Sermon, Advent II

“Frederick Buechner once wrote that he thinks the worst mistake a novelist could ever make would be to intentionally set out to write a novel about a saint. Buechner’s point seems to have been that if you construct a saint out of whole cloth—and if that character’s being a saintly figure was what drove your every decision in fleshing the character out—then you would fail as a writer. You might describe a person whom others would recognize as saint-like, but you would at the same time construct a character who would look nothing like a real flesh-and-blood human being, the likes of whom we meet every day as we go about our lives in the real world. It’s far better to paint the portrait of a real person, warts and all, flaws and foibles and all, and see if the actions and witness of such a person can be saintly after all. Because if we meet saints in our lives at all, Buechner was essentially saying, then those saints emerge out of the fog and haze of our everyday lives as we live among people who are a lot like us in so very many respects.”

St. Luke gives us portraits that Buechner would approve of. Luke gives us the imperfect Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, who doesn’t have the good sense to shut up when an angel is standing in front of him. Luke gives us Jesus as a twelve year old boy acting like a twelve year old boy, staying behind in the Temple and freaking out His parents. He gives us that list of the infamous we just heard, the rulers of the age: Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brother Philip, Lysanias, and Annas and Caiaphas the priests, none of whom would be remembered in the least if not for their connection to Jesus. And finally Luke gives us the voice crying out in the wilderness, warts and all, the almost too real flesh-and-blood John the Baptist. Jesus called John the greatest among those born of a woman, the greatest man that ever lived; so God bless Luke, he didn’t dress up the Baptist in nice clothes, place him in a nice house, claim for him a proper wife. Nope, we get warts and all, the saint as he was, looking for all the world like a barking madman.

Much like we have with Jesus, we have calmed John the Baptist, made him more palatable, more easily boxed, contained. But at about the same time Jesus was sitting in the Temple watching His parents begin their journey back to Nazareth, His cousin John was heading out into the wilderness, into the scrubby desert badlands in the eastern part of Israel. John the Baptist never had a haircut, never shaved his beard, he ate bugs and honey and probably whatever else came fairly easily, and he dressed something like Fred Flintstone. But this disturbing figure, whom we might well label disturbed, he was filled with the Holy Spirit since before he was born; his mother Elizabeth, she who was once barren but then fruitful, must of thought God was merciful to her in only giving her one son, if all sons were like John. A flesh and blood character study of John gives us a picture of an unlikely saint, but aren’t they all.

John had a purpose from his conception, and that was to do what he did, and do it for all of about a year. Sometimes we think of John’s ministry as being somewhat long-term, as if he had been out by the River Jordan baptizing people for most of his life, hanging out and doing his thing, and then one day along came his cousin and ka-blam, ecce Agnus Dei. But in reality, John was called out of the desert not long before Jesus was identified as the One, John had been baptizing for maybe 6-9 months, maybe a year. John burned fast and bright, and paid for it with his head.

During the era of apartheid, one noted South African clergyman said of the final judgment, as we will stand before God, God will ask us, “Where are your scars?” And we will look at ourselves and then back at God and tell him, “We have no scars.” God will ask us, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?” John the Baptist had some scars; the last of his wounds would never heal, at least in this life. Fast and bright, warts and all, a flesh and blood barking saint, the greatest man that ever lived called out from the wilderness for us to make straight the way of the Lord. John was flesh and blood, a person just like you and me, so we must ask ourselves, who are the saints among us now? Who is burning fast and bright for the Lord, who makes a fool out of herself for God, who gives until it hurts and then gives some more, who don’t we understand all the time, who is it that paves the way for all around them to see Jesus? Who amongst us has some scars? Where are yours?

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