This year, though, right in the mix of all that emotion, a few days after setting up the tree, one of my twitter feeds catches my attention. The hook line simply says: "You, Santa and a grenade launcher! Check the story out!" Naturally, who's not going to, right? So I clicked on the link and opened a news story about how people and families with kids of all ages, right down to the littlelest children are taking up an invitation from a gun club in Arizona to have their picture taken with Santa while holding AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers! In some ways it's comical. And in other ways it's sad. But really in all ways it's disturbing. The mixing of Santa, and Jesus at this season and automatic assault rifles and grenade launchers just seems beyond the pale.
Then right in the mix of all that emotion, later in the week, I open up to Mark's telling of the coming of John the Baptist. I realized in an instant that John's message really resonated with me. Mark's version of John's teaching is pretty tame. In Matthew John is harsher and more no-nonsense. He says there, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? The axe is laid at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down! John's message resonates with me in a moment when Santa, Jesus and grenade launchers with little children are the mental model for at least part of the world.
That being said, Mark's version of John, though still rough around the edges, depicts a softer and less acostic John. Mark has barely begun his message when he bluntly announces, "John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness," starting things out with a bang. John simply appears and immediately begins to deliver his insistent and unwavering message about repentance.
John is described visually as a prophet like Elijah. He is dressed in camels hair and eats locusts and wild honey. We picture him with a rather wild, untamed look in his eyes. In most ways, John is not like anyone we know. We don't identify with John from some database of people in our lives who are like him. He's far removed from anything we want for ourselves.
But don't miss John's significance. As we approach Christmas, look beyond the funny clothes and his strange diet and his wild-eyed stare and hear more than just strong words to straighten up and fly right. Because I really think John offers something for the way we should understand our lives, who are committed to follow Jesus.
There's an old story that is told...
...about a little girl whose pastor asked her, "What is a saint?" She thought about the stanined-glass windows in the church and said, "A saint is somebody whom the light shines through."
This was john's life through and through. He was somebody through whom the light of God shined through. If we reproduce John in ourselves, then this would surely sum it up: To be people whom the light of Christ's love shines through. John, truly, is a saint in the best sense of that word in at least three ways:
He Goes Before Christ
John, first, by his very being is someone who goes before Christ. He doesn't simply come before Christ in terms of time. That, of course, would be impossible for us. He goes before Christ in terms of perparing the way. In some parts of the Church, John is not know as the Baptist. He's know as John the Forerunner. John is someone who goes before Christ to prepare the way for the presence of Christ in the world.
What would that look like for us to prepare the way for the presence of Christ in people's lives, in oppressive contexts and unjust systems? John forces us to ask that question of ourselves. He is as Isaiah 40 says, A voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' John stands for us as a testiment to how we should live before a world that needs to experience the grace of God's transformative power. We are called by John's life to be people who prepare the way of the Lord.
We do this by living a life of love. That's difficult for us to hear properly, or at least hear it in a way that gives it any teeth. Most of us hear about love from Hallmark or the cover of gossip magazines displayed at the counters of grocery stores. But we prepare the way of the Lord by living a life of love. Living a life of love means giving yourself to others in service in the same spirit of Jesus when he said, I have come not to be served, but to serve.
FCC, along with several other churches, has been in a relationship with two at-risk elementary schools in our vicinity. Mostly what we do is serve them. We gather twice a year and paint, clean, plant and build. It's not fancy. John wasn't fancy. But it is a way for us to prepare people to experience Christ in other ways that are transformative
He Speaks the Truth in Love
John never minced with words. He told it like he saw it. His words called out people's lives because he speaks the truth in love. This is another way we can embrace the life of John for ourselves: To be people who have learned to speak the truth in love well.
It hardest to emulate John in this way. Most of us are far too ready to call out people's mistakes before looking at our own. But John shows us that there is a way to live that speaks the truth in love. Many times we speak it without ever saying a word. It looks like the faithful choices we make in the face of a world that is more often confused about what should happen.
Speaking the truth in love requires us to see the other. It requires us to see the heartbreak of others. We speak the truth in love well when the one receiving it knows that he or she has been seen. John's voice out of the wilderness acknowledges that the people of Israel have been seen, that the Lord has not forgotten them, that God in all power and splendor sees them and desires more for their lives.
This is speaking the truth in love when it is done well. It calls people to new ways of being and opens them to new lifegiving possibilities. It may judge, but it never condemns. It may fall like a ton of bricks, but is always there to re-build, restore and renew.
He Points Beyond Himself to Christ
There is another way we are to copy John. John also lives in a way that always points beyond himself. A famous Orthodox icon called simply St. John the Baptist shows John looking away off the canvas, if you will. He is ostensibly looking at Jesus. It is a hard icon to focus on, because it doesn't hold our gaze. John's hands in the icon keep scooping our attention back over to Jesus. It is like a visual depiction of John's own words, Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.
John's life, like ours should be, points beyond himself and to what is most important - Jesus, the Christ. John is most himself when he is pointing beyond himself to the one greater who comes after him, whose sandals he is not worthy to stoop down and untie.
So, don't miss John's significance. He stands as an example for us in at least these three ways.
One last thing: It is important to note that John doesn't come by all this easily, nor will we. He doesn't do all this without some real doubt and struggle. John will at one point in his life send his own disciples to Jesus and have them ask, Tell us. Are you The One or should we look for another?
Jesus responds, Tell John what you see...the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. It's after this that we do not hear anything else about John, except that he is beheaded by Herod. A sense lingers that John fades into the background for good. His work is finished. He has served well.
May such be said of us.