John the Baptist. The prophet. John the strange man, John the weirdo. What on earth do we make of him? I used to laugh at books I read in my seminary, because these books made prophets like John seem like calm, cool, slightly annoyed scholars like themselves.
It's funny the view of prophets scholar have with the wild man John obviously was. He wore the same primitive clothes that Elijah the OT prophet wore, and ate bizarre things- locusts and wild honey- probably whatever he could get without too much effort. Prophets like John do anything but fit in, and are anything but calm, cool and collected!
Have you ever met any modern-day prophets? I have. One was a college friend of mine. Long before the Cold war with Russia ended, Bob would walk around campus carrying an old water heater made up like a nuclear missile. He got into a tussle at the local mall, because the mall said that his act was bad for shopping. He replied that nuclear war is bad for shopping, so they threw him out of the mall. Bob took it to court. He lost, but losing in court didn’t bother Bob at all. I believe that as annoying as Bob was, there was something from God inside him that had to speak out. That’s the way prophets are. My friend Bob was annoying at times, but the truth is, he was often right.
When I was in college at UW Madison, there were a couple of preachers that came who made rounds of the Big 10 schools. Jed and Cindy were crazy. They’d stand out on the library mall at lunch time and insult the crowd- anything to stir people up. Then they’d preach for hours with great crowds around them. Jed and Cindy wore old-fashioned clothes. They were particularly fond of making snap judgments about if people were going to heaven or hell. A friend of mine from India was in the crowd one day when they were preaching. Somebody asked Jed and Cindy, "What about him?" pointing to my friend. Without hesitation, like an umpire calling an out, the speaker shouted, He's going to Hell!!!! Telling people they were going to Hell was one of Jed and Cindy's favorite occupations. Jed and Cindy were judgmental, condemning, angry people. A lot like John the Baptist.
The only problem was, like my housemate Bob, Jed and Cindy were often right on. Jed and Cindy declared many students cared more about sex and drugs and rock and roll than they did about their classes. They were right. They talked about how selfish and childish many of the students were. They were right. Those preachers knew they were right, so the more people heckled, the louder they preached. Sounds a lot like John the Baptist, don't they?
John rubbed people the wrong way because they knew he was right. Jews, non-Jews, poor people, rich people, nobodies and influential people, he riled them all. Many people hated him. One day John opened his mouth about the King and found himself in prison, and then with his head on a silver platter. Sadly, that's the way most prophets go. Speak out against powerful people, and they'll get rid of you.
So why do we pay attention to John the Baptist every year about this time? One reason we have John is that he lets know that Christ is near. The first Sunday of Advent leaves us hanging. The people of Israel were told they had a Savior coming but nobody told them when. That’s a hard place to be.
Did you ever send away for stuff when you were a kid? They always said allow 6-8 weeks for delivery, but you could never be sure. That’s a long time to wait when you’re a kid. No matter how much your mom said it was coming, it was hard. It was the same way with Israel waiting for the Messiah. God told them that the Messiah was coming, but it was hard to wait for Him for who knows how long. Suddenly John appeared, and said the Messiah was coming, and coming soon. Israel’s waiting was still difficult, but waiting for something coming soon feels different.
When I was a kid, I also used to wait for A Charlie Brown Christmas to come on TV. It’s usually one of the earliest Christmas specials, and still my favorite. It’s 50 years old, but each year it seems more and more prophetic. Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on proved to me when I was young Christmas was really coming. John had the same effect on Israel. John probably excited the Jews more than any other prophet in history. & John told them someone even more exciting was coming.
John is right. We need to repent and prepare for God’s coming. John understands human character very well. He understood that in order to appreciate God, you have to get rid of the gunk in your souls. John would be a great man to do an AA fifth step with, where you confess all your darkest sins and worst mistakes. Confession is good for the soul. To receive the power God can give us, we need to be in a place where we can hear God clearly, not all burdened with guilt, or pain, or anger.
What has your life been like since last you heard John the Baptist? Have you done all that you wanted to draw closer to God this past year? What have you done to work on your spiritual life in 2019? It’s easy to get forgetful in a culture like ours. Pleasures and distractions surround us. Most T.V., movies, magazines and music don’t exactly reinforce Christian values. Even the good things in our life can crowd out God if we’re not careful. Celebrations abound this time of year. Present buying, parties and preparation for guest staying over. How many of us have skipped prayers or Bible reading to make up that extra bed, or buy that turkey, or a few more presents? We don’t mean to lose track of God, but we often do.
John the Baptist hauls us up short. I can hear John’s words echoing through a saying of my great-grandmother: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Maybe that’s harsh, but John was direct and honest. He says good intentions aren’t enough to prepare us to meet God. We need to be a changed people. Anything which draws us closer to God is good. Anything drawing us away from God get rid of. If we listen to John, then much of our lives are filled with chaff, lighter than a feather- chaff is the stuff that floats away after grain is hit with a winnowing fork. The chaff of our lives will blow away in the presence of God, leaving what is good and right and true to encounter the most powerful, exciting being in the universe. We all know people who seem to have little left in their lives except greed, hate or gossip. John wants to make sure we’re not that way, that there’s something left of us to meet God, after our chaff blows away.
What is the chaff in our lives- the things which seem important but in the end will blow away as if they were nothing? Is it how we spend our free time? Is it our bad habits? The way we fill our bodies and minds with garbage? I don’t know what it is for you. But you know. You know.
Prepare to meet the living God this Christmas. Listen to the prophets in our lives, whether they be Christmas specials, obnoxious preachers, or anyone else. Sort out the wheat from the chaff you hear around you, so that you can get rid of your own chaff. Listen, wait. John the Baptist warns us: only 17 days ‘til the Messiah comes. Today is communion. Open your hearts so communion will truly renew your spirits. Open your minds and your days to plan for God in a fresh way. And may your hearts be changed this Advent. Amen!