Good News: God Is Coming to You

All the gospels agree, you can’t meet Jesus without first hearing John the Baptist preach. John dresses in wilderness clothing like an Old Testament prophet. He doesn’t dress in jeans and a tee shirt to show you he’s just one of the guys. Nor does John wear a fancy black pulpit robe that certifies vetting and approval by the bishop. John, the last, wild, untamed, eccentric Old Testament prophet who prepares us for The Prophet, Jesus:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
A voice shouting in the wilderness:
    “Prepare the way for the Lord;
    Make his paths straight.”

Advent is announced not in some beautifully proportioned church, but in the remote, untamed, uncivilized wilderness where it’s hard to find your way, and some become lost. For Israel on Exodus, the wilderness was a place of testing, tests that Israel often flunked. But wilderness was also a place where the Hebrews were forced to live out of control of their destiny, to be sustained solely by God as they made their way through uncharted territory, taking a very long time to find their way home.

Some words are too true or too unmanageable to be fully contained in a temple, synagogue, or church. The Word of God can be heard at confined, established, sacred sites. Oh, that’s to be sure. But the Word, the living Incarnate Word, refuses to be exclusively relegated to a church. It reaches out, pushes out, even into the wilderness.

What’s your address this December? Apt. 23, East Elm Street? Or is where you are more accurately described as “Wilderness”? If so, please note: God doesn’t wait for folks to come to their senses, get their act together, at last head back toward home, and come in from the Wilderness. God comes to them in the wilderness, through the wild words of a wild preacher named John.

(Full Disclosure: This southern accented, proper Duke professor/preacher is hoping that through this Day1 sermon of mine, God may come to you.)

There’s never been a better poem to describe what God’s up to this time of year than Psalm 139. I’m sure that John the Baptist, and most of those to whom John preached, knew this Psalm by heart. From the cradle to the grave, we can’t be rid of God’s seeking, searching love.

You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans ….
You surround me – front and back ….
Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
    Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
Psalm 139:2, 5, 7-12

“Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence?” Even in the wilderness, you can’t keep God from showing up.

Mark’s gospel has none of Matthew or Luke’s narration of the virgin birth of Jesus. There are no wise men or shepherds or babe in the manger or mysterious star in the sky. In a sense, John the Baptist’s sermon is Mark’s equivalent to Luke’s nativity. Here is the beginning, the birth of a way of God being God with us, showing up in a place we didn’t expect. So, hold on to your hats— the Lord is coming, ready or not, in places unimaginable, accomplishing the inconceivable.

It's Advent. Be prepared to be surprised by God. Even in the wilderness, you can’t get this God off your back. When we prayed, “Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence?” we were surprised that included even the wilderness, even the words of a strangely attired preacher named John.

The best Christmas sermon I ever heard was from the preacher who stood up on Christmas Eve and simply said to his congregation. “Tonight, I have some breaking news.” Then he leaned into the microphone for good effect and said, “Good news. Tonight, the invasion has begun. We’re about to be liberated. God’s come for us.” He sat down and we sang Christmas carols like our lives depended upon it, which of course, they do.

Sorry if you thought God was a projection of your fondest wishes and deepest desires, a technique for getting peace or justice or happiness or joy or whatever it is you think you just must have more than God. One comes to us; one whom we did not expect. Your world is about to be rocked. Don’t be surprised that you are surprised.

One of the perks of being a pastor is hearing stories, some of them kinky and weird, about God just showing up in ordinary folks’ lives, ready or not. She was just filing papers at the office, he was just washing dishes at the café, they were just trying to figure out how to make it through the week, she was minding her own business with God as the last thing on her mind and then…Advent, God Almighty waltzing right in to some unsuspecting life.

It's a comfort – particularly during rough times in some wilderness of a place – it’s a comfort to know that, God has taken responsibility for your salvation. To discover that you aren’t expected to clamber your way up to God; God will come to you. Even though you may not always think like a Christian, much less act like it, in this story God promises to go ahead and be your God anyway.

From what I’ve observed, if you are reasonably content with the world as it is, if your life is manageable and you’re not too troubled by the state of the world, don’t feel too much of your neighbor’s pain, happy as a pig in mud, have never lost your way and wandered off the beaten path, maybe you don’t need John’s sermon.

On the other hand, if God has blessed you with some holy discontent, if you expect that this world, as good as it often is, is not as good as it could get, if you find it difficult to sleep at night after you’ve seen the gaunt faces of those hungry children on the news, or you get so angry you could scream when you see the bruises under the makeup of the woman next to you in the grocery store checkout line, then John’s two-point sermon, “God’s about to shake things up” and “Get ready, get washed up to show that you’re ready to be shook up,” well, that’s good news.

Ask folks what they think of God, they’re likely to speak of God’s remoteness. God is way up there, and we are stuck down here. Hey, don’t believe it. In Jesus Christ, God gets up close and personal.

Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deeper into the infinite and the eternal. Only Christianity contends that the infinite and eternal God descended, took time for us, and became one of us. Listen to John the Baptist preach: you don’t need to climb up to God; in Jesus Christ, God comes down to you. God refusing to be confined in eternity. God come out to the wilderness.

Good news. God’s given up waiting for you and has come for you. There’s no wilderness so wild that God can’t find you. Good news.