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The Prophet of Descent

San Williams

December 8, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-9, Matthew 3:1-12

You may be asking yourself the question:  Why John the Baptist in Advent?  Every year during Advent our lectionary includes a reading that focuses on John the Baptist.  Here we are, doing our best to ring out a message of hope, peace, love, and joy only to have John the Baptist elbow his way into our worship with words that are strident and harsh, words that resound with judgment.  He doesn’t hesitate to call the religious leaders of his own day a “brood of vipers.”  He rants about the wrath to come…warns that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  John is more than pushy, and his message is an unwelcome intrusion into an otherwise festive season.

And not only is his message unsettling, but–let’s face it–John himself is just plain weird.  Frederick Buechner’s description of John the Baptist in his book, Peculiar Treasures, is on the mark.  He writes, “John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled.  When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time…Some people thought he was Elijah come back from the grave, and others thought he was the Messiah, but John would have none of either.  ‘I’m the one yelling himself blue in the face in the wilderness,’ he said, quoting Isaiah.  ‘I’m the one trying to knock some sense into your heads.’”

Which is, I suppose, why John the Baptist is a necessary Advent figure.  If we don’t let John the Baptist get into our heads in Advent, then most likely our heads will be filled with little more than the materialistic enticements  offered by Black Friday, Savers’ Saturday, Tech Monday, and all the other culturally generated accretions that attach themselves to this time of year. John steers us away from mere sentimentality which, while enjoyable, requires nothing from us.  When John cries, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not thinking about getting the shopping done, the tree up, or the sugar cookies baked.  No, the kind of preparation to which John calls us requires our taking serious stock of our lives, re-ordering our thinking, re-directing resources, and re-aligning allegiances.  In other words, John preaches repentance.

Now, introducing repentance during Advent may be about as welcome as vinegar in the holiday punch bowl.  For many, repentance conjures up guilt, or remorse for past mistakes.  But repentance is not so much about past mistakes as it is about a fresh start.  Not merely by what he said, but even more importantly by what he did, John showed us how to make a fresh start. I’m speaking here about the way John deflected attention from himself in order to bear witness to the one who was to come—that is, to Jesus.

Look for a moment at the popularity of John the Baptist in his own day.  For reasons that are not fully known to us, John the Baptist had attracted an enormous following.  Matthew tells us that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan…” We’re talking about a preacher who was attracting tens of thousands of people. He was Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Billy Graham all rolled into one.  He may have worn weird clothing. His sermons may have been harsh and strident, but clearly he was the superstar of his day.

Yet here’s the thing to notice.  For all the attention he was getting, John insisted on pointing beyond himself to one who was greater than he.  He knew that his water baptism was not an end in itself, but rather a prelude for the way God was coming among us in Jesus.  As it turned out, John didn’t get everything right.  “Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain,” writes Frederick Buechner, “Jesus preached forgiving love, and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party, or a father who can’t bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the prodigal Son, it still wasn’t too late…”

So even though John didn’t have the full picture of God’s coming Kingdom, he did have the sense to know that the picture was bigger than he was.  John models for us what’s been called a spirituality of descent.  For all his popularity, he refused to let the spotlight rest on himself.  He wanted only to live and preach in a way that pointed others to the true light that was coming into the world.  John says, regarding his relationship to Jesus: “He must increase but I must decrease.”  (John 3:30).

In order to prepare the way of the Lord, John was willing to decrease, to empty himself of pride and self-seeking.  In short, he was able to get his own ego out of the way.  It’s been said that ego is an acronym for ‘Edging God out.’”

And isn’t it easy, especially this time of year, for us to edge God out?  John’s spirituality of descent may be just the jolt we need to shift our focus from ourselves—our needs, our wants, our anxieties.  Simply put, Christmas is not about us.  It’s about the One who comes to save and transform us.

The question is, what would a spirituality of descent look like?  Maybe it would mean reducing the amount of money we spend on ourselves and our immediate families, and increasing what we give to those who are in need.  For parents it can mean teaching our children and grandchildren that an abundance of things does not constitute an abundant life.  A spirituality of descent changes the question from “What do we want for Christmas?” to “What can we do this Christmas to make Christ more visible in our lives and world?  A spirituality of descent recognizes that when we pray, ‘thy Kingdom come’ we also need to say, ‘my kingdom go!’

Friends, John the Baptist may not be the most attractive or welcome figure in our midst during  Advent, but he’s among the most essential.  He doesn’t just tell us to prepare the way of the Lord.  He shows us how.  He calls us to empty ourselves of egotistical desires, selfish wants and false securities in order to prepare the way for the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and transforming fire:  Jesus the Christ.