Advent 2: The Shrill One
John was on a roll. For quite some time he had been preaching a fiery message to all kinds of people and with splendid results. They came to him in droves and responded to his message with genuine fervor. That is quite amazing given that John was not exactly what anyone would consider “seeker-friendly.” Today most churches want to enfold visitors, give them a warm greeting. But that wasn’t John the Baptist’s style! He had too much fire in his belly to bother with what he might have deemed social pleasantries.
When people came to him, John was not adverse to sneering. “Well, well, well, here you all are trotting out to see me but do you know what you look like to me? A bunch of slithering snakes fleeing a burning field! Who told you the fire was coming up behind you? What brings you here anyway?” Probably not a few folks blanched and turned pale at such a greeting! Maybe some of them started to say something like, “Now just hold on there a moment, John. We’re not pagans, you know. We’re devout Jews, Abraham’s children, heirs of the covenant. You can’t talk that way to us! Save that for the Greeks!”
But before they could get very far, John cut them off. “Hush up! I’ve had it up to here listening to talk of ‘Abraham’s children, Abraham’s children!’ God isn’t interested in your family tree but wants you to be a living tree of faith right now, producing spiritual fruit. If God wanted motionless, non-productive people, he could create them out of these rocks. You people are not living examples of faith but are more like marble statues, monuments to bygone people of faith but dead as stone yourselves!”
Now you might think that this would be such a huge turnoff that folks would flee and head back home. But mostly that didn’t happen. John was so fiercely effective that before the people even knew what they were doing, they blurted out, “What should we do!?” John got through to them. He shook up not just untutored peasants but also tax collectors, well-to-do folks, and even strapping Roman soldiers. Think of that: John made armed men with shields and helmets quiver like scared children.
In every case, when anyone asked John for advice on how to live better lives, John always came up with an answer. He encouraged generosity, honesty, fairness. He told tax collectors not to cook the books so as to line their own pockets. He told soldiers to stop shaking people down and coercing bribes. Basically John told the people to be nice, to tell the truth, to share.
Who knows what the people thought he was going to say. Perhaps they anticipated some heavy-duty admonitions to do spectacular ministry like opening a leprosy clinic or establishing a relief agency for victims of famine. But no, John’s advice was far simpler.
Some years ago many of us looked at that book Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was a pretty simple little book, almost trite in one way. Yet it sold well because it made a very good point: if we could just find grown-up ways to live out the Kindergarten virtues of kindness and sharing, the world would be a better place. So also with John the Baptist. The people expected John to give them graduate school-like spiritual direction so they could all earn their religious Ph.D’s but instead John took them back to Kindergarten. John didn’t promote spiritual Ph.D’s but spiritual ABC’s.
And it worked. John was on a roll. It’s difficult to know just what was going through John’s mind as his ministry progressed. But if he felt good about the way God was using him, if his confidence level was rising steadily as time went by, you could hardly blame him. It’s not that John was getting cocky, but he had hit on a formula that was working. So the day came when John dared to take on even Herod. Luke is sketchy as to how this came about but clearly at some point John condemned Herod for his moral failings, chief among which was marrying his sister-in-law.
And it was precisely here that John’s roll came to an end. Now he had gone too far. This time John criticized someone who was not going to be cut to the quick. This time he upset the wrong man and so suddenly found himself under arrest and locked up in a prison where he would remain until the end of his days.
But that last verse of our passage this morning is not Herod’s first appearance in Luke 3, is it? If you are a Scripture reader at your church, then Luke 3:1 is the kind of passage you hope you never get! For the second chapter in a row, Luke opened with a litany of then-current political leaders. But at least with Luke 2 we have the advantage of having heard “Quirinius” pronounced at any number of Sunday School Christmas programs over the years. Luke 3 is far less familiar, throwing in names like “Traconitis” and “Lysanius” among others. All in all, it’s a pretty elaborate historical set-up. But if it at first seemed unnecessary, by the time you hit verses 19-20, you realize Luke included all those political names for a reason. He wasn’t merely fixing the date of John the Baptist’s ministry.
If I tell you that a certain event took place “While Richard Nixon was president,” then you know that whatever I’m talking about happened somewhere between 1969 and 1974. So also in Luke 3, once Luke mentions all those names, from Tiberius Caesar on down, anyone familiar with Roman history would know when John’s ministry happened. But this nod toward that era’s political leaders was more than just a historical footnote. It is Luke’s way of reminding us that the gospel is not an isolated phenomenon that takes place off in some corner. The gospel is not a local reality but is cosmic.
Luke also quotes for us a few verses from Isaiah. But notice that this prophecy does not say that some valleys will be filled in and just a few mountains would be made low. He doesn’t in the end say that a handful of people would see the salvation of God. No, he says every valley, every mountain, and all of humanity would be involved. All the crooked roads would be made straight and all the rough places would be smoothed out.
So if someone had said to John, “Don’t concern yourself with Herod. He’s too far away to bother with,” you sense that John would have been furious. He was not called by God to put on a cute little sideshow restricted to the banks of the Jordan River. John’s job was to prepare the world for the Messiah’s advent. All those high and mighty folks listed in verse 1 were involved whether they knew it or not. They were going to come under the aegis of God’s Christ whether they knew it or not, whether they liked it or not.
On this second Advent Sunday, here is a message that is bracing for us to consider. Because today, too, there is resistance to the idea that the gospel has global implications. “Christmas” has become a widespread phenomenon, of course, but it has long since been swamped by the more generic label of “the holiday season.” Talk to most any Jewish rabbi and he will tell you that in their tradition, Hanukkah was always a very minor Jewish holiday. But it has swelled in importance in recent centuries only so that Jewish children can have fun and receive gifts over the holidays, too. Now we also have Kwanzaa and perhaps there are even a couple of other traditions crowding in–festivals and observances that tie in not with Christmas per se but with the holidays more broadly.
Across the spectrum of society, therefore, it’s acceptable if we Christians want to zero in on Jesus but we need to restrict the scope of our message. If it works for us, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that it has anything to do with anyone else. If we stay in our little corner, we can say, sing, and believe pretty much anything we want. But the moment we stray, the second we suggest that Jesus is the Lord of every person everywhere, the world turns on us.
So long as John the Baptist restricted himself to teaching folks out in the middle of nowhere, he was safe. But John knew that his message of repentance had to apply to everybody or else it applied to nobody. If the Christ whose way John was preparing could not speak to Herod’s situation, then neither could the Christ speak to any situation.
We need to remember this, too. But please don’t think that I am advocating some militant form of the Christian faith that must sally forth into society violently to attack all those who do not share our faith. We cannot shove the gospel down people’s throats. Nor should we despise the freedom of religious expression we have in this country just because some use that same freedom to express faiths very different from our own. We should be thankful that we can celebrate and freely proclaim what we believe.
What we must avoid, however, is concluding that our faith is finally only a private matter that has no bearing on those who do not believe. If and when we meet people who don’t think much of Jesus, we must not buy into the relativist/pluralist notion that one religion (or no religion) is as good as the next since it’s all just a personal thing to begin with. This month we must not let the generic holiday spirit dislodge that central Christian tenet that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. Christmas, and the Christ Jesus at the center of it, involves all people in all times and places whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not.
On the First Sunday in Advent we noted that the church always begins Advent with apocalyptic images that, in the popular imagination, are as non-Christmasy as can be imagined. Now today we encounter John the Baptist, whom the church has also long insisted is an absolutely necessary character in the Advent drama. But as we noted together some years ago, even most Christians don’t want John at Christmas. We don’t put John on Christmas cards. We have no John the Baptist Christmas tree ornaments. No child plays John in Christmas programs and he’s nowhere to be seen on front yard manger displays. John is too untidy, too dangerous for Christmas. Invite John to your holiday party and he’ll spill eggnog all over your Persian rug as he flails his arms around talking about the need to repent.
He’s too shrill. If we let John in the door, he’ll wake the baby in the manger. Then again, if we do not let John in, if we will not or cannot tolerate his uncompromising message that Christ is Lord of all, then that baby in the manger may as well just go on sleeping forever and ever. Because if we can’t let John in, we’re not ready for the baby to wake up anyway. If we don’t like what John says, we won’t like what that baby will eventually say, either. And then Christmas is over before it really began. Amen.
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