The Voice

[This message was delivered at Pearce Memorial Church, Rochester NY on December 8, 2019, the second Sunday of Advent. The texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12.]

 

My wife and I have quite a collection of nativity sets from many lands. To come up with the traditional crèche, we have to do some conflating. We expect a magnificent star over the manger, when in fact, that star came some time later. We expect three magi arriving with camels and kneeling before the babe in the manger, when in fact, they arrived when Jesus was a child living in a house. We expect Mary to look positively fabulous after giving birth in crude outdoor circumstances. We expect Joseph to look appropriately proud to welcome a baby that he didn’t father. We expect shepherds looking cleaner than they would have been. We expect precious little animals. There is someone we forgot. Like in the movie “Home Alone,” we forgot someone: John the Baptist! His role was crucial in the story.

 

Pearce Church, let’s say your bishop or superintendent gives you a short list of candidates for your new lead pastor. One is a seasoned preacher, well known for homiletical excellence; his sermons are polished gems and several collections have become best sellers. One is a former missionary in Latin America and she has a PhD in cultural anthropology and a doctor of ministry in pastoral care. Both are held in the highest esteem in Free Methodist circles and beyond. The third is kind of an outlier. His wardrobe is limited. His diet is extreme. His preaching draws crowds and then regularly offends them. Could you imagine any church calling John the Baptist to be their pastor?

 

No one would mistake John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers. His wardrobe includes no cardigan sweaters. There is nothing warm and cuddly about him. He doesn’t care about which fork to use for salad; he is more likely to use his hands. His diet was rather extreme paleo: locusts and wild honey. Let me know if there will be any locusts served at your next congregational supper.

 

But as a preacher, watch out, for he is a force of nature. He can preach fire and brimstone as well as lamb of God. He seems to me something like a blending of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham. He has King’s prophetic edge and Grahams evangelistic heart. He can move from a thundering call for social justice to singing “Just as I Am” in two minutes. His kind do not come our way often, but oh, how we need them. They may not fit in our neat categories, but oh, how we need them. They may not dress up to our expectations and have the social graces we desire, but oh, how we need them.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. Neither was Isaiah. He lived and prophesied in a time of spiritual and political darkness. Israel had already split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom had been taken captive by global power Assyria. The southern kingdom, called Judea, was feeling the emerging Babylonian kingdom breathing heavily on their necks. Soon, they would be taken into Babylonian captivity. The Jewish kings of both south and north were generally corrupt leaders, building their own fortunes and doing whatever would keep them in power, playing fast and loose with God’s standards for servant leadership.

 

Isaiah is often called the fifth evangelist, as he points to coming Messiah with vivid images of the coming kingdom of God. But most of Isaiah’s prophecies deal with naming darkness in high places and have lots of doom and gloom. But not always. God gives Isaiah a preview of what will be someday: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

After Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament era, there is a time of prophetic silence. Then John breaks the silence. Boldly and dramatically, John bursts on the scene and revives the prophetic office, evoking Elijah and fulfilling some of Isaiah’s prophecies. He too enters a time of darkness. Assyria and Babylon have declined, but Rome has more than filled the void, putting little Israel under it ominous boot. It is no surprise that he will die a violent death.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. I teach preaching at Northeastern Seminary, right across that parking lot. One of the skills we work on is developing interesting, inviting introductions. I tell the students that a good sermon introduction opens up some space and invites the congregation to come along with the preacher and see what they will find there. For my students, I call it, “Look for a hook.” I don’t recommend the one John uses in our gospel passage today: “You brood of vipers! [Your den of snakes] Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Such is John’s unconventional boldness. And people stay to listen.

 

His preaching vocabulary is colorful, to put it mildly. What turns of phrase: ax, cut down, thrown in the fire, winnowing fork, unquenchable fire. John’s preaching was pretty simple. He has two short stump sermons and he keeps preaching them over and over, the way politicians running for office keep giving the same speech over and over.

  1. Repent: ”John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judeaand saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’…. ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’”
  2. Look to Jesus:But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The message is clear. Get everything ready for Jesus. The day after Thanksgiving we started getting our home ready for Advent with Christmas in sight. I want to do the same thing in my heart. I welcome John’s two sermons: to repent and turn from my sins and get ready for Jesus who makes everything new. If we put a John the Baptist figure in our nativity sets, whether as a toddler next to baby Jesus or a prophet, be sure of this: he will be pointing to Jesus. John always points people to Jesus. In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

Isaiah names the darkness in his time. John names the darkness in his time. So, too, we live in a time of darkness.

  • In the west African nation of Burkina Faso, 14 worshipers were killed last Sunday. There is darkness.
  • The Rochester school district is the third neediest in the country. Last week over 200 school employees were laid off. There is darkness.
  • In 2017, 70,000 Americans died from opioids and illicit drugs. There is darkness.
  • About 40,000 Americans die from gun violence every year. Those include homicides, accidents, and suicides. There is darkness.
  • Since we met here one week ago, there have two shootings at Navy bases, taking several lives and wounding more. There is darkness.
  • We are facing the near certainty of an impeachment trial of our president, that will further aggravate the political division in our country. There is darkness.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

These lines were scratched into the wall of a German concentration camp during WW2. In the midst of horror, someone declared their faith in the God that did not answer the way they thought He would.  “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.” In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released after six years of darkness in captivity in Lebanon. He was the AP bureau chief covering the civil war in Lebanon. When he was released he was flown to Wiesbaden, Germany, for medical treatment and re-orientation. Two days after his release, he met the press and answered questions. One report asked him, “What do you do with those wasted years?” Anderson answered, “those were not wasted years.” He reclaimed his faith. He worshiped with fellow captives, putting together Sunday liturgy from memory. In the midst of horrendous darkness, he saw and lived by the light of Christ. In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

We do not honor God when we deny the presence of darkness. Rather, we honor God when we name the darkness and let the light of Jesus shine in the darkness. That is what John did. The best summary of John’s ministry is in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

All of us here have had at least one John the Baptist in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We have some people, maybe one or two or three, that pointed us to Jesus. These people served God’s purposes in pointing us to Jesus. Now let’s take a time of silence to remember them by name and give thanks to God for their ministry in our lives, the imprint they left on our souls.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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