Second week of Advent (Dec 5, 2010)
If we ever found ourselves in an interrogation room with John the Baptist, we know which cop he’d be: in the good-cop, bad-cop partnership, he definitely falls into bad-cop category. Of all the people in the gospel, he is the one cast as the speaker of truth, the revealer of hard facts. He stands out in that respect, because all the other disciples were generally softer with us, even when they were criticizing the behaviour around them. We know we are being told to smarten up, of course, but it’s more like a quiet chat than a tongue lashing. But not John – he did not hold back. He took his role of preparing the way very seriously, as if his job were to clean up the streets before Jesus arrived. He would definitely be a tough-on-crime kind of politician. A tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. And he, probably, would have made all of us very uncomfortable.
After all, society doesn’t have much time for people who tell it like it is. We are all expected to play a certain game. It’s why, researchers say, we each tell about three lies a day, though mostly to be polite: like, “The babysitter cancelled,” when you really just want to stay home. We know that there are certain niceties expected of us, things that should go unsaid, or falsehoods that we are required to say. And if you are a leader or a politician who speaks the truth, be very wary: people want to hear what they want to hear and it takes a brave person who tells them the truth at their expense.
So here we have John, paving the way for Jesus, playing bad cop and campaign manager all in one. And he doesn’t even bother to dress for it. In fact, John is one disciple whom we can clearly envision in our minds: dressed oddly, with a tangled mass of hair, and a weird fringe diet. Why do we get those details? Because they must be part of our image of John – as someone who bashed down the rules rather than just broke them — clearing the ground for the new gospel that Jesus would build up in its place. He should be vibrant and visual in our minds. His work is as important as any one else’s in the gospel. Let’s face it: if last week’s message was a gentle shake to jiggle us out of doziness, this week John has arrived to slap us all awake.
Cringe, if you will, at being called “a brood of vipers!” Or make the mistake of thinking that John is not speaking to you directly. He’s talking to all of us who stood on pride, or gloated in victory, or sat on the laurels of past prestige to lift ourselves above others. Even our kids learn early that there is a social architecture to the world that puts some on top, others clambering over bodies to get the top, and still more stuck in the pile. We want our children to think that being different is better – just as we want it to be true for ourselves even now. The thing is, it is true: every person who managed anything great in this world did so by separating from the pack and standing apart. They didn’t look at the tower of social architecture and see where they would best fit. They looked at it and thought how they could change it. We know it changes: someone like Bill Gates, a nerd who no doubt was picked on by kids in school, is now the richest of men and changing the world by giving his money away. Barack Obama is the president of the United States. The most popular mainstream television show right now has singing football players. Our true heroes are all people who stepped outside society, who were different. Those are the people who wake us up – people like John the Baptist. But the tricky part, of course, about being different, or taking a different position, is how you get back into that hierarchy of society to make your difference mean something.
John took his own unique approach, by figuratively, at least, bashing heads together. He railed at the powers that be and threatened them and shook them. Jesus is coming, he warned; best start making plans for it now and thinking about how you intend to live. “Jesus,” John warns, “will gather his wheat.” But the “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
As an opening act, John the bad cop is pretty compelling stuff. As a campaign manager, he’d been an awesome force. Who listening on those dusty roads wouldn’t be waiting for this Jesus guy coming next? Who wouldn’t be wanting to see if he’s as great as John says? And what high and mighty person wouldn’t be just a little unsettled at the thought that they might not stay at the top of the pile with Jesus coming? John clears the way — for Jesus to walk into our lives.
So who is clearing the way for us now? Because the way is looking pretty cluttered these days. It’s certainly pretty – the lights are up everywhere. And it certainly feels like a party, with everyone hustling around. But the reason we get this hard – brood of vipers – message in the lead up to Christmas, is for that very reason. We lose our way at this time of year, if for all right motivations. We want to make our families happy, we want to give our kids their desires, we want life to be perfect. But most of the time we go about it all the wrong way, just like the Pharisees. And John is here to play the bad cop at our Christmas party — to shout at us every time we dash to the store for a new set of Christmas lights, or race around for that perfect present, just to make sure that our motivations are true and that we are not losing sight of the real point of this time – the real point of life.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John is telling us to clear the way in our minds and hearts for the message of Jesus. Stop trying to be the same as everyone else, he is saying, and he is setting a good first example. Be different and stand to the side. Jesus is coming, he tells us, to show us how to be at once apart from and a part of society, to make it better. Jesus is coming to give strength and wisdom to those willing to be different. And John is a reminder that none of that is possible if we are sleeping among the vipers.
Last week, we woke up. This week, we are to start getting ready. Amen.