December 10, 2000

"The Voice Cries Out"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
Second Sunday of Advent

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3: 1-6

Have you noticed the growing numbers of Christmas icons? Icons are
concrete images or objects that we use to represent the sacred. In religious traditions, people revere icons and find comfort in their presence. Icons for Christmas in the Christian tradition include a mother with her infant son, a stable scene, a baby wrapped tight against the night air. Today, there are also the icons of contemporary Christmas. Angels, not the scary, powerful messengers found in the Bible, but cute, playful angels are standard for the holidays. The Grinch is the newest icon. And, frankly, I'm having a hard time getting over seeing the actor Jim Carey's face on the Grinch. Snowmen have become icons, with crafters and department stores willing to sell us enough snowmen, made of everything but snow, to fill or homes. And, we can't forget the ultimate Christmas icon, Santa Claus.

In our society, Santa has a greater connection to Christmas than Jesus. We may not pray to Santa, but we encourage our children to write letters and share their wishes. Popular movies involving Santa often have him saving the world from the ultimate disaster, no Christmas. (As if Christmas only depended on getting "the goods" out by sleigh in time for Christmas morning.) We sing songs about Santa, and we give him and his helpers "offerings" on the sacred night of Christmas Eve.

It should come as no surprise to us that someone would come up with the idea of putting two icons together. You may have seen it, Santa kneeling before the manger. If my memory serves me right, I think there is a giant display of this pose out at Domino Farms.

So let me see if I can get the nativity picture right. At the stable we've got shepherds (probably with their sheep), stabled animals (probably talking), angels (probably singing), a little drummer boy banging on a drum, three magi (forget the Bible, the song says there are three), and now Santa comes lumbering along the rocky road to Bethlehem to kneel in his insulated coat, snow pants and boots. I think the scene is getting a little crowded.

But don't fret; I have an idea! Instead of Santa kneeling at the manger, crèches should be complete with little figures of John the Baptist in all his fiery passion. Picture a ceramic figure clothed in camel hair, one fist clenching a bunch of honey soaked locusts, while the other hand beckons the viewer forward. It might not be the prettiest ornament in your living room, but it sure would get your house guests talking.

Sadly, John the Baptist has been forgotten in the hubbub of Christmas. His message is certainly not a commercially viable icon. If it were, Walmart would be stocking the shelves with his likeness. But John is important to the Advent of Jesus Christ. With any coming (or Advent) we get ready, and the coming of the Savior of the World warrants our best preparation. The gospels of Mark and John don't relate to birth story, but they do record the words and works of John the Baptist. John is the man who tells us how to get ready.

You might think this is the only reason John is connected to the Christmas story is because he is Jesus' cousin. Luke uses the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, John's parents, to begin the nativity story. Even before their son was born, they were both proclaiming that the Messiah was coming and John would be announcing it. The Lord said, "I am sending you a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way." (Mark 1:2)

And that is exactly what John was doing 25 to 30 years later on the banks of the Jordan River. Fulfilling old testament prophecy, his is the voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the Way of the Lord." He came to testify to the light (John 1). And that voice crying now does so from the wilderness of secular celebrations, the decorating, the gift buying, the cookie baking, a secular world awash in icons that are safe and non-demanding, the adorable snowmen, the smiling angels, the kneeling Santas. It is a voice that asks each of us individually and asks us as a church to prepare for the coming of Christ.

How are we do do that? What does John say?

John told those who came out into the wilderness just north of the Dead Sea to "repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 3:2) People heard his passion voice and they examined their lives. The poor and rich, the politically powerful and rejected stepped into the waters of the river and made their intentions known. They would turn back to God and follow God's laws. Baptism was a sign of their repentance and John gave it for the forgiveness of their sins. The past was washed away and their vow was to start life anew. He promised them that when the Messiah came, he would baptize them also, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

But John did not stop there. It was not enough to repent, to find forgiveness. The next step was to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." (Matthew 3:8) In the gospel according to Luke, the gospel writer gave examples of what that fruit might be. He told the people, "If you have two coats, share with those who have none. Do the same with food." To the tax collectors he said, "Don't steal money." To the soldiers, "Don't let your greed lead to extortion." (Luke 3: 10-14)

Now at the suggestion of remembering John the Baptist during Advent, let alone putting a figure of him out on the coffee table with the pine boughs and scented candles, people would, at this point, say, "No way!" Christmas is about joy, peace on earth, good will. It is not about fiery predictions of repentance and turning from destructive ways. It is not about self-examination to find whether we are bearing fruit. And it is certainly not about Jesus as a man, being baptized, because we all know where that leads. He will be crucified. In fact, babies in arms are a far more pleasing picture of God in our midst than a radical in the rivers and a son sacrificed on cross (Molldrem, p. 43).

And yet, that is exactly what Advent and Christmas are all about. The kingdom of heaven has come near in the Son Jesus Christ. He has walked this earth, and he has called for belief and discipleship. He has given his life in infinite love. If we cannot remain centered on Christ now, what will become of our Christmas season? It will become nothing but a marathon of activity in the name of playing out joy, with the finish line of January 1.

Jesus has called us to turn toward God for forgiveness and restoration to a right relationship with God, death to the old life, taking on the new. And that repentance and forgiveness is evident in what we do, in our acts of devotion, service, generosity and love for one another. It is evident in our abiding hope and joy. That is Christmas.

John is not a character who should elicit in us fear or dread. His pronouncement is one of terrific hope. Luke writes that John proclaimed the good news to the people. (Luke 3:18)

"Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:5-6) The radical changes on the landscape are so, not because they are a new creation, but because they take what is and bring about the opposite. Just as a valley may be filled or a mountain leveled, God takes the reality of sin and transforms it into the opportunity for forgiveness, the reality of death and calls forth life, the reality of despair and reshapes hope in the human heart. (Molldrem, p. 43)

Two thousand years ago a voice cried out from the wilderness, "Prepare the way for the Lord." Can you hear the voice? It's calling to each of us through the wilderness, through the winter days, through this holiday season, "Prepare the way for the Lord." You don't need a Santa suit to kneel before the king of kings. Do so and find forgiveness, hope in Jesus and joy.

Craddock, Fred. Preaching Through the Christian Year: C. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994. Molldrem, Mark J. "Hearing the Message," pp. 42-46. Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 30, No. 4, Nov.-Dec. 20