Turnaround: Reflections on the Second Sunday of Advent

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Lectionary Reflections
Second Sunday in Advent
Mark 1:1-8; Matthew 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-20; John 1:19-28

Can anybody help John the Baptist find another job this Advent? Because we know what will happen to him if he doesn't stop his in-your-face preaching and start acting like the rest of us. His parents, instead of naming him after his father Zechariah, did what God said and named him John, which means "God is gracious" (Luke 1:13). But he's hardly acting that way, out in the wilderness like Amos, demanding that people turn toward God in preparation for meeting the Judge who is to come.

If he keeps this up, we fear for his life. If we could just keep him occupied for the next several weeks. Maybe we could find him another job. Maybe he could be our personal shopper. We could sit him down at our kitchen table and let him flip through the ad supplements. First he could make his own Christmas list, listing gifts for Cousin Jesus, parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, Aunt Mary and Uncle Joseph. Then he could make your list and shop for you. Maybe we could take him along with us to some brunches and open houses. Maybe lend him a stack of magazines and get him interested in some articles on the latest makeup, clothing, and holiday parties, and what to eat/not eat to keep his slender figure. Maybe we could pull some strings in the Borough office and get him the job of the fire engine Santa. Take him to the costume shop and help him rent a red suit and a white beard and then he can ride into town on a fire engine throwing candy canes to us. Or maybe we could get him a job as a Mall Santa. He could sit on the Santa throne in the middle of the mall listening to our children and grandchildren tell him what they want for Christmas. Can anybody help John the Baptist find another job this Advent?

Even if we could, he would never cooperate. You'd think his motto was, "So many potential enemies, so little time!" He is going to offend almost everybody in his world before long. He will offend the religious leaders—the priestly Sadduceeswho make their living from the money people pay to make their sacrifices for sins in the Temple. His baptism for repentance is a competitor with the Temple rites—his rite is free. He is going to insult Sadducees and Phariseesby telling them, the religious professionals, that they are not favored by God just because of their profession or their descent.

He's also going to infuriate Herodthe Roman. Because Herod has recently put aside his first wife to marry the wife of his half-brother, and John the Baptist will condemn him for this. "But wait, there's more," as the infomercials say. John the Baptist is attracting big crowds, pouring out into the desert—and there are predictions galore that when big crowds pour into the desert, that means the judge from God was coming to overthrow the powers that be.

So our young and fearless prophet, if he doesn't make a radical turnaround from his present course, if he doesn't stop offending everyone under the hot desert sun, is going to be led in chains to the prison at Machaerus and beheaded.

John is just not cut out to fit in with our cultural Christmas. He would make a poor Santa on a fire engine. Instead of throwing candy canes, he'd stand up and shout, "This year better be different! Going through the motions of a cultural Christmas will not guarantee you joy, peace, or the perfect gift on Christmas Eve."

John wouldn't last five minutes on the Santa throne at the mall. He doesn't want to hear what we want from Santa for ourselves and our families. He is a prophet, here to tell us what God wants from us.

Advent is a busy time of year: baking, shopping, decorating. Advent is a busy time of year: burglaries, depression, suicides, domestic violence. A world in darkness yearning for a light.

Cultural Christmas isn't all bad. Celebrating life and family and so on. The problem I have with cultural Christmas is that it has glommed onto our celebration of the Incarnation that, in many ways, stands in direct opposition to it. If we read Mary's song in Luke 1:46-55, we begin to see a stark contradiction.

Things are very different now than they were when the crowds flocked to John the Baptist to repent and be baptized. And yet there is a connecting thread. Then was a time of giving and profound prayer by some. Like the Advent season is for many now. Then was a time of self absorption, greed and trivialization of God's message by others. Like the Advent season is for many now. Then the crowds flocked to him because here was someone with the courage to set them straight. Someone with courage to confront them with the preparation God demands for the Coming Messiah. What would it take to get us to flock to him now?

11/29/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.