When I was young, we lived half the country away from my grand- parents. In December, we would wait for their Christmas package to arrive – with variously wrapped parcels, usually consisting of something sweet to eat and something to wear. Thinking about those days, I find it was not so much the fact that presents were inside – it was the arrival of this very personal form of communication, these small mementos that my grandparents had chosen for us – this sense of linked community, and underneath it all, love.
For those of us of a certain age, this is how we will remember important news coming: in the mail: the university acceptance—Santa’s letter—correspondence from the war—a friend’s handwritten note of shared grief. Someday, in the not-so-distant future, we will all be able to say that we remember the day when mail came to the door.
As you know, this week, in the middle of a season when everyone is awaiting the arrival of various snail mail envelopes and packages, in which, let’s be honest, these days we like things just fine as they are, and tradition is trending – Canada Post goes and makes a game-changing announcement. To save money, the crown corporation will phase out the mailman and the mailbox. A long tradition that first tied communities and then made the world a smaller place will move on.
Now most of us probably don’t think of the mail all that much – and many of you already have PO Boxes, as I learned this week writing Christmas Cards – but there is something reassuring about the thump of mail coming through the parsonage slot, even if it is a bill. Those days are about to end. The change is coming.
That’s the job of John the Baptist in our Advent story: to break the news: change is coming. He doesn’t do it gently and he doesn’t ease into it. In a way, Canada Post stole a page from him and just up and announced the end of mailboxes. John is loud and wild-eyed, and not particularly gentle. He is definitely not subtle. His is the news meant to upend a society as people understood it. And he broke it the only way he knew how.
Change doesn’t always work that way: sometimes it’s more of a creep, if never less of a shock. We are going along and one day we look in the mirror and we don’t recognize the face staring back at us. It was happening all along, but we just never noticed before. In our relationships, we make do, or make excuses, until one day we can’t escape the truth we were trying all along not to see.
Life keeps moving along while we aren’t paying attention, until suddenly the mailbox, whose loose door or rusty sides we always planned on fixing, is gone, a tradition whose time has passed, its usefulness expired.
That’s why John the Baptist is perhaps one of the most important characters in our Christmas journey, even though we always write him out of the narrative by Christmas Eve. Maybe we need him around especially then, when the wait is over and the presents are open and life goes back to what it was. But that’s not when he comes to us. As his father, Zachariah, was told in a vision from an angel his son would “usher in the advent” of the Lord.
That’s the message delivered to Zachariah in a temple one day, according to Luke, where it was his turn, as the chosen priest, to burn incense and give blessings. Zachariah, and his wife, Elizabeth, were too old to have kids, but John came along and surprised them – as bold and brash a change as any pair of people might imagine.
It was such a shock to Zachariah, in fact, that until John was born, he didn’t speak and couldn’t hear. Not the first time God told a man to zip it. After all, when you are bringing about big change, you might want to change the messenger – so it’s always seemed especially fitting just as Mary names Jesus, so did Elizabeth give her son the name John, upending the old tradition about the father’s role in the naming ceremony.
Back in the temple, the Angel tells Zachariah that his son will “teach the disobedient the wisdom that makes people just.” And what is the wisdom that change teaches? To get ready. To be prepared. To open our eyes to the way the world is changing. To let go of the ways in which the world should not remain the same. That is a true form of wisdom: To be ever watchful.
That is the teaching of John. He’s a bit of a mystery to us – born in the hill country of Judah, and then spending years in the wilderness of Judea, until he arrives back on the scene, wild-eyed and roughly dressed, warning everyone to get ready for some mysterious saviour.
This month the cover of the Canada Lutheran Magazine posed the question that John would have asked us: Christmas – what is it to you? The options on the cover included family, presents, food, and faith. But John was not about the answers. He was the one who asked the question – and who forced the people in society to ask their own questions. What did they want to be different? What did they value? What were they neglecting? Were they ready – truly ready – for change?
All of us, I am sure, have something we would like to do better, some relationship we would like to repair, some creaky mailbox that needs our attention. John’s role for us at this time is to usher in the beginning of that change, to prepare the way for steps to come. And to jar us awake to new possibilities. Amen