The Unexpected Visitor
This is the traditional pattern of the ecumenical church and its Scripture readings for these two Sundays of Advent, but that doesn’t stop us from being jarred by John’s presence. In fact, that is the intent.
And for those who get weary or wary of the sweetness and excess of “the happiest time of the year,” John is a palate cleanser. Listen!
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire.'” Need I point out that he’s not really talking about trees?
Just as John will say that there is one who is coming who is far greater than he, so there is one far greater than any of us. There’s something larger, a reality and a grace beyond ourselves. Which strikes me, in our often feverishly self-preoccupied times and lives, as both bad news and good news.
But why John? Why when we so want a break from the harsh, the hard and the dark, do we get John the Baptist, herald of the One who is to come?
Well, that last bit is the answer. John is the herald of the One who is to come, Jesus Christ. I said earlier that these two weeks of Advent the spotlight is on John. But really it isn’t. It would be more accurate to say that John is a spotlight. The one in the spotlight is Jesus.
Still, it’s confusing. When we say Jesus is the One who is to come, are we talking about his birth in Bethlehem or his coming in history’s end and consummation? The first coming or the second? Both, and more.
In my experience, God comes, breaks into our world, intrudes in unexpected ways, utterly reframing and reformulating our reality, our sense of ourselves and of what matters.
One Saturday morning I was struggling with my sermon. Nothing would come. It all seemed dead. I decided to go for a run. As I headed north and west on the path around Lake Washington I ran into my wife, Linda, who was returning from a walk. I’m sure that my every muscle twitched with consternation and tight frustration, as I plodded into the leaden grayness of an early morning ahead.
She said, “Turn around.” When I did I saw the most magnificent sunrise. The sky full and blazing with reds and blues, pink and gray. The contrast between the gray ahead and the gray of my spirits to the sunrise and splendor at my back was stunning and telling.
There was as I say, both bad and good news in that sunrise sky. Bad news: I was too wrapped up in myself. Good news: there is a reality, there is One so much greater than I. There is a God, Tony, and it’s not you!
And, by the way, the words Linda said to me, “turn around” are the exact meaning of “repentance,” of which John speaks to us today. Repentance does not mean feeling bad about yourself. It means turning around, changing direction, doing a 180.
So Bethlehem, yes. History’s consummation, yes. But in between God comes, Jesus intrudes — whether in a sunrise or a stranger, in a storm or a sadness that leads us to cry out desperate for help and mercy. God comes in Christ shattering and remaking the world and us.