Every year during Advent we have to try really hard to put up with John the Baptist in order to get to Jesus Christ. And putting up with John the Baptist is a chore, especially when Advent is supposed to be a time of hopeful expectation and preparation. Dealing with John the Baptist is a little like dealing with the neck inside the uncooked Thanksgiving turkey. If you cook on Thanksgiving, you know the horseshoe shaped turkey neck comes jammed inside the cavity of every turkey. And some people probably pull the neck out, cook the neck, and eat it after it’s cooked. But a lot of people like me would be fine if there was no neck buried in the turkey in the first place…
Picture a scene with me in your imagination for a moment. You’re going out for an early evening walk after dinner sometime over the next four weeks. It’s pitch dark. The stars are shining and the air is cold and crisp and your breath looks like it would freeze in front of your face if only it didn’t know enough to disappear in an instant and blend into the darkness. Suddenly while you’re walking a wave of Christmas spirit takes hold of you and you begin to hum a few bars of your favorite Christmas carol.
Then as you’re wandering along, out of the corner of your eye, a bright light catches your attention, shining over the peak of a nearby hill. You begin to walk quickly, expecting to reach the top of the hill and see someone’s house or someone’s evergreen tree in the lawn covered with blinking white and multi-colored Christmas lights. Surely, you think, this will be a fitting and wonderful end to your magical Christmas stroll.
However, when you reach the top of the hill, you look down below. And what you see is not a house covered with Christmas lights. It’s not a pine tree covered with Christmas lights either. What you see is a large bonfire. And dancing and hopping around the bonfire is a wild looking man yelling at the top of his lungs to anyone within earshot, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”
Believe it or not, that wild man is John the Baptist and he’s probably the very last person you want to see in your Christmas imagination. You walk a short ways down the hill to take a closer look and you notice the man has hair as long as dreadlocks. But John the Baptist’s hair isn’t braided. It isn’t even clean. He’s the kind of person who looks like he’s had a bad hair day every day for the past twenty years.
But that’s not all. From head to toe, John the Baptist is covered in a suit of camel’s hair. From a distance, it looks a lot like John is wearing a burlap sack and getting warmed up for the sack race at the end of the year school picnic. Until you watch for a little while longer and you make note of the pitchfork he’s carrying in one hand. And the ax he’s holding in the other. Then you know he’s not getting ready for any school picnic. Put a pair of horns on his head and a tail behind him, though, and he might win a prize at the school costume party on Halloween day.
Of course, if you managed to get any closer to John the Baptist it would be really scary. John has this big, long, bushy beard, for instance. And the beard is stuck together and clumped up in different places because of all the honey that’s dripped down his chin and collected in that rat’s nest of facial hair.
Finally, there’s John the Baptist’s teeth. We won’t go into great detail about what John’s teeth looked like. All you need to know is that he ate a diet rich in insects. Wild locusts for breakfast. Wild locusts for lunch. Wild locusts for dinner. And back then there was no such thing as toothpicks or dental floss.
John the Baptist would be alarming enough on a Christmas stroll to make you want to turn around and run home. Strange looking with a body odor so strong you would want to jump in the shower and scrub yourself the minute you set foot in your house. And loud and disturbing enough to make you want to crawl under a few blankets for some peace and quiet.
Nevertheless, John the Baptist belongs in the Advent picture even if he never makes it onto the cover of a Christmas card. He earned his place and he deserves a place. John the Baptist earned his place in the Advent picture when he told his followers to prepare the way for the one who would be born even more powerful than he was. And John the Baptist solidified his place in the Advent picture a few years later when he beckoned for Jesus Christ to wade into the waters of the Jordan River so that he could baptize Jesus with water and the Holy Spirit. No matter what he looks like or what we might think of him, John the Baptist is a big part of Advent and we have to do our best to make room for him.
“How” is the question? How do we put up with someone who preaches about judgement like a wild man twenty-four hours a day? How do we deal with someone who is constantly trying to get us to measure up to a standard of good behavior that comes across as totally unrealistic? How do we cope with John the Baptist’s veiled threats, his endless harassment, and the seemingly nonchalant way he’s willing to write off anyone who doesn’t live life according to his rigorous expectations?
When it comes to John the Baptist, I picture myself in a carnival dunking booth. There I am sitting on the bench. While I sit there cold and shivering, I stare at the water below my feet. I do my best while I’m waiting to wave my arms and cause any kind of distraction. I try to make a couple of jokes. I go down the list of excuses in my life trying to verbally plead my case. Again and again, I try to rationalize my behavior. I try to hide my sins by blaming my weakness on other people and circumstances beyond my control. I whine, I beg, I try to cover my eyes and not think about the worst.
But a mere five feet away from the dunking booth there’s a white line drawn in chalk. Just behind the line there is a big basket full of softballs. And next to the softballs there’s one person. One person with his front foot on the chalk holding a ball in each hand. With a sinister smile on his face, he stares at the bullseye without looking away. And he doesn’t pay attention to a single word I have to say. John the Baptist has me in the crosshairs and he’s right in the middle of his windup.
Who needs the hassle? Who needs that kind of judgement and all the aggravation that goes along with it…?
The answer is we need it. You and I need someone willing to tell us to get our act together. We need someone looking over our shoulder. We need someone who’s going to keep us focused and grounded and faithful and humble and repentant.
Yes, we need John the Baptist during Advent. But we also need something else. You know before Jesus was born, John the Baptist thought Jesus was going to be just like him. John relished the thought of Jesus picking up his own ax and his own pitchfork one day. John dreamed about dancing around a bonfire with Jesus, acting like two wild men, preaching and hollering and carrying on about repentance before the arrival of God’s kingdom.
John the Baptist figured Jesus Christ was going to be a colleague. A disciple. A good friend. A chip off the old block. But Jesus turned out to be a little different. Jesus carried no ax and he owned no pitchfork. He didn’t preach like a man possessed. He wasn’t much into the idea of fire and brimstone.
Jesus Christ did come into the world to judge human beings. He did come to tell us to get our act together. He came to look over our shoulder and he went out of his way to keep us focused and grounded and faithful and humble and repentant.
On the other hand, though, Jesus came to judge the world and the people of the world with compassion. He offered people forgiveness and peace and the opportunity to be transformed and know the abundant love of God. And he made sure his followers knew that judgement, ultimately, has a whole lot more to do with who God is than who we are. If John the Baptist is the one winding up with softballs from a few feet away, then Jesus Christ is the one standing on the side of the dunk tank with a towel in hand, ready to dry us off and boost us up onto the bench once again.
John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. They’re not the same men and they didn’t preach exactly the same message. They certainly didn’t have the same style. Yet we need both of them during Advent. Because judgement helps point our way in the world. And judgement is an important part of preparing ourselves for new birth and new life. And pointing the way toward new birth and new life is what Advent is all about. Amen.