I looked at this
week’s Gospel text with fear and trembling—seminary doesn’t exactly offer a
class in ancient pronunciation. And then I looked at it with total confusion.
What does it matter, to us, today, who was the tetrarch of whatever so many
centuries ago? The details don’t matter a whole lot, but what matters is that
this Gospel author wanted us to know who was in charge, so that we could know
just who exactly John the Baptist was up against, and just who exactly he chose
to challenge with his message.
His message of the
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin had relegated him to the very
margin of society and of Judea—the wilderness. And every word he said flew in
the face of every decree made by those powerful men. And his words were just
the warning for the words of Jesus! He was just the warm-up act! These
wilderness guys were not welcome to spread the good news among the rich and
Were we to take this
Gospel text into our own context, it might start out with some more familiar
names, though not necessarily easier to pronounce.
In the fourth year of
the Obama Administration, when John Boenher was the Speaker of the House, when
John Hickenlooper was Governor of Colorado and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet were
senators, and Debbie Brinkman was the mayor of Littleton, and as Mark Hanson
was the presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and Jim Gonia was the newly-elected
bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, and Dave Palma-Ruwe was the senior pastor
of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church…the word of God came to John, in the
This man John lives
in the wilderness not of Judea but of, say, Boulder, and eats not locusts and
honey but, say, a strictly vegan diet. And he proclaims the good news of Jesus
Christ to the masses.
This John, like the
John who came before, has been telling his friends and neighbors the good news
of Jesus. He’s been selling what he has and giving it away to the poor; he’s
been volunteering at a soup kitchen; he’s been working at a local HIV/AIDS
clinic; he’s been worshipping with the women at New Beginnings; he’s been
advocating for justice on the steps of the capitol. And some of those big names I mentioned
earlier would prefer he stuck to the status quo.
And this John, like
the John who came before him, has been telling his friends and neighbors about
Advent. About the coming Christ child and all that the hope of a God come to
dwell with us will mean for us. This John preaches not a gospel of prosperity,
not a gospel of consumption of goods for the celebration of Christmas. Remember,
this John is following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, who proclaimed the
original Advent Conspiracy.
You’ve heard those
words around here, probably. The Advent Conspiracy seeks to bring Advent back
to basics. To remove the power of our culture of buy-buy-buy instead of
give-give-give. God, the original giver, started big. God gave us the whole
earth we live on. And God gave us each other, and God gave us freedom from
tyranny, and God gave us God’s own self in the Word made flesh. The coming of
the Christ child is what we’re preparing for in these weeks. There is, of
course, a certain amount of preparation for modern celebrations of Christmas
that we are doing, too. Putting up trees and lights and baking a lot of cookies
and crossing things off a lot of different lists.
We get pretty
excited, in these first two Sundays of Advent, for it to be the third and
fourth Sundays of Advent and for it to just be Christmas, already! We’re a
culture that’s very good at getting ahead of ourselves. The anticipation of the
coming Christ child is a four-week season in our church. And then the season of
Christmas is the 12 days that begin on December 25. But in our nation,
Christmas begins at 9pm on Thanksgiving.
In order to fully
experience this season of joy and light and anticipation, we have to step back.
We have to actually wait. If the
first Sundays in Advent are already Christmas, where’d the anticipation go?
Where’d the preparation go? The preparation begins with waiting. Slowing down.
Reflecting. Breathing deeply. Taking time out of each day to do more than just
read the few words on that advent calendar before scarfing down the chocolate
from each square and going on our merry way. Honoring those we love with
valuable experiences, time, and energy, the whole month of December instead of
just spending our hours shopping for gifts to give them on December 25th.
Yesterday was our
Advent Quiet Day. What a beautiful example of these things. We slowed down. We
walked the labyrinth, pensively. We prayed, we read, we journaled, we painted,
we breathed. If you weren’t here yesterday, you can have quiet Advent
experiences of your own. There’s an Advent buffet table in the narthex with
plenty of resources to try.
One of the things
I’ve been doing is talking to my friends and family about Advent, instead of just
about Christmas. I sent out Advent cards this year – blue, instead of red and
green! – and have been encouraging my loved ones to light advent candles at
home, and take some quiet time together in their busy lives. There are plenty
of ways to let Advent be Advent.
The psalm for this
morning actually comes from the Gospel of Luke, and it gives us some insight
into this whole “prepare” thing. It’s a prophecy spoken by Zechariah, John the
Baptist’s father. He’s speaking to his own child about his vocation as the
preparer of the way for Jesus.
“You, child, “ he
says, “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the
Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people.” And he
goes on to say, I think, what John might say in order to give knowledge of salvation.
He says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon
us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to
guide our feet into the way of peace.” Now that’s some good news.
And I don’t think
that Zechariah’s prophecy is just for his son John, I think it’s for this other
John who lives in Boulder, these days, and I think it’s for us, no matter who
we are or where we live or what we wear or what we eat. This message of the
salvation of God is not just for people whose names are written in this big
book. It is for each and every one of us, who has been baptized by this water,
to come out of the Jordan River, or that very font, and proclaim that which has
been given to us, that it might be given to others. And all flesh shall see the
salvation of God.
This isn’t an easy
vocation, though. John the Baptist lost his life because of the Word he
proclaimed! Theologian Joyce Hollyday says, “watch out for
this Word. It has the power to level the hills and fill in the valleys. It is
like ‘a refiner's fire’ and ‘a fuller's soap,’ according to Malachi. It will
purify by the torch and rub you clean until it hurts. You were expecting maybe
just an innocent baby?”
For we who know the whole story know that that innocent baby grows up to be
the man Jesus whom John the Baptist is, this morning, telling us to prepare the
way for. Jesus’ ministry in this world is about to take off running, and we’re
going to want to be there to participate in that.
Matthew Paul Turner tweeted this
morning, “My prayer today is that we don’t simply celebrate Advent, but that we
become a part of Advent. May the spaces we fill shine brighter.”
So, like Pastor Dave told us last week—wake up! And now—prepare! We’re not
quite to the “start doing!” part yet. So try and take it slow for at least one
more week, making the spaces you fill shine brighter. It will be worth the
Happy Advent! Amen.
[PS -- JBap is what one of our seminary textbook authors calls John the Baptist, in case you couldn't figure that out and it was bothering you.]