In the Name…
Some ministers were having a problem with squirrels in their churches. The Catholic priest had tried to exorcise them, but, they didn’t leave. The Methodist tried to trap them and release them in the park, but, they always came back. The Episcopalian, however, baptized them, and he never saw them again.
Here we are just about a week away from Christmas and we have that strange character of John the Baptist appearing in our readings again. John is the most unlikely Christmas character that we are ever going to meet, yet every year he shows up. He shows up to remind us that although sometimes God speaks to us with a soft voice in the silence, at other times God speaks to us in the thunder. And, through John, God uses the thunder to get our attention.
No shrinking violet, John thunders out his message, "Turn back to God and repent! Then your sins will be forgiven." He puts pressure on people to look at themselves and change. "Turn back to God and you will see his saving power."
Oh, John was no softy. His rough appearance was indicative of his tough attitude toward those who thought that they didn’t need to change. He laid into people when they were half-hearted about turning around their lives. When they thought that they could just turn up and listen to a few of his sermons and that would do the trick, he calls them names: "You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgement? Do something to show that you really have given up your sins." John was tough. Perhaps, we might think, too tough.
But, sometimes tough words are needed. Tough words prick our consciences. Tough words get through the barriers we put up around ourselves. Tough words help us realise that the call to renew our commitment actually applies to us and not just the other guy.
Even so, though, admitting all that, why do we have to listen to John at this time of the year? Why can’t we put him off until Lent?
Well, we will eventually get around to hearing about Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, but, before we do, we need to hear John because what he says has everything to do with Christmas.
At this time of the year, we get ready for Christmas in many different ways. We haul the lovely fake evergreens out of storage and try to figure out which bulb on the string of lights is the one causing the whole string not to work. We put the ornaments on the tree. We clean up the house. Buy gifts. Plan to visit relatives or have them over. In short, we get ready. And, John wants us to get ready, too. But, get ready by making a new commitment to live lives worthy of the Christ who came at Christmas.
That’s why he uses thunder. He knows the human heart all too well. If he speaks softly and gently, his words will go in one ear and out the other. So he speaks loudly, rudely and bluntly, “May the Yuletide log slip from your fire and burn down your house.” Not quite, but you get my meaning.
Our Wednesday Bible study was reading a book by the author Max Lucado. Lucado has written many books and in one he tells the story of a man who had been a slob most of his life. He just couldn't comprehend the logic of neatness. Why make up a bed if you're going to sleep in it again in a few hours? Why put the lid on the toothpaste tube if you're going to take it off again in the morning? This fellow basically admitted that he was compulsive about being messy.
Then, he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn't mind his habits, if he didn't mind sleeping on the couch. Since he did mind that, he began to change. He rediscovered the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose became accustomed to the smell of Pledge and Lysol. After several months, he was a new man.
But, then came that moment of truth. His wife went out of town for a week.
At first, he reverted to the old man. He figured he could be a slob for six days and clean up on the seventh. But, something strange happened. He found he could no longer relax with dirty dishes in the sink or towels flung around or clothes on the floor or sheets piled up like a mountain on the bed.
Can you see what happened in this man’s life? His wife was loving and patient, but was tough when it came to her husband’s untidiness. And the habit he got into overcame the habits he had given up.
As we wait for Jesus to return at the end of time and now as we wait for the celebration of his first coming at Christmas, John would say: Take out the garbage. Take out the selfishness and an uncaring, unfriendly attitude. Take out the dishonesty, greed and a focus on material things. Take out everything that opposes God’s will for our lives.
But, as we all know, that’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s nigh well impossible for us to turn around our lives just by sheer will power. We enjoy certain sins. We are determined to not do something again and, next thing you know, we are doing it again. We just can’t help saying or thinking things that are harmful and hurtful.
That’s why it’s a good thing we don’t have to try to rely on ourselves.
Back in 1932, there was a tragic accident at an Army base in California. One of our zeppelins was being towed by the ground crew to its hanger, when a sudden strong gust of wind lifted it a couple hundred feet into the air. Most of the crew let go of the guide ropes, but a couple of men were carried up and, unable to hang on, fell to their deaths. One man, however, was seen to be still hanging on and half an hour later, when the ship was brought under control, was safely rescued. When asked how he could hang on for so long, he replied that he hadn’t. He had just wrapped the ropes around himself and let them hold him up.
John calls us to get ready by making major changes and if we try to rely on our own power to make those changes we will tire out and fall back. No question. That’s why his tough words also remind us that we can’t do it on our own. We need God to make us ready to meet God and there’s no shame in asking for help.
Like the man who didn't try to save himself by his own power, who let the ropes hold him up, we too need to trust in God and let Him hold us up. That’s why He’s called the Saviour.
And, that’s what Christmas is all about.
In the Name…