Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every year at this time, just like clockwork, we find ourselves at the halfway point on the road to Bethlehem. And every year at this time, just like clockwork, on the second Sunday of Advent, we encounter a roadblock in the form of John the Baptist. It’s as if he has leapt off the page of Scriptures, jumped into the middle of the road, is waving his arms, breathing fire, calling for repentance, and saying, “Not so fast.” And, of course, his message is rather sharp: repent for the kingdom of heaven is come near. And then he saves his best lines for the religious leaders of the day like me: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to come and flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Honestly, it’s like the Grinch who stole Christmas. It’s as if he didn’t get the memo: “Tis the season to be jolly.”
But he’s right there in the middle of the road and we can’t get to Jesus except through John. And so we are forced to stop and listen to what he has to say. And, of course, I think part of the problem is he’s described so oddly that for our 21st century sensibilities we have a tendency to sort of make him a caricature. You know the type, like in a New Yorker cartoon, where you have a very fancy meal set out and there sits John in his camel hair tunic with a heaping plate of grasshoppers and a side of honey for good measure and the caption says, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” And he’s surrounded by you and me looking stricken, wondering what in the world we did to the hostess to merit that seating. We can’t get around him. We have to wrestle with what he’s trying to tell us—even today.
And I think that where we get tripped up a bit is in the whole notion of repentance. I think for many of us it conjures making a long laundry list of all the ways in which we have fallen short—all of our sins, all of our unworthiness— and getting stuck there. But there are some important facts in the Scripture that we have to look at. First of all, John is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts and it’s clear that he is God’s chosen messenger, not just some pugnacious prophet who showed up. His job is no less than preparing the people for the coming of the One more powerful than he, the One for whom he’s not even worthy to carry his sandals. And John was attracting huge crowds. There was something about his message that had resonance and was appealing because people were flocking out of the cities into the wilderness to hear what he had to say and to be baptized by him. And if you think about the context in which John was preaching this message of repentance, it was to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized who were living in a very dark circumstance with little light of hope for things to change. And what John was saying is: things are about to change; One is coming and it’s going to be different. It was a matter of not staying stuck in the darkness and the despair but the possibility of turning, repenting with hope for a promise of a better future.
Frederick Buechner says, “True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to looking to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” John Burgess continues this theme of repentance saying, “Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.” John was telling those gathered— John continues to tell us—that we are not sentenced to a lifetime of living in darkness with no hope. He’s saying: One is coming, the One who will bring light into the darkness and that’s the light that you continue to follow on this road.
And as we think about history in our time, the leaders who’ve been able to transition from darkness and despair to a future with a wow and hope and a purpose, we can’t help but think about Nelson Mandela whom the world is gathering to remember and to celebrate—a man who lifted a nation and, indeed the world, out of what appeared to be a sentence of darkness and despair into a bright future and hope for a better day. We know from what Nelson Mandela said at his trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and frees society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela put it right on the line. It was a hope and a vision and an ideal that he could see and he was willing to bet his life on it. And he changed a people; he changed a nation; and he changed us. In those twenty-seven years that he lived in prison, he didn’t harvest the seeds of resentment and revenge. He tended to his own deep rootedness in purpose and possibility for a new day. And he drew people to that very ideal and possibility, including this Cathedral’s very own Bishop John Walker who was a leading voice and force in the anti-apartheid movement.
I think what John the Baptist is telling all of us at this halfway point in the road to Bethlehem is that we need to let go of some of the things that burden us. In order to move into the light, out of the darkness, we have to get rid of the things, let go of the things that would hold us back. Think of it like this: a journey that you are preparing for, and you’ve packed too much stuff. Let’s just face it, I’ve had a lot of excess baggage and I bet some of you have, too. What John the Baptist is telling us at this roadblock is: leave that old stuff behind; it will weigh you down and keep you from seeing and experiencing what you’ve come to see and experience. Let it go. Leave it behind. Continue on the road to Bethlehem looking for the light. You see, while John the Baptist may have seemed a little bit like a crank, he actually was pronouncing and announcing great good news. In the words of that beloved Advent hymn: On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry, announces that the Lord is nigh; awake and harken, for he brings glad tidings of the King of Kings. We’re halfway there. As you walk around that roadblock drop some baggage; continue on your way, following the light because you don’t want to miss it. Amen.