just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Prepare the Way of the Lord (Dec. 11 Sermon at SMC)

He shows up every year on this Sunday of Advent. If we are honest, his appearance in Advent feels like an unwelcome intruder. He just doesn’t fit the season. His smelly clothes of camel skins and diet of locusts and wild honey are out of place in this dress-up season of festive parties and fattening food. He doesn’t sing Christmas carols. He is more into rap—“Repent! Repent! Repent!”

John the Baptist just doesn’t seem to belong in the Christmas story. Have you ever received a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it? Maybe you have driven by one of those houses with the eclectic portrayal of Christmas characters. There is Santa Claus, Rudolph and the other reindeer, Frosty the Snow Man, Mary and Joseph beside the manger, surrounded by plastic sheep, watched over by plastic shepherds. Angels are represented, as are the wise men perched on their cardboard camels. You might even see the oversized glass globe, complete with falling snow on a Currier and Ives winter scene. But no matter where you look; there is no John the Baptist. He just doesn’t seem to belong in Christmas.

The Gospel writers, however, are convinced that if we don’t stop by the Jordan and confront John the Baptizer, we will not know who the baby down in Bethlehem is. We will go to Bethlehem, kneel piously before the infant Jesus, sing a few carols, unwrap a few gifts; and return to the routine—unchanged.

Only by going out of the way, making a trip over to the Jordan, listening to the call to repentance and wading out into the cross-over river between the wilderness and the promised land will we be ready to visit the Babe in Bethlehem’s manger.

John, the forerunner, the preparer of the way. He knows who Jesus is—really knows. He knows there is more to who Jesus is than meets the eye. If we don’t listen to John, we will miss the divine presence, the radical implications of the birth in Bethlehem’s barn.

John knows that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger is the firstborn of a new creation. God, through the babe of Bethlehem, is bringing a new world. This trip to Bethlehem is no sentimental annual pilgrimage to a shrine of the past. It is no mere birthday celebration of a historic figure. It is the preparation for a new heaven and new earth that God is bringing. The reign of God, the power and presence of God, the purposes of God are coming toward us.

God is bringing a new world. It is a world without barriers among people. In this one who lay in a manger in Bethlehem the dividing walls of hostility are broken down. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but all are one. The world that is coming is a world in which all people are claimed as beloved children of God. No longer will worth and value and treatment be based upon pedigree—“we are children of Abraham”—but on the one to whom we belong. The world that is coming will be a world in which justice and righteousness reign. The exalted will be brought low and the low will be exalted. Greatness will be in serving—not being served. The last will be first and the first will move to the back of the line. Love will characterize all relationships; and the power of love will replace the love of power.

A new world is dawning. With the birth of Jesus, hope for transformation is born. Beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair. Isaiah prophecies about the powerful beauty and grace of God’s Kingdom breaking in—and the people like planted oaks—strong and graceful for his own glory. And again the fertile image of His coming reign of righteousness being like a garden in early spring—a planting of the LORD, to display God’s glory.