2 Advent, Year B
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church of Exeter
John the Baptist is the main character on the second Sunday in Advent. Mark offers a rare detailed physical description of what is often left out of Biblical accounts: we certainly lack the same kind of detail for the disciples and Jesus for that matter. Mark 1: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”
Appearances matter. That is what we are told from a young age on. How we look, speak and behave shapes what others think of us and even whether doors open or close as we approach. Yet “looking the part” is complicated. It’s hard to cut through our pre-conceived notions of what a person should look like or how they should act, isn’t it?
Think about how we expect people in authority to look or carry themselves. Take the president for example. When it comes to presidents did you know that the taller candidate almost always wins the election? Would you vote for a presidential candidate with a mustache or beard? No president with facial hair has been in the White House for 100 years. In terms of how presidents carry themselves: everything they do or say is scrutinized and analyzed whether or not they are “presidential”. Bill Clinton was roundly criticized for jogging in sweatpants.
Appearances impact our immediate response to trust or doubt another person.
A doctor or nurse enters a hospital room and the patient will instinctively make a split decision on whether she/or he looks the part. For many, the age of the doctor is jarring if they are deemed “too young”. I have heard patients say: “she looks so young? How could she know what she’s doing?”
Does this person look or act like a priest, minister or pastor? Well, it depends: what should a minister or priest act like. Holy? Pious? Patient and kind? Wise?
Dress codes are rules, unwritten or clearly stated, about how we are expected to dress at work, school and sometimes, but not so much today, church. The expression Sunday best defined what, for a time, was clothing fit for going to church. Today we have a dress code that includes street wear, casual, business casual, smart casual, business informal, black-tie/semi-formal. I would say Christ Church is a “casual or business informal” kind of community. We of course know that convenient store sign: no shirt, no shoes… no service.
My point is this: if we can agree that appearances and behavior matter, I ask you: what does a prophet look like? Is there a prophet dress code? Is there a way a prophet speaks, looks or carries themselves?
If so, then John the Baptist both looks the part and he lives the part of a prophet in the Bible. John is a spitting image of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament who was described as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” 2 Kings 1:8.
The gospel accounts are written in a way to make it clear that John’s role was that of messenger – not message. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me” John made clear. John decreased so that Jesus could increase. His work was to prepare the way for all who had ears to listen that there was another way to live their lives. He was extremely successful: we read that people from the whole countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him. All the people of Jerusalem was quite a success rate.
John the Baptist is known mainly for two things: baptizing Jesus and the cruel way that he lost his life. Long before the world knew the butchery and cruelty of the so-called Islamic State and their beheading of innocent hostages and uploading their deeds online, John’s life ended in a similarly ruthless way -- his head placed on a platter. John the Baptist lost his life because he clashed with King Herod and spoke out about the immoral way the king lived and behaved.
Are you familiar with the phrase? “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is attributed to Lord Acton in 19th century England.
An important recurring feature of the Bible leading up to the time of Jesus is how kings -- those in power -- had to contend with God’s prophets. Kings had power but they had to deal with God’s direct messengers. Saul had Samuel; King David had Nathan, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel clashed with the great prophet Elijah. King Herod in Jesus’ day had John the Baptist. Herod feared John, for John was loved by the people in ways that the puppet King Herod would never know.
To put it simply: prophets speak for God and tell us things we need to hear – often at times when we would rather ignore.
So what is it that you and I need to hear?
John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which means, he called on people to change the way they lived, thought and believed, make a 180 degree turn – and in so doing they were released from what had held them down and was weighing so heavily upon their souls.
If last Sunday’s message was all about keeping awake and alert, today’s message is equally straight forward: turn and change; and let go of what is holding you down and keeping you from knowing the hope, peace, joy and love of this season.
So on this second Sunday in Advent. Look at your life. Where you’ve been, where you find yourself today and where you are headed. Think of those who shaped you, the decision you made a long time ago that have brought you to this moment in time. Any regrets? Any second thoughts?
We can’t re-live the past. The words of the New Zealand prayer book always speak to me at the end of the day.
It is night after a long day, what has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.
That is what forgiveness is to me. God is saying: “let it be.” I can only imagine that those who came out of the woodwork to hear John’s message wanted to hear that they too could reset their lives and relationships in a new direction. They and we get a clean slate, a new day and a new beginning.
And that is what John the Baptist wanted to communicate to so many of the people who came out to hear him. They, like us, were finding something missing in their lives that only God could fill.
Last week I said that though Exeter, New Hampshire may seem like a long way from Ferguson, Missouri that we should care when people are protesting in our nations streets. I spoke about the need to listen to those yelling the loudest and imagine what it’s like to live in another people’s shoes. Isn’t that the basis of the Golden Rule we teach children: Luke 6:31 “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” This rule is found in nearly all world religions and philosophies.
A week latter, the protests in many cities are getting larger. Apparently appearances do matter when it comes to who is respected and trusted and who is often feared and profiled. Repentance, turning from old ways towards new life, is not only for individuals to confess personal shortcomings and failures, but also for whole societies to put things right and making life better.
Advent is a time to wait for the coming of God in human form. We believe that Jesus, born of Bethlehem and raised by Joseph and Mary in Nazareth was the incarnate God: God in the flesh. God made human lives holy and valued for eternity.
All this means that our faith demands that we respect humanity even more. In the face of every human being there are traces of the One who made us all.
These are the days to prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives and into our world. Listen, turn and let go.