David A. Davis
December 4, 2022
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If Advent was a family reunion, John the Baptist would be something like that loud, rather quirky and eccentric relative whose voice comes bellowing down the hall announcing their own arrival. The volume alone cuts through the polite greetings and the ritualized catching up on the routines of life. Most years in Advent, the cry of the Baptist can be heard cutting through the ritualized preparations of our worship life. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Preparations like lighting candles on the wreath and singing a familiar Advent hymn, interrupted by John’s shout. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John the fiery preacher disturbing the beauty of the season and leaving others longing for a night when “all is calm and all is bright”. John the Baptist and his message; nowhere close to “Do not be afraid.” John the Baptist, that relative that leaves you asking yourself if you are going to come back next year.
In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is something like the fancy, gold-guilded, calligraphy-like capital letter at the beginning of the chapter of an old rare book. Mark’s gospel begins with the Baptist. In Luke, John the Baptist shows up after the Christmas Pageant is over. With a history reference to the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Luke, John’s proclamation announces the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Baptist is something of a philosophical instrument. A directional tool. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the Light.”
Here in the Gospel text for today from Matthew, John the Baptist makes his appearance “in those days”. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”. “Those days.” Most would assume that Matthew is simply referring to the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Others would offer a kind of macro-cosmic perspective. “Those days” could be a reference to the first days of new kingdom era ushered in by the Messiah, the Son of God, born of Mary’s womb. THOSE days. In the paragraphs of the first few chapters of Matthew, John arrives long after the birth of Jesus. John’s voice is heard after the Magi have come from the East. Mary and Joseph have taken the child with them in their flight to find sanctuary in Egypt. King Herod, threatened by the word of the birth of child who would be king, ordered the killing of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old. Matthew writes of the voice of Ramah and tells of Rachel weeping. Only after the death of Herod, the holy family then returns to settle in Nazareth.
All of that happens before John the Baptist. In the plot of Matthew’s gospel, it is “in those days” that John comes to preaching about preparation, repentance, bearing fruit, and the dangers of presumption, birthright, and family coattails when it comes to a relationship with God. In those days…when the birth of Jesus seems less about heavenly choirs rejoicing and more about God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, and God’s fulfillment. In those days…when the wise and worldly search for meaning and the powerful are threatened by the hope of a messianic kingdom where the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, and the oppressed are set free. In those days….when the journeys of life take the faithful to places unknown and the lament is of biblical proportions. In those days….when the earthly songs of heartache seem louder than the heavenly songs of praise, and fear, warnings, and disconcerting dreams motivate the people of God. In those days….when divine angels with the fluttering words, “Do not be afraid” are just a little harder to find. In those days….came John the Baptist. In those days. In…these days.
One of my professors at Princeton Seminary now long retired told me a long time ago of a Christmas Eve even longer ago when that professor was a pastor serving a congregation. The pastor/future professor had become overly frustrated with all of the shallow celebrations of Christmas, the “Hallmark-ness” of it all. So the pastor rose to preach on Christmas Eve on the Gospel of Matthew and what the tradition labels Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”. The sermon addressed Matthew’s truthful edge, a certain other side of the story, and the light that illumines the gut-wrenching darkness of the world. The professor described to me the look on people’s faces as they left the sanctuary that Christmas Eve. They were so speechless they couldn’t even get out “Merry Christmas” at the church door. I remember thinking back then that my professor’s decision about what to preach on Christmas Even might have been a strong indication of the wisdom of the decision to teach full time.
Church members will never forget that particular Christmas Eve in a little Presbyterian Church somewhere years ago when the preacher stood up to proclaim the truthful edge of John the Baptist. That amid the darkness of “those days” the light of the Christ Child shines even brighter. For John stands in the midst of those days, in the midst of these days, and points to the One who will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire. The One whose winnowing fork bends toward righteousness and justice. John appeared in the wilderness only to point to the Messiah. His voice booms among us to call us to an encounter with the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The One who is more powerful than John. The One who is surely coming. We are not worthy to carry his sandals but he empowers us to be his people. By his love we know ourselves to be his friends. By God’s grace, we are molded in his body for the world. But that same Spirit, you and I bear witness to his light, a light that shines all the brighter when the darkness seems darker.
The most remarkable, the most mysterious, the most wondrous part of this gospel account of John the Baptist in Matthew comes at the very end of what I read to you this morning from Matthew. “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordon to be baptized by him.” It wasn’t just John who came preaching “in those days”. “In those days”….Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. Jesus came to John, to that itinerant preacher shouting for repentance. Jesus came to the voice crying in the wilderness, the one proclaiming “prepare the way of the Lord”. Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, Jesus came to John to be baptized. Jesus, the One who is more powerful, the One who will baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, Jesus come to John. Jesus, the One who was, according to scripture, tempted in every way, yet was without sin. The One who was fully God and fully human, Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In those days….the Messiah, the Savior of the World, the One who will save his people from their sin, came to John at the Jordon to be baptized by him.
Howard Thurman was an African American theologian who was born in 1899 and died in 1981. Through his work, his writing, his leadership, Thurman was a mentor and inspiration to generation of Civil Rights leaders in the mid-twentieth century. In his work Thurman often wrote about the humanity of Jesus. That he came from humble beginnings, was poor, and had no privilege. Even and especially in the birth of Jesus, Thurman was drawn to the humanity of it all. In “The Mood of Christmas”, Thurman writes, “the important thing is that to the mother of Jesus he was a baby boy who grew hungry, who had to be fed, bathed, nurtured, who had to be given tender loving care, one who pulled at her heartstrings and who became so much a part of her sense of worth and meaning that she was sure, in a sense, that this was the first baby in the world.”.
Of course, Mary pondered and treasured all that had been told of her about this child. But yes, to the mother of Jesus he was her baby boy. It’s the only way to wrap your head around Jesus coming to John to be baptized at the Jordan. That was Mary’s baby boy coming to be baptized. Mary’s baby boy was bringing all of his humanity. Bringing all of his humanity, in those days, all his humanity and ours to the river to be baptized for repentance. As Thurman puts it: “Stripped bare of art forms and liturgy, the literal substance of the story remains, Jesus Christ was born in a stable, he was born of humble parentage in surroundings that are the common lot of those who earn their living by the sweat of their brows… [W]hen a [person] beholds Jesus, [one] see in him the possibilities of life even for the humblest and a dramatic resolution of the meaning of God.”
There at the Jordon River, amid the gathering gloom of the world’s darkness, Jesus presents his extraordinarily ordinary human-ness to be baptized. Jesus in his being, in his person there at the river, offering only a glimpse, but an incredible one, of the very meaning God. God taking on our flesh. The incarnation of God’s love first in Mary’s arms and then here in the arms of John. It is the sacramental nature of Christmas. Mary’s baby boy. God taking what we know to be the extraordinarily ordinary human-ness of life and revealing the extraordinarily holy grace of God. It is God’s soul-sustaining promise of sacramental grace. That in and through Christ, his presence, his light, his love, and his peace, you and I can see glimpses of the meaning of God in the world around us, in each other, in our own lives. And even more, in those days, in these days, it is the promise that the light of the Christ Child, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will shine even brighter. And because of Mary’s baby boy, his light, that light, God’s light will shine ever bright in and through the likes of you and me. Even so, come Lord Jesus, quickly come.
The Sacrament of Christmas
I make an act of faith toward all mankind (sic),
Where doubts would linger and suspicions brood.
I make an act of joy toward all sad hearts,
Where laughter pales and tears abound.
I make an act of strength toward feeble things,
Where life grows dim and death draws near.
I make an act of trust toward all of life,
Where fears preside and distrusts keep watch.
I make an act of love toward friend and foe,
Where trust is weak and hate burns bright.
I make a deed to God of all my days –
And look out on life with quiet eyes.