o come, Emmanuel.
There are those moments in your life and mine when someone speaks some words to us, and we just know those words are truth. They may cut us to the heart and the bone, but we still know those words are really the truth for our lives.
Sometimes those words come from one's partner in life. Sometimes from a child to a parent. Sometimes they come from a friend or a corporate colleague. They can come in the midst of recreation, or they can pierce a long silence. But, truth is spoken; it's like searing surgery. And you know you must deal with it.
That's what is happening in Christian churches around the globe today. Churches that are using this particular common lectionary are dealing with a truth-teller named John the Baptizer. There is piercing wisdom in John's message. His message seems to say this: Before you Christians go to the last Christmas of this century, the final Christmas of this millennium, you must first deal with the truth about your life. Without it, you'll never really know or understand or experience Christmas.
Every year, in the middle two Sundays of the season of Advent, John the Baptizer appears at the edge of the wilderness. He is weird and strange and austere. He stands there in the wilderness speaking the truth to us. He also speaks the truth to the political leadership of his day, and the leadership can't stand it. They finally have him executed. They quiet the messenger, but the truth is still there.
I am learning the painful reality that I cannot experience the real meaning and power of Christmas unless I deal with hard, authentic truth spoken by the Baptizer. I'm not talking about Christmas celebrations, but rather the Christmas experience: what it really means for the Christ to be born in me and in you.
So let's go to John the Baptizer. Notice that the crowds go to him. He doesn't come to the crowds. The people leave Jerusalem and the villages around Jerusalem in the Judea area. They follow trails that lead through the dangerous territory of the searing hot, parched desert. They travel through that barren stretch of land in the Negev called the Judean wilderness, which is the northern part of the greater Sinai Desert. They make their way along that Negev trail through the desert to the Jordan River.
There he is, knee-deep in the muddy Jordan River. He has camel skins around his body. He's dressed like Elijah. Eight hundred years earlier, Elijah, the first of the great Jewish prophets, wore camel skins. In a sense, John the Baptizer is doing some desert theater. He is outfitted like Elijah, but he's so convincing because he's so real. He has sacrificed his adult life to train and learn among the Essene community on the banks of the Dead Sea. It is in that very region, in that massive cave area, that in the 1950s the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the most authentic parchment ever found of the book of the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptizer, dressed like Elijah, is quoting the prophet Isaiah:
"In the wilderness comes a cry," he says. "Prepare the way of the Lord." He seems to be saying that you will never get near the Kingdom unless you prepare for the Kingdom of God to come into the center of your life. "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every hill shall be lowered, so that the highway of God might travel right into your life and mine. So prepare; get ready," he says, "repent." John the Baptizer is wild and weird, and his breath smells of locusts and other desert insects. His hair and beard are streaming down, and they have honey dripping from them. This John is a nut case, friends, and he's telling us truth that we don't want to hear. He's saying the Messiah is coming and the Messiah is bringing in a radical new Kingdom.
He is saying that a new age is about to dawn, and you'll never get it unless you turn your life around and repent. Repent in the Greek is "metanoia" -- which means a radical turn, a deep, authentic change, again and again, turning and turning, until finally you begin to have God at the center of your life.
The Baptizer is saying, "You'll never get there, Doug Bailey. You'll never get close to having a holy Birth happen inside of you unless you change your life." John speaks the hard truth. It is so searing because his entire focus is single-minded. He's spent his life as the forerunner of the Messiah, the pavior for a Savior, and he gives his life in that cause. Today, at the end of this millennium, he says to us, "When will you ever learn?"
Liza Dolittle, in that wonderful musical My Fair Lady, says, "Words, words, words. Don't give me words. Show me." The Baptizer is saying to you and me: "Words, words, words. I'm tired of you talking the talk. I want to see you walk the walk. Turn your life around. Open it up to God's highway."
But, you say, how can we? What changes do we need to make? What radical metanoia do we need to be making in our life in order for our Advent-Christmas Lord to come in and be born again inside of you and me, using us for the building of God's Kingdom today?
Several years ago I heard a story that galvanized me. It's a story of some Catholic nuns in Cleveland, Ohio. I don't know the name of their Order, but they have committed their lives to working in the Catholic schools in Cleveland's inner city. Day after day after day, they focus their faith and energy on the education of inner-city youngsters, youngsters whose lives are at risk in so many areas.
One day, out of nowhere, a wonderful gift was given to these nuns. The gift was to pay for the entire Order to go on a vacation. Vans were supplied, and all the necessary money for their trip was contributed anonymously. So, that summer, the nuns closed their Order house and headed to the vacation spot of their choice, the Rocky Mountains.
Most of them had never seen the Rockies, except in their imaginations. They were awed by the glory of the mountains. They would stop and ponder and behold and not be able to take their eyes off the majesty they were experiencing. They noticed, however, that every time they stopped, Sister Margaret, one of the smallest members of their Order, would move to the edge of the group, and then disappear for a while. She'd return sometime later. They didn't know what she was doing.
So on one particular occasion when they had stopped to behold a majestic view, they decided they would follow her. She stole away from the group and made her way down into a gully. They watched her as she walked into the gully. She bent down and reached under a sizable rock, and then turned the rock upside down. She brushed her hands and turned around to walk back up the trail. When she looked up, the entire Order of nuns was watching her. "Margaret, what are you doing?" they asked. "I'm turning over a rock." she replied. "Why?" they asked. "Do you do that every time?" She answered, "Yes." "Why do you do that?" And she replied: "Because I will never pass this way again, and it's my intent to have made a difference while I was here. So I turn some rocks over so that this place is different because I passed here."
What rocks does an urban church like this one have to turn over in the city of Memphis for the good of the common society? What rocks do I need to turn over inside of me in order for the Kingdom of God to make its way through all of the barriers that I put up? I think there needs to be some rock-turning going on inside of me in order that I can, with the help of a truth-teller like John the Baptizer, maybe taste and smell the real experience of Jesus' birth - in the interior manger of my life.
I don't know about you, but I am fascinated and deeply affected by stories that come from the Middle East, from the midst of that constant, pervasive hate between the Israeli and Palestinian people that goes on for generation after generation. One such story appeared some time ago in the New York Times. It was a story about that good and prophetic man King Hussein, the leader of Jordan.
Several months before he died, while he was battling cancer and losing the battle physically, never spiritually, there was that terrible tragedy that occurred on the border between Israel and Jordan. A busload of teenage girls from a Jewish school stopped at a restaurant near the border to get something to eat. While they were stopped, a Palestinian, a Jordanian man who was mentally ill, pulled out a submachine gun and shot and killed about a dozen of those Israeli girls. Do you remember that terrifying story?
The parents of those young girls who were killed made the decision to bury them in one liturgy, one powerful and hopefully healing service of worship. On the day of that worship service, King Hussein arrived, defying all of the factors of security. His security did not matter to him. He went into the worship service, into the center of those classmates whose friends had been killed, and he remained there with them and their families for the entire Jewish service. Here was this Palestinian leader holding their hands and weeping with them. A reporter commented that it was as though he was weeping his heart away with them.
Later, one of those young 16-year-old girls made a statement that made its way into the New York Times article. It chilled me with its truth. She said, "There, holding hands with King Hussein, I felt like he was giving me a heart transplant."
That's what I need this Advent season. I need to turn over a rock. I need a new heart. That's what we need before we go to the last Christmas of this millennium. We need a heart transplant. The people around our lives will truly be touched and changed by the quality of your life and mine only when God's heart takes over, instead of mine. Maybe the same is true for you.
the Baptizer is telling us truth that we must hear. It's hard to hear
it, but we must deal with it. Friends in Christ, we must repent. We must
turn some stones over in our lives, for God's sake. We need a holy heart
transplant. Maybe then Christ will be born in you, in me.
Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11
says, "Cry out!"