One hot summer morning, when I was living in South Carolina, I was alerted to a litter of puppies that had been rescued from the local airport on Hilton Head Island.
They were chow/terrier mixes, and the bunch of them were living in a pet foster home, and all were available for adoption.
I, it just so happened, was in the market for a dog, so I went down to where the puppies were, and there, in a pen, were about six or seven of the fluffiest, happiest, cutest puppies you could imagine.
They were all gorgeous — long, soft fur like a chow, the curly tails, pointy ears.
But on a closer look, there was one puppy that didn’t look like any of the others.
She had short hair. A brindled coat. A black spotted tongue.
And she cowered in back corner, as her bothers and sisters pounced and jumped excitedly to see this human who could be their next owner.
The second thoughts I had as I drove with the lone odd-looking puppy — the runt of the litter —- in my arms in the car-ride back home were quickly evaporated as the small, short-haired puppy burrowed into my shirt.
That was probably more than 15 years ago. And Sadie has been a great family dog ever since.
Why did I choose the runt, the one that looked so different, the one that I couldn’t see anyone adopting?
Well, maybe I identified a bit with that puppy — and not in some pathetic way; just that I hate the feeling of not being accepted, and even more, I hate the feeling when I see others who aren’t accepted
Did this puppy dog have anything less to offer than her fluffy brothers and sisters?
Well, I’d say, after raising this special little dog, yes. She offered so much.
And people are the same way, aren’t they? Some of us look differently, act differently, dress differently, worship differently.
Does that mean they should be discounted? Certainly not. That’s not what we’re called to do.
Jesus spent his entire ministry befriending and standing up for these people.
And that’s why I think it’s so appropriate that the person chosen to clear the way for Jesus Christ was none other than John the Baptist.
Now, last week during the first part of this sermon series called New Beginning, which focuses on the possibilities Christ brings to us, we talked about Watching for the way Christ will fulfill all things — and not just with his birth, but with his Second Coming.
That is, Advent means to anticipate something great; but we’re not simply anticipating Jesus’s birth, which we celebrate at Christmas, but Jesus’s return, which we still have to look forward to.
And so in a sense for this sermon series, we are working backward from the Second Coming to the first.
And it’s in today’s reading that we meet John the Baptist.
John the Baptist…
John was a pretty common name back in Jesus’s day. It’s a Hebrew name, and it simply means “Jehovah (God) has shown favor.”
The “baptist” part comes because John would baptize people — a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
This fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 40.3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
This was John the Baptist’s job.
Note that John the Baptist is not the John who is named for the fourth Gospel, nor is he the John of the epistles or the John who wrote Revelation — John was simply a very popular name, just as it is now.
Maybe we all think it’s great the we have this figure named John who would baptize and pave the way for Jesus.
But if you met the guy, well, you might have done a second take.
In the Gospels, he’s described as wearing clothes of camel's hair and living on locusts and wild honey.
Can you picture him?
Well, let’s not romanticize his image; we tend to do that with these great biblical figures.
Let’s do this instead. You’re in downtown Harrisburg. You walk down on 2nd Avenue past all the hot dog stands and bars and eateries.
On next corner — the one you have to walk to — there’s a man standing there. He looks homeless. His hair is disheveled, his beard is dirty. He is filthy. And he’s dressed in rags.
Worse, he’s holding up one of those huge homemade signs that says “REPENT” in the largest letters that he could draw.
And he’s shouting at the top of his lungs the very same message.
What do you do?
Yeah, you might cross three lanes of traffic and walk on the opposite side.
Or, probably worse, walk right by the man without even hearing, seeing or noticing him.
John is not who we would imagine as the one who would pave the way for Jesus.
Then again, when Jesus was born as a baby in a lowly manger in a backwoods town, no one thought he was any sort of savior or king either.
We have the luxury of hindsight.
But here’s the point: Because John does not fit the norm of how we picture normal people to look like, we are dismissive.
So, as I mentioned earlier, this is why having John pave the way is so brilliant. It’s a question of contrast:
John the Baptist preaches — in appearance AND in word — preaches repentance — he calls us to reorient ourselves, to turn from our former ways AND to alter the way our perceptions shape our attitudes.
The word repent doesn’t necessarily take on a new meaning — the meaning has always been there; but it adds so much more to the meaning.
It truly is to turn away from something; We tend to think of repentance as being sorry for something. Sure. But it’s literally to turn away from it.
Turning from our ways
We will all sit here today and think, “Well, what that means is that we have to turn away from sinning.”
But when asked to define what sin is without getting all theological, well, that takes much contemplation.
But for the moment, let’s look at the Gospel — Matthew 3.1-12.
We see who John is, we’re told of his appearance and that he’s preaching to repent, the end is near (Verse 2).
We see the link to the Prophet Isaiah, which we just discussed, and that he’s baptizing people, paving the way for Jesus, (Verses 3-4).
Then it gets dicey. We get the conflict. The Pharisees and Sadducees arrive on the scene. Now we have drama.
Pharisees started out with some good intentions. After the prophets were scarce, they sort of picked up the moral teachings.
But they got greedy and corrupt.
The Sadducees were a sect sort of along the same pious lines, but they were very strict and did not believe in resurrection of the dead or existence of spirits.
They, too, were self-righteous.
And they come to check out this whole baptism thing, and John calls them a “brood of vipers,” and asks them “Who wanted you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit WORTHY of repentance” (Verse 8).
See, again, these pharisees and sadducees are self-righteous. They think they are better and more holy than everyone else, and so they judge and condemn those they see lower than themselves and not only persecute, but take advantage of their victims.
They are also seen as elitists and allies of Rome, not Israel.
Do you see the contrast between these pompous men in their linen robes and John the Baptist in his camel hair cloak?
We can SEE the stark physical contrast. But through what John says, we can see the stark spiritual contrast as well.
When John urges them to Bear fruit WORTHY of repentance, them coming to John for some symbolic baptism is in appearance only. He calls them out.
John tells them to TURN from their ways, and then, and only then, are they worthy of becoming part of the body.
John is condemning the elitist attitudes: Not just in appearance.
Because, as I said, what we need to repent from isn’t simply appearance — it’s way more than skin-deep, amen?
No, we need to examine our hearts and work past what Theologian Paul Woodruff calls “our own limitations.”
Reverence begins with a deep understanding of our own limitations.
I remember well so many times that I’ve said “I’ll take care of it” — whatever problem it was. “I’ll fix it.”
Can you relate to that?
We just elected as president a man whose sole claim is “I alone can fix it.”
My intention is not to get political here, because I think we can all relate to this very common idea. “I alone can fix it.”
Woodruff says: “An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher than itself. As a result, an irreverent soul is unable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itself — ordinary people, prisoners, children.”
This is what John the Baptist is calling us away from. It is this idea he is telling us to turn away from. He is saying “Repent” of this elitism.
Even if that elitism comes innocently — and I use that word innocently to describe the apathy that we have toward others who in our arrogance are dismissed because they are somehow lower than us.
They are ignored. Avoided. Forgotten.
Discounted. Yet they are children of God.
Least & Lost
Who did Jesus come to save?
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19.
Now, do you see the contrast?
Can you see the difference?
The sin is in not being able to see the difference.
The sin is in not noticing.
John is telling us, if you don’t notice them, God won’t notice you.
"Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say? (Luke 6.46)
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7.21)
John is the warning call.
Verse 11 in Matthew: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John is telling us to turn away from the ways that keep us intentionally blind.
Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
What does that mean?
The Holy Spirit is our salvation. Jesus brings us salvation through the Holy Spirit.
The fire? That’s the judgment.
John is saying Jesus is that judge. Make no mistake.
John’s baptism opens the eyes of women and men.
To not see things in some man-made order. Some social class structure. Even some political hierarchy.
When we do this, we are discounting our brothers and sisters, and worse, we are in direct disobedience to God.
This is the news: There is no one lower than you or me. Conversely, there is no one higher either.
Only God. Only Christ.
God loves you…
I think if we could see with the open eyes that we’re capable of having, this world would be a whole lot better, a lot nicer, a lot more meaningful.
And that’s a very important message for us during Advent.
Because we can and should anticipate Christ’s birth and celebrate it in the spirit its meant to give.
I think we do OK with that. You or I aren’t the first people to ever notice that people seem a little friendlier at Christmastime.
More smiles. More civility. More charity.
But Advent ends. Christmas passes. And we stop waiting in great anticipation.
Well, we’ve simply and primarily based the holiday on presents, feasts, gatherings and a whole lot of Christmas lights.
The presents are opened. The feasts are eaten. The gatherings end. The lights are taken down.
What is there to anticipate? What Advent remains?
Sounds almost sad, doesn’t it?
But I have really good news for you. And I mean it.
We live every day of our lives and never turn the way John calls us to.
Or we do turn, we do repent, and then go back to doing that which we repented from.
Maybe we get stronger — I sure hope we do — but this is the message: That no matter what, God loves you.
God loves you.
God loves you.
God loves you.
God loves you.
No matter who you are. No matter what you’ve done. No matter where you’ve been.
God loves you.
No matter how bad you think you are.
No matter whether you don’t feel worthy.
No matter if this whole worship experience has you thinking “There has got to be something wrong with me if I’m not feeling it.”
God loves you.
God loves you.
God loves you.
And never, ever, will he let one of his children go.
He promises. He’ll never let you go.
He’s holding on so tightly to you right now.
And he’ll never let you go.
So turn. Listen. Pray. Repent. Forgive. Truly see people.
Not the projections they want you to see.
Truly see and know one another.
God loves them just as much as you.
And that’s a whole lot.
Expect it. Anticipate it. Hope for it. Because it’s done.
This is the gift of Advent, to always expect God’s love.