This morning, on the second Sunday of Advent, we hear from John the Baptist, who is one of my favourite characters in the gospel. John is brash, in-your-face and rough around the edges. His version of preparing the way for Jesus is to basically make a scene everywhere he goes. He eats locusts and wild honey, and wears camel hair – one of the few people in the gospel who gets his clothes described. We are to understand that he is different, an outlier. He doesn’t care what people think of him. He is going to get the job done. He is the opening act for the headliner. The one who tells people to pay attention for the big show to come.
What are we to learn from John the Baptist, this rebel with a cause? The books of the new testament have their own telling. Luke, on its own, gives us an origin story that crosses paths with Jesus; John’s mother is Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, who gives birth to him at an older age when she did not expect to have children. The book of Mark describes in more detail the story of John’s baptism by Jesus in the river Jordan, but the book of Matthew gives us their exchange where John humbly declares himself unworthy of such an honour. His execution by Herod also has various versions in the gospel – and some theologians have cast doubt that it happens because a daughter of Herod asks for his head on a platter. Altogether we have an image of a person who is unyielding, unfaltering, strong in his faith in Jesus and the message he was preaching.
Not a bad example for us during this time of contemplation and anticipating. If advent is a time of preparation, how are we preparing? We know what is coming – we have been urged to keep awake for it. But how are we getting ready? John is a reminder that faith isn’t solely reduced to contemplation. It is not only about being kind and tolerant. Faith is also fiery. It resists injustice; it argues for truth. Not for its own sake, but for a larger cause – and what larger cause is there than by signaling the value, and the presence, of the gospel in the world. So a faithful person can say “I don’t want to be treated this way,” when injustice happens to them. And a faithful person can say “I won’t accept the mistreatment of others.” Faith puts itself out there – just the way John the Baptist did.
The other significant aspect of John is not just the example he sets, but the lessons he gives us. God was always choosing unlikely people to deliver the message of the gospel. It came from foreigners, from those deemed as weak or having little power, from those who were outcast, from those seen as unworthy by the powers that be. There’s a real lesson there; first we learn that diversity is an important vehicle for change. We must also wonder whether the main people willing to hear and to teach the gospel at the time were those without power in society, whose own situations made them open to see a better way forward for society. How might that speak to us, in positions of relative privilege today? Do we listen to the outliers voices? Are we truly able to see value in the opinions and views of the poor, the sick, the elderly? Or do we assume, as the Pharisees did, that we have it all figured out.
And finally, John is a source of great hope. John, even in his rough way, is predicting brightness and peace. He is the one pointing the way to a better path. Listen fools, he says, stop navel gazing. A good thing is on its way. A new way is coming. The future is bright.
Ultimately, then, John represents freedom this Advent. We are freed to let our faith be strong and fiery when it needs to be, when it should be. Sometimes that means defending ourselves, more often though, it means defending others. John reminds us that it is important to not sit quietly by when wrongs happen – the gospel gives us the freedom to speak up.
We are also reminded to be free to listen to diverse voices in our society. We are freed from the tyranny of group-speak, from the idea that the way things are is the way they should be. We are freed to open our minds, even when it is risky.
And we are freed to believe in a better future. How important that is right now. For all his bombast, John was an enduring optimist. He believed, to his core, not only in Jesus, but in the message that Jesus would deliver. When he looked ahead, he saw a better world; and his role as making other people believe in that same potential.
The freedom to be fiery. The freedom to listen. The freedom to believe in a bright future. These are our advent gifts from John, the mouthy eccentric, the undaunted optimist, and the worthiest of rebels.