one of our greatest leaders in Abraham Lincoln.  One of the many lessons Lincoln taught us is that the best way forward is always found by looking back to our past.  Lincoln’s election caused the unprecedented secession of the southern states, even though he ran for office promising that the states that already had slavery could keep it.  It must have scared Lincoln to death to know that he would have to lead the nation forward when the nation itself was in question.  But with the unity of the nation as his goal, Lincoln looked back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, our founding documents that he had studied so carefully, and appealed to them doggedly as he charted every move into the future.  It proved a good way to go.

             I wonder if Lincoln drew this strategy from countless figures in the Bible, another book he loved dearly and read often.  Clearly this was what John the Baptist was doing in leading the people of God into a break with the past and toward a brave new world.  John the Baptist appeared to all four Gospel writers as “a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”  This was a clear reference to all first-century Jewish listeners to the prophet Isaiah in the fortieth chapter.  And John’s presence in the wilderness marks him as well as a prophet hearkening to Israel’s past.  He is not in the seat of power in Jerusalem, but rather like Elijah before him, he dwells in the wilderness, on the margins of society.  And in Matthew, John wears “camel’s hair with a leather belt,” and eats “locusts and wild honey.”  This is the very clothing worn by Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet of Israel, who is described wearing this in 2 Kings 1.  While John the Baptist’s message must have been jarring and shocking, even surprising and challenging, it would have also been in some important senses, also familiar.  Even as John pointed the way forward, he did so by looking backward into Israel’s history and appealing to Israel’s great prophetic tradition.

             That he came from the wilderness and cried from the wilderness surely resonated with all the people of Israel.  Wilderness is one of the great metaphors and experiences of Biblical people.  Moses wandered in the wilderness with the people of Israel for forty years after the exodus.  The wilderness spoke to these people of a place of testing, as a time of wandering from some place where they formerly dwelt to a new place of promise.  As such, we all relate to the wilderness.  We are all on journeys after all.  We all find ourselves in our lives in times and seasons in wilderness places.  No one gets a pass on this.  And even in the most beautiful sanctuaries, we sit in pews with fear and uncertainty about tomorrow.  We all feel the weight of responsibility upon us and we all face the howling winds of a very troubling, troubled world of change.  What will my future hold?  To ask that question honestly, deeply, is to find yourself in a wilderness place.  (And what better place to ask such questions than in this sanctuary, in worship?)

             John appears in the wilderness and he looks and sounds to all the world just like an Old Testament prophet.  His appearance reminds us that the action of God in history is often sudden, intrusive, unexpected.  Sometimes an Elijah or a John the Baptist appears and speaks a word that deeply, powerfully comes from God and everything changes.  In our own age we have seen such sudden, surprising, sweeping changes.  Martin Luther King Jr. spoke a word that resonated with not only our scriptures but also our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and America changed faster and more completely than many ever believed it would.  We have watched the Berlin Wall torn down by the people of Germany who longed for freedom, and we watched Nelson Mandela come out of prison after twenty-seven years in South Africa, speaking of truth and reconciliation and changing a nation’s most fundamental social structure without a blood bath, when many thought such peaceful change was impossible.

             John’s message was timely, but it is also timeless, and it is anything but sentimental.  We are an age that hates any words that are judgmental.  “Judgment” has become a bad word in a “whatever” society like our own.  But nonetheless, John thunders with judgment.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Once again, the word “repent” would have been a word that had a familiar sound to it for the people of Israel.  In Hebrew it was the word shuv.  It meant to turn.  And in Greek it is the word metanoia.  In English we get the word metamorphosis from it.  It means to change, to return in faithfulness to our covenant-keeping God.

             We don’t like the word “repent.”  It sounds so intrusive, so full of judgment.  We prefer the word “sorry.”  That simple one word statement “sorry,” has become a sad staple in our vocabulary.  Henry Hitchings, in a New York Times article called, “A Poor Apology for a Word,” cites a study of the British that finds the average Brit uses this one word apology eight times a day or almost three thousand times a year.  He points out that Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson would not have known what you were saying.  “I am sorry” was the way they used this word.  But “sorry” has become detached from any personal ownership, and our substitute for repentance.  Hitchings says, “Sorry is a mixture of decayed piety and passive aggressive guile.”

             Who cares if you are sorry?  What we all really need to do is change!  That is what repentance means: to turn and to return to God.  It means to  stop running away from God and from God’s truth and God’s costly, faithful, patient love, and to head back home to God’s will for your life, which is your only real freedom anyway.

             We all need to repent.  None of us are the people we know we can be, living the kinds of lives God has put it in us to live.  So we all would do well on our way to Christmas to stop and to hear what John the Baptist is saying to us: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Your life is sacred to God.  Surely the Incarnation of Jesus tells us this, if it tells us anything.  And it matters to God how you live your life.

             Friday night Connie and I visited with some friends who were in town on business.  They live in Newport Beach, California, where Rich is the Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Kelly works for a university raising money.  They have two little girls, ages seven and ten.  When their ten-year-old was seven she wanted her mother to buy her some clothes she saw in the store.  Kelly was appalled, as the clothes were far too revealing.  Kelly said, “No, you can’t have those clothes.”  Ashby said, “Why?”  Kelly said, “Because we’re Christians, and we think it is inappropriate to wear clothing that shows too much of your body.  We are supposed to dress with modesty.”  So a week later they were in a supermarket shopping, and Ashby walked up to a woman who was dressed in clothes like those which caught Ashby’s eye in the store.  “Pardon me, Ma’am,” she said, “but your clothes are inappropriate.  You need to dress with more modesty.”

                       That is a prophetic word!  It is not a word to make you feel sorry or to make you wallow in your guilt.  It is a call to change, to repent, to return to God’s will and way for your life.

             So amid all the lovely sentiment of this season, let us not lose sight of John the Baptist.  Truthfully, you cannot get to Christmas, a true Christmas, without him.  Let John’s call to repentance bring real change to our lives, so we leave this magical season better people, more faithful people to God.

             And let us hear John’s best word of all.  “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.”  John points to Jesus.  Karl Barth kept a print of the Isenheim Altarpiece by the desk where he worked.  Painted in 1515 by Matthias Grünewald, it pictures at the center Jesus hanging on the cross.  But Barth loved the figure of John, standing to the side, facing toward Jesus, pointing with his elongated finger toward Jesus.  Barth loved this and knew this was his calling too, to point to Jesus, the crucified Jesus.  “John serves as a sign for us too.  We are to be who and what John was.”  Have a Merry Christ!  But first, and more importantly, have a “John the Baptist” Christmas.  You will be glad that you did.


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