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The boy will make us proud!



Born to tradition; breaking with tradition…

 John the Baptist comes of age.



This is the second Sunday in Advent and the time of year when we hear those gritty stories about John the Baptist. Today’s gospel reading from Luke is the rather more cleaned up version, leaving out the camel hair clothes, the eating of locusts and the whole sort of running around screaming at people picture of John we often times get. I would like to share with you the story before the story this morning.

Once upon a time, not long before this gospel reading takes place, there lived a priest named Zechariah who was married to a woman named Elizabeth. Now, Zechariah was a good and faithful priest, who worked in the temple, kept the laws, knew the scriptures. He was faithful to the traditions of his ancestors. His wife was a descendent of Aaron, brother of Moses. These two had impressive credentials. Both could trace their linage back to men and women who had helped form and shape the faith traditions they now kept. Now advanced in age, long in the tooth as we say, Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children. This honored line would stop with them.

One day, Zechariah was chosen to go into the temple alone to do some important thing (which now escapes me, no matter). While there, in the close recesses of the inner sanctum, the angle Gabriel appeared to Zechariah. Needless to day, Zechariah was frightened, stunned, overwhelmed and probably just plain surprised. But as angels usually do, Gabriel calmed his fears and went on to tell him that “he would have a son, name him John and this son would grow up to do great things” or something very close to that. Now, Zechariah was a practical man who might obviously have some skepticism about how this might occur and so he simply asked the angel Gabriel how this could be and even went on to ask if he “could have a sign.” Apparently there are times and circumstances when angels do not like to be asked to prove themselves and this was one of those times. The angel Gabriel got all puffed up and proud, demanded a sort of “don’t you know who I am?” kind of thing and then condemned Zechariah to be mute until the birth of his son. Poor Zechariah emerged from the temple unable to speak, gesturing madly to the gathered crowd trying to communicate some of what had happened to him. I imagine him to be using a kind of charades sort of body language, but I can’t be sure.

Roll the film forward a few months and we find Elizabeth has indeed given birth to a son. When asked what she will name the babe, she tells them his name is John. “John?”, they exclaim, “no one in your family is named John! You cannot name him John.” Whereupon Zechariah steps forward and writes his son’s name in the dirt – “John”, the child is named John. At this, the baby cries and the new father finds his voice, becoming both a father and a prophet in the same moment. Revealing that this child will grow and do great things, the people realize that the powerful family linage this child has inherited along with a commission from God will mean – the boy will make us all very proud!

This is John the Baptist. Inheritor of impressive family credentials, protector of the scriptures and traditions, raised to fill his father’s shoes and then some. John the Baptist, conformer, inheritor, traditionalist. This is who he is meant to be, but it is not who he is. On the one hand, he has come from a deep tradition of keeping the law, knowing the scripture, offering the sacrifice, observing ritual and maintaining purity. While on the other hand, he hears the voice of God calling out to him in the wilderness, pulling him into the future God imagines. John the Baptist lives in Advent time – the time between what was and what will be. And he is doing everything in his power to wake us up, to let us know that the time is coming when what was will no longer be and what will be won’t look like what we expect it to look like. It is both a warning and a promise.

A warning that when God breaks into human history, ripping the veil wide apart to reveal God’s very essence and nature, it will not be what we had been taught to expect. The valleys will be filled up – no more valleys. The mountains will be brought low – no more mountains. It will be an upside-down world, an inside-out world. The in-breaking of God in the flesh will be a watershed event unlike any other. Our traditions may not be able to guide us through these waters, only God can do that. Our scripture, read in the same old ways, may not help us, only the Holy Spirit can help us now. Watch out, John seems to say, because the revelation of God will be unlike anything you have ever seen. Think for a moment about the words we might use to describe God, the same words John’s hearers might have used – powerful, almighty, all-seeing/knowing, wonderful counselor, judge of all, ruler of all. Would you use any of these words to describe a baby? A single one of them? A baby, a shock and a truth. God’s first revelation to us in human flesh is one of a baby – the very essence and nature of God revealed in a tiny, cloth wrapped bundle. This is, indeed, an upside-down world.

The promise is that God is the God of all people, of all flesh. No one will be able to confine and keep God for himself or herself on this mountain or in this city, there are no secret rules to learn and keep to be accepted into God’s kingdom and God’s love will rest on any and all. John promises us that God is coming and our first impression will be profoundly telling. God will come to us as a baby, full of promise and possibility, openly loving and accepting, and an offer of self that is without condition. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, and what a berg it is. This baby will grow up to say crazier things than even John says – this is Advent time. This is the time to honestly consider whether you really want to do this Christian thing or not, because it will not be what you thought it was, it will not be tidy and predictable, being a Christian is messy and crazy and just plain scary sometimes.

Jesus will say things like, “you have heard it said, you have heard in scripture and in the stories of our elders, an eye for an eye….but I tell you no, not an eye for an eye. Love your enemy, love your neighbor. When someone strikes your cheek, offer the other one.” However much we want to read this crazy stuff differently, the reality will not go away – God really means for us to love people we have every right to not love, God will not be contained in one place for one people, God is more everything than we ever knew! Jesus has been taught to stay away from dead people and he just boldly goes in and touches them; Jesus has heard scripture that warns him to avoid sinners and instead he invites them to eat with him, goes into their homes; he heals on the Sabbath when he knows this is breaking the rules – the list goes on and on. Just like John the Baptist, Jesus is meant to be a conformer, an inheritor, a traditionalist and instead, he is the very essence of a radically inclusive, forgiving, creating, and loving God. Unsettling is what this is, just down right unsettling.

Each of us in our own way is rushing headlong towards a warm, fuzzy Christmas morning. Even when we bring painful memories and sad feelings to this time of year, it remains our cultural icon of peaceful nights and happy moments. Rarely, if ever, do we think of the time before Christmas as the time to prepare to ditch tradition, the time we steady ourselves to accept people and ideas we don’t accept at all other times of the year or even realize that this is actually Advent time – the time between that which was and that which will be. John has heard the voice of God calling from the wilderness and in return calls out to us – “hear the warning”, he pleads, “God will surprise you” and, he urges, accept the promise, “God will surprise you!”  Expect the unexpected, for it is our God who is coming.