Dear John

Sunday, December 4, 2016 – The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12

Dear John

Perhaps it’s because of the Fair, and all the people we welcomed into the sanctuary yesterday, but I have this image of John the Baptist walking into our midst, wanting to deliver his message, these verses from our Gospel this morning. There’d be a problem, wouldn’t there? I imagine the conversation might go like this: Well, good morning, John. Welcome to 21st century America. I’m glad the weather has finally cooled off enough for you to be comfortable in your furs, and that the animal rights folks understand your context. At least you have the pro-honey thing going for you (bees are in serious trouble at the moment, so talk up the bees; and I’d keep the ‘eats locusts’ thing a little quiet). I appreciate your courage, coming to a different wilderness than your traditional Judean setting, note to self, the ocean is COLD for baptisms, and the people are New Englanders, so good luck with that.

As long as we talking about your ministry – can I give you some advice? This isn’t just the dawning of the 21st century, this is a really odd time in American politics and this speech of yours, while I’m sure, stirring in its time, well, it won’t fly now.

I know, these are powerful words, and yes, we do want Jesus to come among us at any moment. We need him here; we need the kingdom: for we need peace, justice, mercy, in heavy doses right now. But here’s the rub – all the powerful words, all that “brood of vipers” stuff, nobody’s going to hear you, no one’s going to notice a thing. Been there done that; we’ve heard it all before, recently even. There’s been so much violent rhetoric that we can’t process it, so many crazy people yelling at us for so long now, from all sides, that we’re completely numb to it.

May I suggest a different approach altogether? Before you get started on the message itself, you might have to remind us of who and whose we are, tie it all in to the bigger story. Don’t just jump into the middle, and expect us to pick up the thread. You see, it’s been a tough year of having our identities manipulated for political gain, and we need to be grounded again in the only story that truly matters.

Perhaps you should take a leaf out of Isaiah’s book. Remind us of the promises of God to God’s people over thousands of years. That the one who is coming is the one who has been promised to us, to bear God’s spirit into the world with faithfulness: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might. This is the shoot springing up from the root of Jesse, father of King David, the line we trace through the generations to this child, born of Mary and Joseph, Jesus …the savior, the promised one.

Yes, yes … for whom we should prepare, “Prepare the way of the Lord, may his paths straight…” Look, I appreciate your excitement, but please, the yelling isn’t helping. I know, you have an important message for us, the most important message for us, but you are going to have to go about this differently. Softly, quietly… gently… a baby in a manger kind of softly.

Look, let me tell you a story about a Jesse I know. I was serving a church near a big Southern city, it was this same Sunday in Advent, and a retired couple who used to come to the EFM group just showed up between services, they needed to talk, and they were holding a newborn baby. I knew them because their teenage son was a member of one of my youth groups. Long time foster parents, they used to be the first stop for many kids in need of sanctuary, but about 13 years ago had fostered a baby boy whose trauma and need had broken their hearts open, and they had adopted him. They had moved their names to the bottom of the list and rarely got calls now, so were stunned when DHS had called them late on Friday and they went to pick up this baby. They were sleep deprived and bewildered; the last infant in their house was their now adopted son who was about to enter high school, they were not prepared for this. I may be getting the details mixed up, but for some reason the newborn in their arms had no name yet. The call from DHS came while we were together that morning, he was officially ‘released’, so we said a prayer over him and named him Jesse. It was “Jesse Tree Sunday” and he had just appeared, and it fit, for now. A name that signals promise and hope across the generations, all that God is doing in our midst. We thought this tiny newborn might need a name that held these truths for him. For me, Jesse is a tiny, black baby boy with thick curls covering his head, and a sweet face, who is wrapped in prayers of promise and hope.

Jesse was with us for about two months before he was adopted by parents, who were thrilled to have found the child they had been praying for. I think they kept his name. To me, Jesse Trees will always symbolize not only our connection to God’s promises over the generations of the past, but also the ways we can be part of connecting God’s promises to the generations of our present.

So John, you might start with a Jesse story, and then move into your message about repentance, (using your inside voice). OR you might do better by being more direct. Talk less about repentance and simply demonstrate what we should be doing instead. The better behavior we should be about.

Here’s an example. I know he’s not quite John the Baptist, exactly, but he wears a cowboy hat and a shirt with snap buttons, and has a beard, so he’s kind of close. Justin Normand is a sign maker from Irving, Texas. Last week he made a sign and drove to the nearest mosque and stood out on the sidewalk, across the street from the mosque, holding up the sign, which read: “You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America.” When asked why, he said, “To share the peace with my neighbors. My marginalized, fearful, decent, targeted, Muslim neighbors.”

Now, before you get too excited, John, he wasn’t in it to call out the brood of vipers who may have mistreated these people. And he wasn’t telling people to repent, he was busy bearing fruit worthy of repentance; and his actions do call us to pay attention to our own.

When interviewed, he suggested that others: “Find a group marginalized … in this current era we find ourselves in. Then, find a way to express your acceptance to that group in a physically present way, as opposed to a digital one. I can assure you, from their outpouring of smiles, hugs, tears, hospitality, messages extending God’s love, and a bouquet of flowers, it will mean a lot.” And he added: “Lastly, it worked. I felt better for the impact it had on my neighbors. They genuinely needed this encouragement. They need us. They need all of us. They need you.”

So John, what do you think? A couple doing what they can for a small child not their own, a man extending hope to those in need of encouragement… are these ways we prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight in our own time? Too subtle for you? How about this last story, (though I promise you there are many).

Jason Brown was a successful professional football player. John, when I say successful I mean he made an awful lot of money and was famous and had a life that most people would admire. Jason had played for the Baltimore Ravens and then the St. Louis Rams, at one point he had a 37million dollar contract. In 2012 he decided to start a farm because he felt God was calling him to do something more with his life, something that gave more to people. He knew nothing about farming, but he figured he would learn. He and his wife began First Fruits Farm, their mission is: “Sharing Christ’s love through hunger relief in North Carolina.” They donate the produce, and work side by side in the fields with volunteers from local communities, including many people who are fed by the produce. This wealthy family moved from their mansion in
St. Louis to a 100-year old farm house in North Carolina to work in the dirt, and Jason says people have questions, lots of questions! But he tells them time and again, this is the most fulfilling thing he has ever done. His life has meaning, he spends his day with his family, working side by side with real people, and lives a life full of purpose and faith. Preparing the way for the Lord, don’t you think, John?

So John, I hope we’ve helped you acclimate some to our time; it’s not going to be easy, to be a radical prophet in a time where loud, terrifying speech is the norm. But you’re right – your message is the one we most need to hear. We hear you, we do. We are already on the team, Team Advent, I promise. It’s just that we are tired and overwhelmed and facing incredible odds. We know we need to prepare the way of the Lord, to be readying ourselves, to be looking, paying attention or we may miss all that God is doing in our midst to fulfill the promises made to God’s people.

Please, don’t let our current attitude discourage you. I think in some ways we are more ready than ever for Jesus to just get here already… usher in that Kingdom already… bring God’s justice and mercy and peace to the world. NOW would be good. It’s just that there’s so much to be done, before it will feel like the kingdom of heaven has come near, it’s hard for us to imagine it really. So I guess you’re right, we ought to get started, we should begin by preparing the way,

because there’s a lot of work to be done, and Jesus can’t possibly do all the work, after all. Even Jesus is going to need some help with this kingdom come effort, and we may be all the kingdom prep team there is. At least for now, until we help you get the word out. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To the best of our ability, we’ll see if we can show people what that means here and now, in our own time. Consider us your Advent Kingdom Prep Team: ‘Preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight.’ If we could, we would put our hands in, so we could do this cheer, ready: “Go Team Advent!”

That’s all I have – good luck John.