So an elderly pastor was searching his closet for his collar before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and 90 $1 bills. He called his wife into the closet to ask her about the box and its contents. Embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box there for their entire 50 years of marriage. Disappointed and hurt, the pastor asked her, “WHY?” The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. He asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time during their marriage that he had delivered a poor sermon, she had placed an egg in the box. The pastor felt that 3 poor sermons in 50 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about, so he asked her what the 90 bucks was for. She replied, “Each time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them to the neighbors for $1.”
John the Baptist didn’t have a wife to tally up his preaching failures, but if history and tradition serves, she wouldn’t have had need of many eggs. The Baptist is most likely the greatest preacher who ever lived, and if he wasn’t, he was certainly the most interesting preacher ever. John was the last of the prophets, the bridge between the prophets of the Old Testament and the New; he had a lot to say, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.
I once heard it said that “most non-churchy people don’t wander into churches because they think everything is fine,” a saying I think is about 3/4 true. Some people wander into church to give thanks, which is great; but a lot of people, myself included, look to the church to name the things that nag at us, our troubles and doubts, our sins and offenses, the cruelties and injustices in our society, and then hopefully to offer a better way.
The Israel of 2000 years ago was not fine, and pretty much everybody knew it. If Roman rule wasn’t bad enough, the rule of the high-priests was there to make things worse. We worry about income disparity nowadays, and rightly so, but their gap between the privileged and the underprivileged was a yawning chasm, and way too often the privileged class was the professionally religious class.
This rankled John the Baptist. Being a prophet, God gave him some very specific things to say. John’s first task to proclaim that the Kingdom of God was coming near, near in the person of the Messiah, who turned out to be John’s cousin Jesus. But the Baptist was also charged with making ready (remember that phrase from last week) for the Messiah, getting Israel right with God and within itself, so they could receive Jesus properly.
This John did with abandon. Calling people slithering snakes, denying the priests their birthright, images of axes and fire, comparing God with a reaper. These are not the words or methods of a patient preacher, but a preacher with an urgent message. Repent! Dismantle the structures and habits that keep you in sinful privilege and that keep others heavy laden. Prepare yourselves for something different. Make ready for your God to come to you.
But from time to time the people of God fail to prepare for Christ, fail to recognize Christ when He is in our midst, and so we get a prophet, or at least a godly person, to remind us of who we are and who we serve, remind us that the Kingdom of God is near, to pave the way for Jesus. John the Baptist, sure. St. Augustine, St. Hilda. Maybe some modern examples: John Henry Newman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa.
The Church offers us a better way. She offers us a time and a place to address the things that nag at us, our troubles and doubts, our sins and offenses, the cruelties and injustices in our society. While these are among the daily operations of a Christian, none of us can live up to all of that all the time, and so we get John the Baptist as a reminder, we get the season of Advent as a setting, all to make ready for Jesus, who is the Way.