"You can choose your friends but not your relatives." I wonder if anyone ever said that to Jesus about his weird cousin John the Baptist. Mark introduces this strange character at the beginning of his Gospel. He seems to appear out of nowhere -- the solo voice of one crying in the wilderness. His dress and diet speak for themselves -- a leather girdle -- camel's hair -- locusts and wild honey. He seems totally lacking in social skills -- devoid of diplomacy as he launches a message of doom and gloom. He is not my type, and, I imagine he is not your type. He is the ultimate loner -- the original rugged individualist -- the desert prophet -- yes, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
We can easily forget that John the Baptist was the product of good nurture. His parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were both of priestly lineage. They were elderly, and, no doubt, it was difficult at times to understand their independent son. We do not know when and why John left home. He was raised, however, by solid, spiritual parents in the traditions of the faith. He knew the pilgrimage, the people, and the places of his Hebrew roots. Mark connects him to his heritage by quoting from Isaiah in his introduction. His dress was identical to that of Elijah, the forerunner prophesied by Malachi. That prophetic voice had been stilled for centuries until the Baptist aroused people from their spiritual sleep with his clarion call. He was the fulfillment of the old, and prepared the way for the new.
He was the prophetic hinge connecting the past and the future by what he did in the present. This was a man of God who knew his place.
We live in an age of immediacy -- instant foods, instant winners with our lottery mentality, instant information in the computer world, instant gratification in the drug culture. There is little loyalty to the past nor sacrifice for the sake of the future. Christopher Lasch in his classic, "The Culture of Narcissism," notes the forgetful character of the late twentieth century U.S. culture: "to live for the moment is the prevailing passion -- to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future."
There is little loyalty in the workplace. Our language gives us away when we speak of "headhunters," "corporate raiders," and "hostile takeovers." Few athletes remain with the teams that signed them. Free agency reigns in professional sports. The assumption among religious shoppers is that we operate in a buyers? market. The consumer makes choices based on present needs with little thought for the past or the future.
John the Baptist was a man of history, well connected. Well acquainted with the prophecies of the past, he knew his place in the present as he pointed and prepared for the One who would be the future. Never take his sacrifices for granted. Our text affirms that his message, however stern, struck a responsive chord. The crowds came -- his congregation grew, but immediately when Jesus begins to preach, John withdraws to the wings -- the spotlight shifts: "He must increase -- I must decrease." There is not one trace of jealousy, one ounce of envy. He knew his place; he was not the way -- he would prepare the way.
Two of the ten commandments have to do with coveting. So often envy and jealousy spoil the efforts of people because they cannot sacrifice for, nor celebrate their successors.
The message of John the Baptist was loud and clear; repent, change. It will not be back to the future. It will not be more of the same. It will not be business as usual. The old will give way to the new. Isaiah said it this way: "Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it?"
There is a nostalgia today in our country and often in our churches that the way ahead lies in the way back and that the glory days are always in the idealized past. In a world where chaos theory reigns, a world of accelerated change, we long for the past rather than prepare for the future. In our denomination a national survey indicated that attitude toward change was the key to congregational effectiveness. The number one factor in growing congregations was "a primary mission to those not currently members," and, conversely, the number one factor in declining congregations was "a primary mission to current members." It is a difference between maintenance and mission -- a preoccupation with the present versus a focus on the future.
The paradigms are changing. We are in the midst of what someone has called a "transition tidal wave." We need to know our place as people of Christ by pointing and preparing for the future. To repent is to be willing to go a different direction and be open to God's new breaking in upon us.
The issue is not whether we are conservative or liberal politically. It should not be a matter of gender or generation. The issue is how willing we are to trust God for the future and be creators with Him of that future. How open are we to the future. How open are we to the new?
Jesus addressed the closed religious leaders of his day by saying "We played funeral and you did not weep. We played wedding and you did not dance, what do you want? John came among you in his austerity and you rejected him. I came among you and went to your feasts and you called me a glutton and winebibber, what do you want?"
In many ways John and Jesus were opposites; but to those only interested in maintaining the status quo, neither was acceptable. In 1863 the Commissioner of Patents sent his resignation to President Lincoln citing his conviction that everything exciting had been invented and patented, and there was nothing else for him to do but preserve the past.
That is the tragedy when people of faith limit what God has done to the pages of a Bible or the places of first century Palestine and deny the work of the Holy Spirit. God not only came, but God comes! The meaning of Advent is opening ourselves anew to make room for God in our lives now. Then as we prepare the way, we point to the One who goes before us.
People of God, let us accept our age -- let us act our age! "Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it?"