Micah has the Lord tell God's messenger, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” John the Baptist is that messenger. But John would not be our example for how to win friends and influence people! Listen again to how he greets his visitors: “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers!” Not how we'd like to be greeted at any time or any place.
Many of you know that our daughter Christa is a manager at Wal-Mart in Arizona-- soon to transfer to a store near Chicago. She has to manage employees, including those who work as greeters. Listen to this greeter's story. Charles was a new retiree/greeter at her Wal-Mart. But he just couldn't seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company.
Christa pulled him aside for a talk. "Charles, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a great job when you finally get here, but your being late so often is quite bothersome."
Christa pursued the matter further, “It's odd though you're coming in late. I know you're retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning so late and so often?"
The older man looked down at the floor, then smiled. He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, "They usually saluted and said: "Good morning General, can I get your coffee sir?"
We don't expect to find a general greeting people in a Wal-Mart. We wouldn't expect the forerunner of the Messiah to greet people so coarsely. But he was a man fulfilling prophecy, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me... the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.” John was that messenger and he delivered news of a covenant; a new covenant founded in Christ Jesus... in whom we delight. Robbie read the prophecy of this messenger and he also read Paul's delight in the message. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice... ” Our three readings are kind of all over the place as we get the promise of a message of delight and peace and joy; but our man of the hour, John, doesn't seem to bring that good news. Let's look at the people hearing John's message a little closer.
In Mark's gospel we read, “The whole region of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” What would prompt the people to go hear this man insult them?
I am not a big fan of Wal-mart and I go there only when I need something I can't get somewhere else. Is it possible the people flocked to John because they were hearing the words of God they couldn't hear anywhere else? Maybe they understood that their lives were not what they could or should be. They asked John in our reading, "What then should we do?" John addressed the temptations they face in this world; making excuses, entitlement, favoritism, stinginess, cheating, extortion, false accusations, discontent.... That's the list Sara Lewis shared in Friday's These Days reading. John encourages all his listeners to work to overcome these issues. But even controlling these impulses don't make us righteous. John goes on to explain neither is it membership in the family of Abraham that makes them righteous. “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Their history is important but it can't save them. So too, our history in the church is important, but it isn't what makes us right with God. Relationship with God through Jesus does that. As the people recognized the errors in their lives, they came forward and were baptized. But again, John recognized that this baptism wasn't the ultimate salvation. “"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.” And we know that is Jesus, the one whose coming we anticipate during this season of Advent.
New Testament professor Audrey West writes about the limits of John's preaching, “However, neither his preaching nor the baptism he offers can actually empower lives to be changed. If John’s message were the end of the story, the people would leave the wilderness with little more than a story to tell and a to-do list that cannot sustain them in a life lived fully before God. The good news is that God sends One who is more powerful than John, with gifts greater than the crowd can imagine. This Messiah brings a baptism of spirit and of fire: the very breath and power of God to change everything. That is very good news, indeed.”
We've been learning about the apostle Paul in our Bible study on Acts, and Ruth has lent me a book entitled Paul that I've been reading. We know that Paul wrote that letter to the Philippians while in prison. And yet his message is all about rejoicing. A lesson we learn in Advent is that we are not to wait for any specific event until we find our joy. “I'll be happy when the kids are out of diapers, I'll be OK when the kids are grown, I'll be good when we get a new house, I'll be able to rejoice when I retire and have more time...I'll rejoice when I escape this jail cell....” Paul's lesson of rejoicing always fits in with this season where we wait for Jesus. As we are called to wait in joyful anticipation; we are to wait actively, living out the values of John's message, of God's messenger.
That means sharing God's love and that can be a challenge. It means putting others first, going the extra mile, sharing our goods, and living with fairness and justice. And when we feel overwhelmed by all we have to do, particularly in this season, Paul gives us this promise, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” One of the names of Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and we often think of peace on earth, goodwill to men, but this peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of an assurance that God is always with us.
Another messenger of God who seems much more at home in the Christmas season is the angel Gabriel. He brought a message to a teenage girl. His greeting was this, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” A much better greeting than John the Baptist gave in the wilderness. Author Max Lucado wonders just what Gabriel might have thought of the message he was bringing. “Gabriel must have scratched his head at this one... he got a slip of paper with a Nazarene address. 'God will become a baby,” it read. 'Tell the mother to name the child Jesus.' Gabriel had to wonder, 'The heavens can't contain him, how could a body? Besides, have you seen what comes out of those babies? Hardly befitting for the Creator of the universe.' So Gabriel scratched his head. But (he) had his orders. 'Must be a special girl,' he thought. But Gabriel was in for another shock. The mother-to-be of God was not regal. She was a Jewish peasant who'd barely outgrown her acne. It was all Gabriel could do to keep from turning back. 'This is a peculiar idea you have, God,' he must have muttered to himself.”
That is interesting speculation. But if we think about it, most everything about the Christmas story is peculiar. And in this life we often face situations that just don't make sense to our ways of thinking. When we are following Jesus, aren't our troubles supposed to fade away? Well, they don't. But that baby that came into the world in such an unusual way never leaves us on our own. Through trials and grief and questions and doubts, Jesus never leaves us. And that fact, that Jesus is faithful no matter what, is what leads us to the peace that passes understanding. We can listen to God's messenger, John, who said live the way God says. But that doesn't guarantee an absence of troubles. So in times of doubt, consider God's messenger Gabriel. Like us, Gabriel had his questions about how God was acting in this world. Max writes, “even though he couldn't answer the questions, he know who could, and that was enough.” As we prepare for Christmas, can we trust in the One who knows the answers. In the midst of our questions, Paul tells us how to react, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.
Hymn: When John the Baptist Preached