He shows up every year on this Sunday of Advent. If we are honest, his appearance in Advent feels like an unwelcome intruder. He just doesn't fit the season. His smelly clothes of camel skins and diet of locusts and wild honey are out of place in this dress-up season of festive parties and fattening food. He doesn't sing Christmas carols. He is more into rap -- "Repent! Repent! Repent!
John the Baptist just doesn't seem to belong in the Christmas story. Have you ever received a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it? A neighbor in the community where I live has the most inclusive portrayal of the Christmas story I have ever witnessed. They have displayed on their well-lighted lawn all the characters ever associated with Christmas. Rudolph is there along with all the other reindeer. Santa Claus is there. Frosty the Snow Man is there. Mary and Joseph are poised beside the manger, surrounded by plastic sheep, watched over by plastic shepherds. Angels are represented, as are the wise men perched on their cardboard camels. But I have looked closely; and there is no John The Baptist. He just doesn't seem to belong in Christmas. Well, have you ever seen a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it?
After all, it is time to stop singing those mournful advent hymns and liven things up with some up-lifting Christmas carols. Let's get on with the celebration, enjoy the poinsettias, light the candles, deck the halls with boughs of holly. We need to hear the angels singing, the baby cooing, and see the shepherds kneeling and wise men giving their gifts.
The Gospel writers are convinced that if we don't stop by the Jordan and confront John the Baptizer, we will not know who the baby down in Bethlehem is. We will go to Bethlehem, kneel piously before the infant Jesus, sing a few carols, unwrap a few gifts; and return to the routine -- unchanged.
Only by going out of the way, making a trip over to the Jordan, listening to the call to repentance and wading out into the cross-over river between the wilderness and the promised land will we be ready to visit the Babe in Bethlehem's manger.
John, the forerunner, the preparer of the way. He knows who Jesus is -- really knows. He knows that he is not just another promising baby, a new miracle worker, or teacher, or exorcist. John knows there is more to who Jesus is than meets the eye. If we don't listen to John, we will miss the divine presence, the radical implications of the birth in Bethlehem's barn.
John knows that the baby in Bethlehem's manger is the firstborn of a new creation. God, through the babe of Bethlehem, is bringing a new world. This trip to Bethlehem is no sentimental annual pilgrimage to a shrine of the past. It is no mere birthday celebration of a historic figure. It is the preparation for a new heaven and new earth that God is bringing. The reign of God, the power and presence of God, the purposes of God are coming toward us.
God is bringing a new world. It is a world without barriers among people. In this one who is cradled in Bethlehem's manger the dividing walls of hostility are broken down, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond or free, male or female, but all are one. The world that is coming is a world in which all people are claimed as beloved children of God. No longer will worth and value and treatment be based upon pedigree -- "we are children of Abraham" -- but on the one to whom we belong. The world that is coming will be a world in which justice and righteousness reign. The exalted will be brought low and the low will be exalted. Greatness will be in serving -- not being served. The last will be first and the first will move to the back of the line. Love will characterize all relationships; and the power of love will replace the love of power.
A new world is dawning. A new promised land is about to be entered. With a sense of urgency born of radical expectation, John calls us to enter the Jordan -- the crossing between the old world of slavery and wilderness wandering and the new world of freedom and shalom. There, we will be washed clean of the dust and dirt from our wilderness wanderings. There, the old demons that have bound us will be drowned in the waters of a new future.
John calls us to repentance, to turn away from the old world and toward the new thing God is doing down in Bethlehem. Only by being willing to turn away from the old world and toward God's coming reign of justice, generosity, and joy, are we ready to kneel before Bethlehem's Babe, who is the incarnation of God's reign.
Repentance is the appropriation for Christ's coming. Repentance, though, has gotten bad press. It is seen as negative, a beating our breast in grief and shame. John in Luke portrays repentance negatively; giving up something: wealth, violence, privilege. But it is in anticipation of the new that is coming. Repentance can have the character of excited anticipation, like the joyful turning toward the birth of a new child, with its accompanying change in priorities and life-style, or the expectation of receiving an inheritance with new possibilities, or a new job with new challenges.
John's call to repentance in Luke's Gospel gets very specific. He calls for us to adopt a new source of identity. Some who heard the call toward the new world assumed their citizenship was secure because of birthright. Their identity was rooted in their ancestors. They saw no need for repentance. After all, "we are children of Abraham." But, "God is able to raise children of Abraham from these stones." You must turn away from trusting your labels and pedigrees as sources of identity. The babe in Bethlehem is your new source of identity.
New community is coming into being. It is a community in which other's needs become connected with ours. It is a community in which we give to those who have need. As John said, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." A new ethic is coming into being -- no manipulation and coercion, no violence. Extortion must be put aside. Violence and cruelty must be shunned. This One whom we pay homage in Bethlehem is calling into being a new community of justice, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Those committed to hoarding, self-preservation, manipulation and violence will either not recognize who Jesus is or they will outright reject him. If we don't visit John at the Jordan, we may very well make Jesus into a champion of our greed, a protector of our privileges, and supporter of our violence. We may pay him temporary homage but continue to perpetuate our exclusiveness, our injustice, our cruelty.
Paying attention to John the Baptist, however, will confront us with the radical new reality coming into the world in Jesus Christ. Nothing less than the realization that a new world is dawning. A world in which identity is based on the one to whom we belong; a world of justice and sharing for the poor, and world of magnanimity and love. This is the new world the Babe in Bethlehem is bringing.
Only by wading out into the Jordan and drowning our sins, our false identity, our injustice and selfishness, our commitment to violence, will we be recognized and worship the One who is coming in Bethlehem. As disturbing and inconvenient and disruptive as it may be amid the glitter and gaiety of this season, stopping by the Jordan to hear John the Baptist, wading out into the river between the old and the new, and drowning our sins in the waters of repentance are all necessary if we are to know the identity of the One whose birth we are on the way to celebrate.