Advent III Year C
13 December 2015
Ashland UCC Romans 15:4-13
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett Matthew 3:1-12
In the name of the Living God, who was and is and is to come. Amen.
I have to admit, this is not my favorite sermon. There’s a part of me that just wants to chuck the whole thing. It’s not easy to preach about John the Baptist when he’s in full attack mode. Here he comes again, bursting onto the scene, disturbing the peace, disrupting our quiet, complacent lives, ill-mannered in his bluntness, eternally wearing those odd clothes – for heaven’s sake, doesn’t he have any thing else to wear besides that camels-hair thing that looks like it came from some Mid-Eastern costume shop? Long-haired, wild-eyed, the man’s bizarre, even by Ashland standards, and his eating habits! insects? What’s that all about?
Here he comes again, John the Baptizer, our Advent saint. And here we sit: polite, friendly and well-mannered, dressed more or less normally, and oh, sure, we can be passionate about our own dietary habits but we tend to be discreet – well, relatively discreet — about our choices – unlike him, who is not quiet or discreet about much of anything. Even for this congregation known for your radical hospitality, welcoming John can be a bit much.
But we can’t get to Bethlehem without running into him. The original Burning Man of the Desert. The advance man. The forerunner. In our faces. Yelling at us, warning us to change our ways and change our lives and that there’s not much time left (as if we didn’t know that; as if these days we don’t live in constant awareness that time is running out). Here he comes again, our disruptive, disturbing, ill-mannered, strange saint. If it’s true, as our mothers warned us, that we are known by the company we keep, what does that make us, who claim John the Baptist as one of ours?
It’s all just a little bit embarrassing. Why couldn’t we Christians have had a prophet like – oh, like Isaiah instead of this wild, rough man? Isaiah was a poet: literary, well-read, could dream a dream, articulate visions that still make our hearts melt. Lions lying down with lambs, bears and cows munching grass together, a peaceable kingdom ruled by small children, where even the snakes are kind. Why can’t we have a prophet like Isaiah who dreams of a future when the knowledge of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea, and where no one will be allowed to hurt or destroy ever again on God’s holy mountain – no abuse, no hunger, no terrorism, no disease, no violence, no war, no more destruction of this fragile earth, our island home.
Have you ever seen an icon of St. John the Baptist? I’m not talking about the medieval paintings showing John and Jesus as toddlers, chubby and cherubic, mother Mary beaming sweetly in the background, as little John turns his head and points his finger at his friend Jesus, as if to say: “No, not me. It isn’t me. Look at him, he’s the one.” No, I’m talking instead about an icon of the adult St. John the Baptist with lots of blood-red color, his hair standing on end, fierce, hypnotic eyes looking straight at you, at us, striping the viewer bare, staring straight down into our souls, speaking unpoetic truth.
Truth that disrupts. Truth that disturbs. Truth that is hard to dismiss. “Your life isn’t going very well, is it? Things are not all right with the world, are they?” he thunders with unmistakable authority, authority born from absolute integrity, the kind of authority and integrity that can’t be faked, can’t be “spun,” the rare truth-telling that has laser-like power because the speaker has not one shred of a self-serving agenda, the kind of truth that shakes us up and makes us wonder on what basis, really, have we been living our lives? Uncomfortable truth. Transforming truth.
Every year, every blessed Advent, he says the same old thing. You’d think we would have gotten used to it by now and reached the point where we can smile and say, “Oh yes, well, quite a character, isn’t he, good ole John the Baptist,” said with just that touch of condescension that reassures us that though he’s rather quaint, actually, and amusing, we sophisticated, educated, post-modern people don’t have to take him seriously.
But it doesn’t work that way. Not for anyone who still has ears to hear, not for those who are not so jaded that they do not dismiss the biblical Story out of hand. John the Baptist – if we’re lucky; if we let him; if we crack our defended doors open even an inch – he will intrude again and demand we pay attention.
“Get ready. There’s not much time left. He’s coming, the One so much greater than I that I am not good enough to shine his shoes. He’s coming, the One we’ve all been waiting for. Your hope has not been in vain. Your hope has not been in vain.”
“So wake up from your trance, and get yourselves ready. Look at your lives, look at your behaviors, look at your relationships. Look at your priorities and your hard and soft addictions, take off your masks, let go of your illusions and your self-deceptions, come, come and have hope again, come and dare to imagine that you are loved, that you can be changed, come and get ready, wash you’re your discouragement, come, get ready, get cleaned up for the party. Come, come to your senses, have the courage to be vulnerable and dig down deep to the bedrock longings of your hearts, let your yearnings for newness of life, for peace, for justice, for mercy, for goodness – let those yearnings carry you out of your hide-outs, your self-constructed little cultural bubbles where you think everything is up to you, and come, come on out into the wilderness, by the river, where there is water, water waiting to wash you clean, come,” says weird, wonderful John, “come and get ready for the dance.”
And they came. And we come. (We’re here, aren’t we?) They came, we come, because we long for and we hope and we yearn and we wait and because we believe – we do believe, way down deep – that truth is more life-giving than the lies we usually tell ourselves, that truth will set us free, that truth is far more complex than the rigid dualisms of right and wrong that we sometimes wield like battering rams against those with whom we disagree. We come because we know something is out of whack within us and among us. We come and we listen one more time to this strange and difficult saint because there is a part of us that knows that what John the Baptist really wants is to break through our numbness so that – in order that — we may be broken open enough to be able to receive the Christ when he comes. When he comes again.
We listen to John because he tells us the truth that ruthless honesty about our human-ness is the only ground in which faith can take root and grow. And we know, too, as John insists, that repentance is how the Spirit softens us up so that the growth may happen.
Sometime I like to imagine biblical characters having conversations with contemporary characters. It’s fascinating what can happen. For instance, here is weird, old John, yelling at us about getting real, about the truth that will set us free, and now I imagine into the conversation comes weird, young Flannery O’Connor – a devout Catholic all her life – who says, “The truth will make you odd.” And it’s true! Our truth is that if we really live out our faith, we will be odd. Totally out of sync with the culture. Pretty soon we won’t be fit for ordinary company.
Back to John, who is saying what he always says in Advent: “Stop. Just stop it. Stop your frantic efforts, all of them, even the good ones. Just stop and be still for a moment. Stop being a human-doing and be a human be-ing, for God’s sake. Stop. And then look around. God is here. Now.”
Here comes Yogi Berra to join in. Yogi says “The problem is that people are so busy they don’t have time to do anything anymore.” Think about it. The truth will make us odd.
John also says to Repent, which is a loaded and often misunderstood word. Now here comes my favorite preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, into the conversation. She reminds us that to repent does not mean to visit every old sin, every time we’ve ever screwed up, and feel all those feelings of shame an guilt and remorse one more time, “as if you could dilute them with your regrets…as if God might be persuaded to overlook them f only you could convince hi that you are really, really, really, really sorry.” Repentence, Barbara reminds us, is not a feeling; it’s an action, it’s cleaning house, it’s the present work of sweeping away the old dirt and getting everything ship-shape and clean.
One of things we need to throw out as we clean house is our selfishness, our sins of cynicism and of smugness. That’s why John yells at us, because those sins are notoriously impervious. The contemptuous sneer, the half-curled lip, the oh-so-clever put-down, the wet blanket to enthusiasm, the dismissive snort to all that is tender and fragile and pregnant with irrational possibilities – battling against our self-absorption and our cynicism and our smugness comes John, to break us open and to get us ready for new birth, a new birth in us and in our world.
And John tells us, “This isn’t rocket science.” When the people asked him what they should do, he didn’t say, “Overthrow Rome. Do something really dramatically heroic. Start a revolution.” He said, “Share what you have with those who don’t have anything.” He said, “Look in your closets and count how many coats you’ve got. Do you really need all of them?” I get convicted every single time I open my coat closet.
When the tax collectors asked John what they should do, he didn’t say, “I’m not going to have a civil conversation with you or treat you with any dignity whatsoever because you’re a blight upon this earth, and probably a Republican to boot.” John didn’t say that. He said “Be fair.” Be fair. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. He didn’t even tell them to stop being a tax collector, or a hedge fund manager or an investment banker. He told them to be a merciful tax collector. Investment bankers known for their fair dealings.
Now Lily Tomlin enters the room and says, “Remember, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Thanks, Lily.
And when the soldiers asked him, “What should we do?” John didn’t say, “You macho thugs, you and the police, you’re all alike, every single last one of you.” He didn’t say that. He didn’t even tell them to become pacifists. He said, “Don’t bully. Don’t take advantage of anyone weaker than you.”
He’s complicated, this John the Baptist of ours. For all his verbiage – calling us a brood of vipers, warning us of impending wrath, telling us the axes are being sharpened – for all of his over-the-top rhetoric, the fact is that when the people asked him, “How then shall we live?” he sounds more like a kindergarten teacher than an apocalyptic preacher, for he told them: Be fair. Share. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Live your everyday lives with integrity and compassion. And for the love of God, lift up your eyes every once in a while and perceive the sacred in the ordinary. It’s happening even here, even now.
Some months later, after he had been arrested and was in prison, John sent word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the One? Are you the One I was talking about, the One God sent to us?” For how was John to know? No divine rage had been loosed upon the world. Not one ax had been raised. And Jesus said, “Go tell John, go tell John that the blind are seeing again, and the deaf hear, the sick are being healed, the lame are leaping for joy, and the poor have hope.” And I wonder if he might also have added, “And be sure to let John know that some who have no coats are being given them. And that some tax collectors are playing fair and showing mercy, and more and more soldiers and police are protecting people and keeping the peace, not abusing their power.” Signs of transformation all around, even now, even here, for those with eyes to see.
Saint Paul knew the same thing, years later when he was in prison and yet wrote to his beloved congregation in Philippi, “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice! Don’t worry about anything, dearly beloved ones. The Holy One is near. Be gentle. Be known by how gentle you are. And The peace of God, that passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Wait and watch, you faithful people. Stop and soften. Share. Be fair. Be gentle. And rejoice, rejoice! for Heaven is at hand, now and always, here and everywhere.