John the Baptist is one of the saints that everyone knows, but I think it’s safe to say that he is not anyone’s favorite saint, and it isn’t hard to see why. He seems untamed, coming from the desert looking like someone who has lost his connection with civilization.
He seems threatening, talking about fire and wrath. And here in December, he really doesn’t seem very positive or upbeat or Christmassy. That’s because every year, he tries to tell us something that is not exactly what anyone wants to hear at any time, let alone Christmas. John is the saint who tells us both that something is about to happen but also, that something is wrong.
What did people hear when they flocked out into the countryside to hear John? As hard as his message was, people must have heard something, because they did search for him. What they saw was someone who had gone way off the path that was expected of him. He was the son of a priest, and he was expected, because of that, to become a priest himself. But instead, we see John the Baptist, not John the priest, someone who has clearly cast all that off and gone in a new direction. He was a man possessed by the idea that God was about to do something, but also, that people were asleep, and would miss it. He is the patron saint of waking up when you really just want to turn over.
Sometimes people think John was angry, but they would be mistaken. There are lots of angry religious people out there, who are mad about how things are going and how bad people are. This is not really anger that we hear from him. It’s urgency, the voice of someone who has been told that something important is coming that you don’t know anything about, your house is going to be descended on by guests and you have nothing for them, there’s a test that you forgot to study for, and it’s tomorrow. He said now was the time to have no patience with what anyone might have expected of you before. If there are things that need doing, and there are, this is the time to do them.
What is this that we have to get ready for? Sure, it sounds like wrath and fire we want to avoid, but what’s good about it, why change our lives just so we have a chance at getting it? He says the kingdom of God is within our grasp, it is coming to earth. It is all those wonderful things we were told about in the first reading from Isaiah, justice, redemption for the poor, the lion and the lamb, knowledge of the Lord covering every corner of the world. We want that. But these things don’t arrive unless we decide to be citizens of that kingdom, this kingdom isn’t coming without our moving into it, without our working for it, without our living this way now. God has given us free will to decide to get on board
with living in a kingdom like this or not, and if you don’t want it, you are in a darkness it’s hard to find a way out of.
St. John the Baptist told it like it is, we need a saint like John, and maybe especially this year. In Advent, what we do is try to see things in the darkness, watch the horizon.
It takes a lot to wake us — We are distracted people. That’s why I preach that Advent is a time to delete some distractions, because Advent means honesty and clarity and freedom. What we want is a discovery or a memory that comes to us that shows us how things really are, and how things should be.
I don’t think we need to use our imaginations very hard to see things in this world that are very wrong. It might take a little more imagination to see what they have to do with us, to see what changes in direction or what changes of heart or what sudden energy about something is the thing that is the Advent message to us. Advent is a time to risk being thought a little crazy calling things what they are or making a rash attempt to help someone or fix something, a decision to put aside our own plans to do something that we suddenly see is more important.
In Advent, the time of preparation, this man who looks so out of place at the Christmas party is the saint we have been waiting for to tell us what preparation really means.
There is someone coming who wants the world in readiness, a gift that is ours if we want it. If there’s anything standing in the way of doing what needs to be done, we’ve still got time. But as John would be the first to tell you: Not very much time.