There is a week, each year, which is highly anticipated by many people. No, it is not the week after Thanksgiving beginning on Black Friday. Actually, this week occurs in late August. Truly, this week is the buzz of Facebook and twitter. Work schedules are rearranged. The recording devise on our television is set to go. I am talking about Shark Week – “Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water again.” For one whole week on TBS every aspect of the life of these beasts is studied. The film work is excellent, but how many times can you watch a shark attack a sea lion? I am always glad that we are home from our beach vacation BEFORE Shark Week commences because you would never get me off the sand in the first week in September!
Now, you are going to be amazed how I turn this into an Advent sermon! Just two weeks ago, I was walking down the hallway and Lynda, our office administrator, said: “It is John the Baptist week coming up, are you ready?” John the Baptist week, the second week in Advent; truly, we are treading in dangerous waters.
John the Baptist pulls us into deep currents beyond the waves and out of the tidal pool. John stirs things up and throws chum into the roiling sea. If I can swim in my metaphor for just a little longer, I would say that John the Baptist is a kind of fresh water hammer head shark preparing the way for the Great White menace to come.
Let’s be honest, the Jesus that John describes is no “Gentle Jesus, sweet and mild.” John cries out: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”(3:7) “The one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”(3:16-17) “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people;” (v.18) except if you are a sea lion!
Yes, just when you thought it was safe to plan for Christmas and prepare for a little baby – the water seems strangely alive and you detect some fins coming at you, and perhaps the circle is getting smaller.
OK – I am done with the shark references. But, in a way, what better way to agitate you to consider what you are preparing for this Advent. John the B. agitates you and me deeply about our lives and our choices. John the Baptist week still challenges all those who are seeking for the Messiah.
Jesus Christ comes to turn over tables. Yes, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, but sometimes the Spirit of Jesus kicks the door down. Jesus loves you just as you are – but like any real love – it is a love that holds you accountable to your best self; a love that calls you to honesty, a love that will hold even a painful intervention on your behalf. Jesus’ love for you is not an excuse-making kind of love that enables you to stay on in your favorite dysfunction. It is not a love that turns a blind eye to stupid and hurtful choices.
I will never forget when Stanley Hauerwas, (the contemporary ethicist and theologian) said, in his nasally voice, to a small group that I was in: “God wants you dead.” That always disturbed me. But, what Hauerwas meant, I think, was this: any true new life comes through the dying of the old self and the putting on of the new self. Jesus Christ came to bring a whole new wardrobe for you to put on. God wants you to surrender you whole self so that you can finally be at home in your own skin. That is the wonderful paradox of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In losing yourself you find yourself. In dying you are made alive.
That came alive to me this morning as I read the Plain Dealer Metro section front page about Ozetta Harris whose plan was “to die a happy alcoholic.” She said that she would have been “a candidate for [serial killer Anthony Sowell.” She said, “If he had promised me some crack, I would have followed him into that house.” But Ozetta found Calvary Hill Missionary Baptist Church… she says “I don’t need a way out now. I have God. His promise has given me hope.”
Ozetta has been clean and sober since 2010.
This doesn’t diminish my certainty that the Biblical teaches that you are a “beloved child of God.” God loves you so much that God urges, encourages, chides, and yes, even, at times, threatens to move you into the brightness of a new day. If I may use the words of Malcolm X: “God will use any means necessary,” to move you towards redemption, which is always at hand.
John the Baptist first reminds his stunned listeners: “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” No one is entitled to special status or special privilege. All stand before God as equals upon the level playing field! John the Baptist says: You are here to bear fruit worthy, or in keeping, with repentance! Let your life reflect your deepest convictions. Act as if you believe God is good and God is love.
No wonder the crowd gets agitated: “What shall we do?” What shall we do to prepare for this Messiah? How shall we show that we are getting ready?
John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Social equity is demanded. I wonder if today John would demand: if you have two houses you need to give one up to one who doesn’t have any place to live.
John says to the tax collectors: “don’t cheat people.” I wonder what he would say to the wheelers and dealers on Wall Street and on Main St. who make profits on people, who force workers into low wages, and then complain that they don’t make enough money. Economic fairness is required.
John says to the soldiers: “Do not extort anyone by threats or false accusations.” People who have authority, those who are given responsibility to protect and defend, better do so. 137 shots into two unarmed people in East Cleveland sounds “fishy” to me.
I told you this would get deep! When Christ comes it is not just to make you feel warm and fuzzy, it is to make you shine with glory. There is a cost to discipleship.
What would John the Baptist say to you, if you asked him the question: “what should I do?”
I wonder what he would say: “go to therapy?” “Tell your spouse, ‘I am sorry?'” “Go to meeting and face your addiction?” “Tell the truth, no more lies?” “Stop downloading porn?”
For some the words might be: “Would you allow yourself to relax?” “You don’t have to do it all.” “Don’t try to figure it out.” “Quit being so hard on yourself!””Ask for help.” Maybe even, “Trust you are lovable!” Sometimes even gentle and affirming words can agitate.
But above all, what is most important to John, is that God wants to get to the root of it all. “His ax is lying at the root of the tree.”(not the branches) Don’t go half way. If you have to change – CHANGE! Go deeper. Get to the root of the matter.
Why are you and your spouse having such troubles?
Why do you feel so out of sync, not at home in your own body? Why are you stuck in the same rut?
Socially, it is a good thing to feed the hungry – but what is the root of the problem – how can we get to the deeper issue of “why are there hungry people?”
We can be dismayed at the number of young black men in prison but what is the root cause of this new kind of “Jim Crow?” as Michelle Alexander names it.
Why are there pockets of concentrated poverty and a whole generation of lost boys and girls?
Are you willing to go deep? Do we really want to change? There are things that each of us must do individually to prepare for the “one who is to come.” There are things we must do professionally to prepare for the “one who is to come.” There are things we must do socially and politically to prepare for the “one who is to come.” This is what John the Baptist week is stirring up in me.
God is coming. God is here. And there are paths that still need to be straightened. There are valleys that still need to be filled. There are barriers that still need to come down. There are rough places that still need to be made smooth.
Just when you thought it was safe to get into the waters again…. Here comes John the Baptist.