The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2021
One of the tips they give you in preaching class is that no one really pays attention to the first few minutes of the sermon. As people are settling in and showing up late, you can spend the first bit reading out of the phone book it matters so little. That’s pretty much how Luke starts his story about John the Baptist. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Phil ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”
Now, while Luke might be boring, at least it’s precise. You could almost read this like a play. And you can sense that the lights have dimmed and the spotlight now turns to shine on John the Baptist. Let’s put John into context. John the Baptist is kin to Jesus through their mothers. John’s father, Zechariah, is a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. John and his wife Elizabeth were getting on in years and never had children, until one day an angel of the Lord in the Temple told Zechariah that they would have a child. So John is born and dedicated to the Lord. Fast forward to this passage, and John appears in the wilderness. It says that John went into all the region proclaiming a baptism of repentance. He is calling the people to confess their sins. Baptism was common among the Jews of this time. They would wash in rivers and pools to be ritually cleansed from impurity. So John the Baptist and early Christians didn’t make baptism up – they took something that existed and gave it new life. For John the Baptist, for the early Christians, baptism comes to be a washing of internal sign, a sign of repentance. John, clearly, is drawing from the Jewish tradition.
But John is also pulling from another ancient Jewish tradition. In the mold of the Old Testament prophets, John is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, warning the people of God to get ready for the Lord’s return. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Like all the Old Testament prophets, John is warning the people to amend their ways, to get their lives straight, to be prepared for God.
Now, a word about prophets. Prophets, in the biblical tradition, are not fortune tellers. They do not tell the future. They don’t make predictions about what is going to happen, they’re not Nostradamus or something silly like that. In the biblical tradition, prophets are truth tellers. Prophets are people, sent by God, to speak the truth. To speak God’s truth. And yes, that often comes with warnings about the future. Get your life right, the prophets say, because God is coming. The prophets tell us to take care of the orphans and widows, stop stealing, make society just because God is coming. And the prophets say that God will make things equal – God is going to bring down every mountain, every proud heart, and God is going to raise up the lowly, God will fill in every valley. God will make this happen, the prophets say. This is what we mean when we talk about judgment – God is coming with the scales of justice, as we see in that window right there – so that things would be made right, things would be made equal. Mountains brought low, valleys lifted up; proud hearts brought down, the lowly raised up.
As you can imagine, the prophets are not very popular people. You don’t make yourself popular by pointing out all of society’s wrongs. You don’t make yourself popular by saying that the powerful will be brought low and the oppressed will be raised up. Even though it’s God’s truth, it is not what we want to hear. That’s why prophets often appear on the fringes of society. Because they are unpopular, because the Word they are bringing from God is unpopular. And so here, John the Baptist shows up in the wilderness.
I think that’s the first lesson we can learn from John the Baptist. We should always be on the fringes, out in the wilderness. If we, as the Church and as Christians, are comfortable with the ways of the world then we need to repent. We’ve got to take a hard look in the spiritual mirror. For instance, and this is one of my pet peeves, people say that the church should be run like a small business. Sure, if you mean that we should follow sound accounting practices and be nice to people when they show up, that’s great. But the Church is not like any other small business in that we are called to live differently. We are not just another organization with revenue and expenses. We are not supposed to cut every corner in order to return dividends to stockholders. The Church is not another venue for our consumer desires. That’s why the whole language of “getting something out of the church” is misguided. This is not a venture capital enterprise in which you hope to reap some financial reward. Instead, what we’re given is the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of something better. You’re not going to get anything out of the church other than the cross of Jesus. That’s what I mean by being out in the wilderness. The Church, Christians, are supposed to stand apart, to speak, live, think differently from the ways of the world. Because we come from the wilderness.
And yes, the wilderness can be a scary place because we’re not used to being out there. We’re much more familiar with the ways of the world. But remember your bible – God is revealed in the wilderness. When the Israelites leave slavery in Egypt, they come into the land of freedom that is the wilderness. And it’s in the wilderness that God feeds them with bread of heaven. Later on, the prophet Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind after he goes out into the wilderness. Jesus will be driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after his baptism. The wilderness is where God comes close to the people. It’s where John the Baptist does his most effective ministry.
Consider this in your own life. Where are you too comfortable with the ways of the world? Where have you traded your principles, your Christianity morality, for convenience? I recognize this in my own life. It is probable that some of what little money I have in the stock market is invested in companies that do things I would disagree with. I’m certain that I have bought clothes manufactured in environments I would consider sinful. I have not spoken up in situations where people said truly terrible things about other human beings. I’m not bashing Big Business or wagging my finger at anyone. I’m merely confessing that I just haven’t cared enough, I haven’t listened to the prophets. I’m realizing again and again, that this message of repentance is for me, and it’s for all of us. I need to get my life right before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, I need to amend my ways before the great judgment of my soul. I also understand that all this might make you uncomfortable. So be it. The first lesson today is that the disciples of Jesus are found out on the fringes, and that is not a popular place to be.
The second lesson is that the spotlight should never be on us. John the Baptist and the prophets are always talking about God, and not themselves. That’s how it works even in this lesson from the Gospel of Luke – as the spotlight turns to John the Baptist, John the Baptist points to God. God is coming, John says. Jesus is just around the corner. As all the people from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside come out to see John the Baptist, John the Baptist tells them to look at God. This is our calling, too. This life of Christian faith is and never should be about us. It is about God, and God alone.
This is a radical departure from how the world works. In the age of social media and selfies, there is this cultural push to shine the spotlight on ourselves. As Christians, our duty is to deflect, to point to Jesus and not to ourselves. Again, this is a message to me and for me. I will tell you, standing here in this pulpit, with all these fancy church clothes, with all the attention on me – it can be seductive. I can see how and why churches become personality cults. It wouldn’t be hard. Turn the lights down low and shine that spotlight right on the preacher. So I pray, day by day, that the spotlight doesn’t shine on me, but rather that I would be the spotlight operator. My mission, my ministry, is to shine the light on the Lord God. That is not my mission alone, but that is yours, too. Not to be in the light, but to shine the light on Jesus.
Finally, I realize that these are challenging lessons; Advent is not easy on us. Out in the wilderness, we encounter some inconvenient truths about our faith and about the Lord Jesus. And I also realize that we will never live up to the example of John the Baptist and the prophets. At some point, the temptation will be too strong, we’ll come in from the wilderness and get too easy with the world. At the some point, we’ll shine the spotlight on ourselves. Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness. So all I can say is this – the Judge is coming. The mountains will be brought low, the valleys will be filled in, the paths will be made straight. That is the promise of Advent. Since God is going to make that happen, we may as well get started on it now. So that when God does arrive, at the great final Advent, our hearts, indeed all flesh, shall be prepared to see the salvation of God.