I was thinking back to my days in grad school. I was remembering one afternoon when there was this man on campus. He was in his mid-thirties and dressed in jeans. He referred to himself as “Brother Jim.” Now the thing that made Brother Jim so memorable was not what he was wearing, it was what he was doing. He was standing near the Student Union on campus telling all of the people that they were “Damned to hell!” Now remember, this was the early 1990’s in the middle of Iowa, we didn’t see this kind of thing very often! Brother Jim was telling people that frats and sororities were nothing but “Hotbeds of fornication!” and he was telling people that listening to rock-and-roll music was to be “Brainwashed by the devil!” And best of all is he kept telling people that wearing shorts was a heinous sin and would cause you to burn in hell.
Needless to say, Brother Jim had quite a crowd of people surrounding him. Most of the people that surrounded him were there to heckle the guy. People were opening their Bibles and quoting scripture back to Jim in an attempt to refute his arguments. Some people were just taunting him to see if they could get a rise out of him. The Abnormal Psychology class decided to have an impromptu field trip o watch not only Brother Jim but also the people in the crowd.
Finally, the security people came and escorted Brother Jim off campus. When Brother Jim complained that he had every right to be on campus as this was a public university, the security people agreed. However, the security people also told Jim that they would not be responsible for his safety if he chose to stay on campus. With these words, Brother Jim decided to leave.
Now Brother Jim didn’t call those of us standing there a “brood of vipers,” but he could have. He wasn’t baptizing, but he was calling us to repent. He wasn’t wearing camel hair and eating locusts, but he was certainly drawing a crowd. And the people came out; some of them, myself included, came out just to get a look at this “nut.” But by the time security finally lead him away, a very large crowd had gathered.
This is probably the closest I have ever come to a situation similar to that of today’s gospel.
When I read today’s gospel, my first thought was, “Oh, John the Baptist. Prepare the way of the Lord. Yadda, yadda, yadda.” I thought that this should not a hard one. John was right, we should turn our lives around. I thought that yes, we should live our lives to the glory of God. I mean, really, this is pretty old hat, isn’t it?
As I have said before, this is one of the dangers of living in our time: The readings from the Bible just become often told stories. These stories lose the immediacy that they had when the events originally happened. For many of us, we have heard the story of John the Baptist so many times that we forget that he was a radical in the community. He had crowds surrounding him not because they wanted to hear what he had to say but because they thought he was a kook!
The people of biblical times were a people in search of meaning. They were looking for a person to come and save them from their problems. They were looking for a warrior king to come in and save them from the harsh government. As such, one group of people would follow just about anyone with a new teaching while the rest of the people would stand around and heckle the teacher. I guess when you don’t have TV; just about anything will count as entertainment! Well, most of the people in the crowd surrounding John were of the same mind as those surrounding Brother Jim on campus; most just wanted to see the show. Similar to the people in the crowd on campus wanting to tell the “nut” he was wrong, the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to listen to the “kook in the desert” and to tell him how his preaching was wrong.
The question I have, though, is; why do so many people want to tell these “kooks” they are wrong? If these people really are not in touch with reality, why do we pay any attention to them? If these people are not in touch with reality, why do they make us so angry with their words?
I think we listen to these people and get angry with these people because they speak a truth to us. Within their ranting and ravings, there is a word of truth that convicts us. When John yells at us from the desert, we know that despite all of the hype, somewhere in his words, he is speaking a truth we need to hear. But I’ll tell you, I may need to hear the words but I don’t want to hear them! When the man was ranting on campus, some of what he said I believe was wrong. I don’t think wearing shorts is a sin, but I do think there were things that he was saying that we did need to hear. I think Brother Jim was calling us to look at our life anew just as John was calling the people of the Biblical time to reexamine their lives.
Now, believe it or not, these people, calling to us from the wilderness, are trying to make our lives better. They are trying to show us a way of living that will bring us peace and joy not strife and contention. They are trying to show us a new way of living that they believe is pleasing to God. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing, does it? But if it is not a bad thing, then why do we resist?
I think we resist because in the words of these people shouting in the wilderness, we are not hearing the word of God! We resist the words of John and of Brother Jim because these are not the words of God. It may sound odd to say, but the words these men speak are not the words of a Savior! These men in the wilderness come close to speaking the words of a Savior, but they miss the mark.
As I said, both John and Brother Jim are trying to show us a way to live our lives that is better and more fulfilling that the way we had been living; the problem is that this way of life is more difficult. Actually it is even more than that, what John and Brother Jim are asking is downright impossible! I think we resist the message because we are left in a corner: We cannot always live the upright, upstanding life; but if we don’t live an upstanding life, then we will burn in Hell! So we resist the message because it convicts us without giving us a way to redeem ourselves.
This is the way of the world. The world tells us that it is all up to us. The world tells us that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. The world tells us that we are totally responsible for our lives. This is the way of the law. The law tells us what we do wrong. The law points out what we need to fix in our lives. This is not bad, but this is not what we are waiting for in advent. We are not waiting for someone to yell at us and tell us that we are vipers.
What we are waiting for in Advent is the one to come who will change us and will change the world. We are waiting for the one who promises us a future of hope and discovery, not just one of judgment and punishment. We are waiting for the Savior.
Jesus is the one we are waiting for. He is the one who gives us love, power, and forgiveness. Jesus gives us more than just the option of “turn or burn.” Jesus gives us a reason to listen to John and to Brother Jim and gives us a reason to heed their words.
You see, the words of the Baptist are a call to wake up and experience life anew. We are to listen and respond. But our salvation does not depend on response. Our salvation does not depend on us. If it depended on us, we could never make it. But it doesn’t, it all depends on the great gift given to us in Christ. Christ didn’t die so that we could “earn” our salvation, Christ died so that we could receive the gift of salvation, a freely given gift. Christ died so that we could have a full life. Christ died so that even if we don’t change and get it all right, we still have love and forgiveness.
This is the freedom of the gospel. John and Brother Jim tell us that it is all up to us. John and Brother Jim tell us that we need to change or we are damned. John and Brother Jim tell us that we need to repent or we are lost. But Jesus tells us that we are saved. Jesus tells us that we are loved and forgiven. Jesus tells us that we are free to live a life of service because we have been given the ultimate Christmas gift. This is the gospel and this is the gift of Christmas. As we look to the birth of Christ, let us also remember the great gift that we have been given.