Every now and then someone comes along in life who inspires you to expect something. Athletes make you proud to wear their jerseys, singers make you want to fall in love again, musicians soothe your soul, and preachers raise you hope and expectations even in the wilderness of your life. Such was John the Baptist. The late Dr. Gardner Taylor said John did his job so well that it ended up being part of his name.
His excitement about Jesus was captivating. Yet, he was clear on who he was and who he wasn’t, even though the people thought he might have been the Messiah. John’s preaching pointed away from himself to Jesus. You see, John had a prenatal encounter with Jesus. When cousin Mary, expecting Jesus, visited cousin Elizabeth, expecting John, John jumped up in her womb and never quit. I could hear John singing an East Coast devotional I’ve been made aware of: “Jesus is my cousin. Is he any kin to you?”
Why did those masses leave the rule of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas to hear this weird messenger in the wilderness? Could it be that all that royalty left them in arrears in terms of hope? Something made them leave the city for the wilderness - not unlike my ancestors who stole away into the midnight to hear slave preachers remind them, “You’re not slaves. You’re God’s children.” That’s Jesus’ love. Love that would turn a Roman symbol of punishment into a rugged symbol of pardon. Love that proved nails didn’t keep him on the cross, love did.
We too can understand the hunger of these people. Certainly, the past 18 months has caused a deeper hunger in us. The pandemic has pulled the curtain back on things we thought reliable. Politics has been exposed for the fantasy that it mostly is. John Kennedy did call politics the “art of the possible,” and now it has become artfully impossible. Prior to the pandemic we were daily bombarded with vitriol and chaos under the rouse of becoming great again. Yet, we’re numbed out red, blue, and purple from this season of liminality and uncertainty. America’s sense of Pleasantville has lost its pleasantness, especially for the have nots, the poor, the different, and the disinherited.
It was James Baldwin who said, “It’s expensive to be poor.” And this pandemic, or the 11th plague as I call it, has robbed us of certainty. This flood, unlike in the days of Noah’s day, has found many of us ark-less. It has birthed a myriad of indifferent pharaohs who seem to believe it can be ignored away, legislated away, and even blown away by one televangelist.
Yet John preaches in the wilderness, “Come and get it.” That’s a word for today. Hope appears in the wilderness. “It’s not over,” that hope said. There is a balm in Gilead. Grace is here, come and get it. And it’s yours for the asking.
My homiletics professor at McCormick Seminary, Don Wardlaw, always said, “Leave space for Auntie Grace.” And John’s preaching draws us nearer with grace. Auntie Grace. Auntie Grace says it doesn’t matter what you did, it matters what you can still do. Whether you’re rich, poor, unemployed, employed, married, single, straight, gay, preferred pronouns, confused, liberal, conservative, bigoted, looking for good trouble, lost, and disillusioned, grace says all are welcome. Grace says come and get it. In the words of Walter Hawkins, “The wait is over. It’s your time.” So, what is this text tailored to teach us today? Why is this important to say again and again?
The first point is, Jesus comes to where you are.
While in Amsterdam back in 2018 with friends, we called Uber to pick us up at a certain spot where we were. Well, the first Uber came within two minutes of our location and turned us off. The second Uber came within several minutes of our location and canceled us. And the third Uber came within maybe a minute, and we were getting hopeful then, but also canceled.
But Jesus comes where you are. John didn’t restrict how Jesus would come; he boldly declared that he is Next. He comes for whoever will come. Whosoever will come. Not just for the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Pentecostals, the Holiness, the Church of God in Christ people (and I’ve missed a few) only. He comes for everybody. Bishop Michael Curry reminded us a while back that even Jesus’ disciples were not the “A Team.” The Holy Spirit still has shoes that fit all our feet. Jesus says, “Come all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He comes that we might not be ashamed of our past but assured of our present. He comes that we might have life and have it more abundantly. John P. Kee, Travis Greene, and Kirk Franklin have recorded a song that blesses me every time I hear it. It’s called “A Hold on Me.” There’s a line in that song that says, “I’m not ashamed of my past, but proud of the fact that I’m not who I was, now.”
With Jesus, lepers leave without blemishes. Lame beggars leap into the Temple. Sauls of Tarsus become Apostle Pauls. Storms become peaceful with Jesus. The weak become strong. Prodigal sons and daughters come back home. Addicts become sober. Doubters become believers (ask Thomas). Marthas stop complaining about Mary, and Peters become preachers.
I’m reminded in the reading of the book Fresh Wind Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala, one night when they were in a worship service, suddenly one of the choir members, a female choir member, started unzipping her robe and pointing to the former needle marks in her arm where she had been an addict. And then she took her shoes off and showed where there were places between her toes where she would inject herself. She said, “But Jesus freed me of that addiction.” Suddenly, a man from the back, disheveled and smelly, started walking down the center aisle. And Preacher Cymbala said he went to meet the man and said, “What can I do for you?” And the man simply said, “I want to meet the Jesus she’s talking about.” Jesus comes to where you are.
But secondly, Jesus comes with just what you need.
When John finished what he did best – baptizing - Jesus appeared doing what he did best - showing up and saving souls. And he prayed until the heavens opened up. The Holy Spirit came down and God made an announcement. “This is my Son, I’m pleased to present him to your present circumstances. If you’re hurting, he’s a healer. If you’re lost, he’ll find you. Whatever you’re going though, he’ll be there with you. If you’re in bondage, he’ll free you. If you’re hated, he will love all the hate away. Come and get it.”
There is a scene in Spielberg’s movie “Amistad” where the imprisoned Mende people, arrested for mutiny, have been given Bibles by a Congregationalist - although the movie doesn’t give credit to the Congregationalist and I must because I’m a UCC. But they did help the Mende people out. Well, the Mende people, as they read their Bible in the court, they noticed in the New Testament illustrations of Jesus. There was a light around him and, everywhere he went, people seemed to get better. In their own language they would comment that wherever he shows up, there is light and people get up. Now, I won’t quibble about the racial specifics of the illustrations, but the message is clear that Jesus can set you free.
That took me back to a spiritual of my ancestors, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And knowing that caused them to soar above the circumstances of chattel slavery. Knowing that empowered Harriet Tubman to conduct an underground railroad with a Bible and a pistol. Knowing that caused Sir John Newton to write these words: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Jesus comes with just what you need.
But finally, John’s “Come and Get It” declares: Wait! There’s more!
If you’re ever tempted to think that this is all or it’s over with and there’s nothing else that can be done, Jesus’ very presence says wait, there’s more! After he was baptized, after not needing to be baptized, the heavens opened and there was more. Then the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and there was more.
I was looking though history the other day, and I learned that some of my people were able to find more where there seemed to be nothing. They had a sense in spite of things that there was more. I remembered my father-in-law helping me see this clearly one day. He showed me a sheet of white paper, and he took his pen and drew a small dot on that paper ,and then he handed it back to me and said, “What do you see?” I said, “Well, I see a dot.” He said, “Boy, you missed the whole sheet of paper.” “How?” I said. He said, “You focused on the dot and missed the whole sheet.”
My friends, in many circumstances in our lives we tend to focus on the dot, the mistake, the error, the disease, the divorce or whatever bad that happened that interrupted or arrested our attention. Wait! There’s more to this sheet than just that dot. How often do we allow the dots, the specks, the blemishes, the mistakes, the imperfections to cause us to miss the bigger picture? In the grand scheme of things, dots, dilemmas, downturns, dreary days, dread will show up, but wait, there’s more. Late James Cleveland recorded it this way when he said, “Please be patient with me. God is not through with me yet.”
My ancestors experienced the underbelly of life in America, but had the audacity to sing about it in their spirituals. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” “I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always.”
I am reminded of a young boy who had gotten into trouble in school. He was sent to the basement as punishment by the school principal. His assignment was to read the Constitution. Well, he read the Constitution. He took that dot of reading that constitution and committed it to the whole paper of memory. That young boy was Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. Wait! There’s more.
A woman was walking around in a junkyard in Florida and saw a vision in that junkyard that began with nickels for tuition. That woman was Mary McLeod Bethune and now there is a college in her name, Bethune-Cookman University. She decided to believe, wait! There’s more.
And when those heavens open up and pour us out a blessing that we won’t have room to receive, God’s abundance shows up in the midst of our want.
In seminary years ago, one of my teachers said something similar about Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman, who went to Morehouse and read all the books in the library; who went on to Crozer Theological Seminary, when only two blacks per year were allowed to go there, but had to live with the custodian. That same peculiar Thurman, not unlike John, so raised the hopes of our people that it was said among some preachers, “We thought we had a Messiah, but instead we had a mystic.” But that mystic authored a book entitled, Jesus and the Disinherited. That’s what John was talking about. That’s why those people came from the city of Herod and Tiberius and Caesar to run out into the wilderness, because the wilderness is a mighty nice place to meet Jesus. And, you know, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried that book in his briefcase, Jesus and the Disinherited.
That mystic ended up on the lips of Dr. Jeremiah Wright in earshot of a 30-something-year-old man in Memphis named Ozzie Smith. Thirty something years ago. That mystic’s writing beckoned me to come and get it! I came out of the wilderness of my own making in Memphis and my life has never been the same. I ended up 6 years at Trinity Church with Dr. Jeremiah Wright. He said, “I want you to preach,” after I’d only been there 6 months and had taken Intro to Preaching, and I said out of fear, “You want me to preach to all those people?” But Dr. Wright looked at me and said, “Ozzie, it’s not the crowd, it’s the Christ!”
What I heard from his lips arrested my attention, but what he said was preach Christ, don’t worry about the crowd. The Christ you know and preach can handle the crowd. Tell them about Jesus, not your fears. Tell them about Jesus, not your doubts. Tell them about the deliverer. Tell them about Jesus, not Barth, not Tillich, not Moltmann, not Wilmore, Cone, or Hopkins. They are all good messengers, but tell them about Jesus! Why? Because that crowd will be hungry, preach Jesus, the Bread from Heaven. Feed them until they want no more. The crowd is weary, but Jesus is worthy. Worthy to be praised! You won’t be disappointed, but you will be delivered. Tell them there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, no not one! No, not one! That crowd will be hungering for good news, preach Jesus. That’s what the Gospel is. Wait! There’s more. Always there’s more. Preach the Jesus you know. If you don’t know him, you can’t preach him, but he knows you already. Wait! There’s more. Preach the Jesus who loves you and me. You can’t do anything with the crowd, but Jesus says, “Come and get it.”
And when you find that out, you’ll understand why Forrest Gump never gave up on Jenny, Bubbah, or Lieutenant Dan, no matter how many times Jenny left him. Because life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. But you can be sure that if you wait on Jesus, there’s more. Come and get it!
Come and get it! Come and stand up straight. Come and see again. Come and leap again. Come and get a new lease on life. Come and get it! Amen.