2 Advent B—12/10/17
Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Pr. Scott Kramer
Can you imagine John the Baptist driving a sleigh through the night with eight tiny reindeer? Imagine John, dressed not in red and white winter gear but camel’s hair. Imagine John dropping down the chimney and happy to find not milk and cookies but a plate full of locusts and wild honey!
Hard to imagine? It’s not difficult to see why John was not chosen as the model for our modern-day Santa Claus. But St. Nicholas was! Unlike Santa Claus, St. Nicholas was an actual person. In fact, he was a Christian bishop who lived in modern-day Turkey. Last Wednesday, December 6th on the church calendar, was the commemoration of St. Nicholas, who died on that date in the year 354 CE. Last Wednesday was also our monthly council meeting and I shared a devotion about the life of St. Nicholas with your council, part of which I’d like to share with you this morning:
When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. It turns out, though, that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing heretics. He was a combination of both sweetness and cruelty.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The season of Advent is about preparing to recognize the presence and power of God among us. That preparation begins, John teaches, with repentance.
We call Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a saint, for his generosity and passion for the poor. But when we dig into the details of his life we find that he—and all saints—were just human beings like us. St. Nicholas, for example, was blind to his own sin, every bit as much in need of repentance as you and me.
We don’t have much patience with the messiness of human nature, do we? We tend to be spiritually lazy and divide the world into “good guys and bad guys,” saints and sinners; or, if that’s putting it too strongly, we at least search for heroes whom we can place on pedestals. And while there is value in identifying examples and role models from both history and our own time to study and learn from, it is always a mistake to put mortal human beings on pedestals.
But we do, don’t we? As children we put parents on pedestals. And when we discover to our great disappointment that parents are just human, we look to soldiers and sailors, pastors and priests, police and popes and politicians, professional sports players, and Presidents, and place them on pedestals!
But John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
I’ve done my share of putting people on pedestals, and I think I could include John the Baptist among them. Here is a man of God who seems to be head and shoulders above me! But the fact is we know hardly anything at all about John. He seems so confident and so righteous. But what were his secrets? What were his weaknesses? I wonder if John’s authority comes not from being better than everyone else but from being so much more in touch with his own sin and brokenness. I wonder if the reason John could boldly call for repentance from others is because he knew better than anyone his own deep need for repentance.
I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals, John said of Jesus. Is this just modesty? Is John just an “aw, shucks,” humble kind of guy? Or, could it be instead that John understands so well his own deep need for wholeness and healing?
We dare not put John the Baptist, or St. Nicholas, or any human being on a pedestal! We can learn from them, acknowledge their gifts and courage and service, but if we are blind to the fact that they share our common human need for repentance, we slide into hero-worship, which is dangerous…because it can blind us to their sin. Worse, we let ourselves off the hook. When we spend more time exalting our heroes we tend to spend less time on our own deep need for repentance!
Friends, the time is right for Advent. The time is right for repentance! Our headlines are awash in reports of sexual misconduct, from the highest levels of government to professional athletes and local leaders. Corruption, greed, hand-outs to the rich and middle class while ignoring the poor. Many leaders, including our President, remain unrepentant and continue in their sin.
But these powerful people are going to do what they’re going to do. Instead of spending too much energy on wishing it weren’t so, we can instead draw attention to great examples of leadership. We can be proud, for example, of the two U.S. Senators who have served our state for a long time. In response to revelations about fellow Members of Congress, instead of remaining silent or making excuses, both Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have been publicly outspoken in calling friends and colleagues even from their own party to step down. That’s courage. That’s integrity!
When we put people on pedestals, when we put political parties or personalities or patriotic loyalties before repentance, we can expect evil to gain the upper hand. We can expect nothing to change, either in our own lives or our life together.
In this season of Advent, we remember that repentance for followers of John and disciples of Jesus is not a simple, “I’m sorry.” It’s a change of heart, a change of mind. Changed hearts and minds lead to transformed lives that are marked by a change of direction. That change of direction follows a path that leads to a manger in Bethlehem, to a love that is bigger than our heroes and institutions, and far bigger than our little loves for “my” particular race or sexual orientation. The love of Christ that we prepare for is a love that includes rather than excludes, and recognizes the humanity even in those we call “enemy.”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s hard to imagine John the Baptist down at the mall, children on his lap with a list of junk they want for Christmas. It’s hard to imagine John the superhero or John the sports star. But friends, for you and me and a world hungry for amazing grace and unimagined love, John the Baptist is just what we need!