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Why is the story of John the Baptist’s disturbing words placed smack dab into our preparation for a cute, cuddly little child lying placidly in a clean barn with adoring people surrounding him and clean animals lying calmly on the ground? Well, John is the one who prepares the way for the Jesus in a way that is often not heard clearly in this time of gifts, lights and ornaments. It is the way of repentance, turning from our own shortcomings. It is focusing on something in ourselves that is as shocking and unattractive as John’s locust eating, animal skin wearing and crazy haired hippie ways. This is painful change that gets to the heart of our lives. It means that cuddly child has the power of examination, conviction and somewhere in our hope for a cute story there is the searing realization that everything must change. John is put at this point of our readings to prepare us for Jesus’ coming. If you value your life he will change everything. Repent, the axe is at the root of the tree!
I am a romantic by nature and upbringing. I’m the one who likes made for TV movies. I am the one unsettled at the end of a complicated stories when there is no neat, happy ending. That is why it is disconcerting that the Revised Common Lectionary committee would insert something troubling into my perfectly nostalgic and uplifting Christmas card nativity scene. In my world justice is black and white, the characters have their function and play out the story perfectly and salvation is a mystical thing that Christ does for us by coming to this world. I want the packages with perfect bows, the holly, the mistletoe, Santa with rosy cheeks and an uplifting story. Yet at this point in the story I can almost smell John the Baptists fowl breath as he brings me back to reality, there is a lot to be done in preparing my heart for Jesus!
Last week while waiting for my wife I picked up an odd volume that I had left near the door of our house and opened it for the first time. It was The Works of John Wesley, Volume 20, Journals and Diaries III (1743-154). You don’t have to tell me that I live a charmed and exciting life. John Wesley was a British Anglican who rode on horseback around Britain preaching to bring revival amongst the people. John Wesley is the founder of modern Methodism. He deeply influenced the Great Awakenings and tentmeeting revivals in the Untied States.
Randomly I opened the journal to November 13, 1748 and became so engrossed in the narrative that I could not put it down. It was Wesley’s accounting of certain followers whom had gone into the jail to sit, preach and teach to prisoners who were condemned to death. He recounts the women who talked with thieves, pickpockets, murderers and rapists. It was an amazing accounting of the conversion of each of these men by the witness of a certain woman named Sarah Peters. The account made clear that her witness to them and care of their persons transformed them in these dark, dirty and disease-ridden holes.
Their transformation was incredible to read. Each and everyone had nothing left, everything had been taken away, they soon would be losing their own lives and they found themselves singing, praying and praising God together. Some when taken to the public execution preached, exhorted the crowds to repentance, recited scripture, prayed out loud and led the onlookers in song. In many ways they had lost everything, but had gained their souls. It was said by Wesley that, “all who saw them seemed to be amazed; but much more when they came to the place of execution. A solemn awe overwhelmed the whole multitude.” These men where overwhelmed with joy even in the face of death.
So, is it merely rank emotionalism, sensationalism, something that those crazies do on Christian television networks? Or maybe it is that we have drained faith of all it’s emotion so that it can fit neatly on the self-help section at Barnes and Noble? By John’s account it is no cheap grace, it is not something that we can claim because we have merely shown up on Sunday, it is not something that allows us to stay the same year after year after year. It is something that turns your abundance into something shared with others, it makes you stricter ethically about money, it forces us to take personal account of our lives and repent. To turn away from the behavior that we know is keeping us from a fulfilled life with God.
Paul in his pronouncement to the Philippians gives us a little glimpse into what those condemned men during Wesley’s day where experiencing and what John is exhorting us toward. It is amazing to read these words and note that Paul too was imprisoned at that time he wrote these famous words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” These are only words that could be from someone that though incarcerated knows the freedom of redemption that comes from preparing a heart for the coming of the Christ. I want to live in that radical, life changing, soul stirring and joyful salvation! I hope that you do too this holiday season.
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