John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
My neighborhood is already glowing with the lights of Christmas. Seems like folks are putting up their Christmas decorations extra early this year. It seems like a good way to brighten things up a bit. As the words of the song from the show Mame go, “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the windows, carols at the spinet.” And so, especially in the year 2020, we do.
But before the twelve days of Christmastide come the four weeks of Advent. The lectionary gives us a guide to these four weeks. Last Sunday, on the first Sunday of Advent (a word that means “coming”), we heard about the second coming of Christ. And this coming Sunday, the second week…well…who do you think could spoil an otherwise joyful United Methodist Advent more than one grumpy Baptist- John the Baptist, that is. While I want to sing “Joy to the World” and lullabies to the sweet baby in the hay, here comes this wild-looking man, wearing camel’s hair and probably smelling like a camel too, eating a very strange diet, screaming about repenting, and bidding us come to the bleak Judean wilderness where it is all rocks and hard places, and desert with no place to hide! He looks and sounds nothing like the figures in the manger scenes I have set out, and I try to ignore him and go around that scary place.
But there isn’t any way to get to Christmas except through the wilderness where John is shouting and raging and name-calling…and of course baptizing as well. We can’t just skip this wilderness tour and go straight to the manger.
So maybe I DO need to spend a little time in the wilderness this Advent. Maybe I do need to take some time out to look at my life and consider whether or not I am a productive Christian, and whether or not there are things I need to repent of…and whether or not I am ready for the coming of the Messiah.
We tend to think of Advent as simply preparation for the Christmas celebration. But it wasn’t always like that. The early church focused not only on the sweet little Jesus boy, but also on the awesome second coming of Christ as judge of us all.
John would remind us that we do well to keep that twofold emphasis so that our focus on the baby doesn’t become just empty sentiment and warm, fuzzy feelings.
The world right now is a very scary place. There are wars going on across the globe. There is a pandemic plowing through the world. There is a contested election. There are hungry people all across this big world including our own county. We don’t need a cute cooing baby. We need a Savior. We need to know that God is with us, and not someplace far away. We need to know that hope is not lost and that we have not been forsaken.
When Christmas does come – and come it will, whether we are ready or not – we mustn’t be fooled by the baby in the manger. Because in that baby the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. That baby is the Word of God made flesh. And that word should shake us to our very foundation.
Blessed be the God of Israel, who comes to set us free,
who visits and redeems us, and grants us liberty.
The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release;
God shall fulfill the promise to bring our people peace.
Lord, open our hearts to your mercy and grace, and make us ready to greet the Savior. Amen.
Pastor Rachel Moser