Text: Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared. … They had been waiting for him, in fact, for 400 years they had been waiting for him and suddenly there he stood in the wilderness of Judea and his message was like taking fingernails and running them across a chalkboard. Every Advent, we still find him standing there and we are told to listen to what he is saying, for after all this is the one preparing the way!
But John can make a person jumpy. Once you get to know him and when you realize he is talking about you and your life and your sin he isn’t the sort you want to take home and introduce to the rest of the family. I suppose that is what God intended by sending John — to have us know that if you got too close to him you’d feel the heat from that unquenchable fire. He said, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
In one of the corners of Hyde Park in London, the street preachers show up almost every day to stand on their soapboxes and warn those passing by that they need to repent. Lots of people view it as one of the ‘must see’ spots in the city. Along with the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, these strange and quirky people with their no-nonsense message have become a tourist attraction. John the Baptist had the good citizens of Jerusalem and all Judea going out to get a look at him, hear what he had to say and even be baptized in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. One wonders if they really meant it. Sometimes human beings can’t help being curious. Sometimes human beings are compelled to do what everyone else is doing. John was the prophet they had been waiting for and if the Day of the Lord was coming, then it made perfect sense to get a little of what he was giving.
But don’t forget that John was God’s prophet and there were those who understood that, too. Later, Jesus came to him. The beginning of his ministry starts with John’s hands on his shoulders, dipping him into the water of the Jordan. The appearance of John ‘in those days,’ was meant to put the world on notice that a holy moment was about to unfold, a kairos moment, a moment in which God was about to shift history and change lives. To read about John in Advent is a call to take seriously that we can never get to Bethlehem unless we do what he says. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
In one of the congregations I served there was a woman named Gladys. I liked her. She was honest. She was faithful. But on Sunday mornings, she always strategically placed herself so that I could see her. The unison Prayer of Confession would be read and she would stand there and shake her head back and forth. Not always, but enough that finally I said to her one day, “Why do you do that? Why aren’t you praying with the others?” Her response was direct. She said, “Because I didn’t do any of those things the prayer was asking me to pray!”
I think most people would agree with her. We aren’t big into sin. We are deeply into blame. Our problems aren’t the result of runaway pride or vicious greed, we are after all fighting to maintain our freedom and to guarantee the way of life we have grown so accustomed to living. It isn’t our fault that kids are confused and marriages are failing and people are killing one another on our streets. Sin? Repent? For what?
I’m writing a new Prayer of Confession to be used every Sunday next year. It won’t be very poetic. It will be concise. “Dear God, forgive us again for thinking we are not sinners. Amen.” Maybe my head might end up on somebody’s platter just like John’s, but isn’t that part of the good news we are being asked to proclaim. We are against sin. We know what it is. We have an answer.
President Calvin Coolidge’s brevity was renowned. He returned home from church one Sunday. His wife asked what the minister’s sermon was about. Coolidge replied, “Sin.” She said, “Well, what did he say about it?” The president answered, “He’s against it.”
Repent, John the Baptist said. It means to turn around and that too isn’t a bad message for us to hear in Advent. Maybe the road we have been building to Bethlehem is a road going in the wrong direction. It is a road littered with excuses. It is a road plastered with our plastic decorations to make it look so festive. Instead, the road John came to prepare is a road that bores right through our souls, a road that reminds us that preparing for the Day of the Lord is a perpetual task. We could call it ‘journey theology.’ We know that we — the world we live in– are not ready, save the grace of God that offers us hope.
LARRY CHOTTINER is pastor of Salisbury Church in Midlothian, Va.