If you know much about football, you know how important the linemen are. They are the guys who line up and create a wall between the defense and the quarterback. They protect the quarterback, making sure it is not easy for the blitzers to get a sack. They stand on the line and say, “Not on my watch. If you want to get to the quarterback, you have to get by me!”
I like to think about John the Baptist as kind of an Advent lineman. Before Christmas every year, there is a rush to get to the manger. Wal-mart starts selling plastic baby Jesus figures the day after Halloween, if not before. We start hearing Christmas music on the radio way before Thanksgiving. But in our rush to get to baby Jesus, here comes John the Baptist. The Advent lineman. He stands on that line and says, “not so fast. If you want to get to baby Jesus, you have to get by me!”
Think about it. John the Baptist is not great Advent fodder. Here’s this guy who just wandered in out of the wilderness wearing dead animal skins and eating locusts and he’s railing against sin and the powers that be. He’s calling people a brood of vipers. He’s demanding that they have to change their ways. He’s talking about the ax chopping out the root and throwing it on the fire. He doesn’t really fit into our preconceptions of the holiday season, does he? How many Christmas songs are about John the Baptist? Can you imagine Bing and Rosemary sitting in their in the Christmas sweaters, crooning about John the Baptist? No, John’s theme song would have to be written by Metallica, or AC/DC. Maybe Five Finger Death Punch. Whenever we try and rush to the manger, here is the John the Advent lineman, screaming, “not on my watch!”
Shaine Claiborne echoes this sentiment as he explains about what advent really means. The word advent literally means “waiting”. But, like John, he says that this is not a passive waiting… sitting around and waiting until the sweet by and by. Advent is not meant simply for egg nog and Christmas sweaters.
Claiborne compares Advent to a woman waiting in childbirth. When a woman is waiting for a child to be born, she doesn’t just sit around passively, but waits actively. Pregnancy involves preparation, care, nutrition, exercise, prayer and work. She works to transform her whole life and the lives of those around her in the waiting.
Likewise, Claiborne tells us, we are midwives of another world. We, too, wait actively. We work, cry, pray, and ache for another world. We work for transformation in our lives and the lives of those around us. We work for justice. We work for peace. Like John, we say “not so fast. Remember that if you have two coats, share one with your neighbor who does not. If you are in a place of privilege and power, care for those who are not. If you have food, share with someone who does not.” Work for transformation. Work for justice. Work for peace.
So, the Advent lineman reminds us to wait, and wait actively. You know, part of me groans every time I see that John the Baptist is in the lectionary. Here we go again. It is hard enough to deal with all of the pressures of the Christmas season. We have to figure out who we are going to see and buy for, and we deal with this guilt of spending too much or not spending enough. I don’t know about you, but about this time of year, but there is not a lot of peace in my heart already. And then here comes John with this to-do list. “Hey there, it looks like you have two coats…BROOD OF VIPERS!” And I feel like telling John, “just leave me alone. Let me try and make it through the season in one piece.”
But, maybe, it is this reminder from John that many of us actually need. Maybe the point is that the rush to baby Jesus is part of the problem. John is saying that for us to find peace, we cannot rush to achieve it. Instead, we need to slow down and receive it. Instead of seeking more stuff, we need to give some stuff away. We need to treat people better.
The Greek word for what Luke says that John is doing here is parakalon. Sometimes translated as “exhortation,” it is a rich term. John was not just yelling at them, giving them another to-do list. He was not simply berating them or telling them what they are doing wrong. Wesley D. Avram explains that parakalon is a method meant to “summon a way of being, an integrity of action, memory, and identity that is not only compelling, but can be comforting and reassuring.” John is trying to remind us. To remake us. To reclaim us. As something other than the world around us suggests we out to be. Like the coach who makes us run laps or the violin instructor who holds our feet to the fire so that we practice, John the Advent Lineman is here to say, “not too fast.”
Because so much of that rush is not really bringing peace. It is just another distraction, this one with a fresh peppermint scent. But if we slow down. Work for justice and peace. Try and treat people as Christ would, then perhaps we might find the very peace that we seek.
We lit the candle of peace this week, but it has hardly been a week of peace. Our country was rocked again by another example of gun violence this week, this time in San Bernardino, California. Personally, I struggle with how to respond in peace. But John the Baptist insists that I try.
The editors of the New York Daily News after the California shootings took a bold stand by suggesting that there is more to do than simply wait passively. They highlighted the number of times that leaders who are Christians respond rather passively with assurances that “the victims of this mass shooting are in our thoughts and prayers.” The editors brashly led with the headline “God isn’t fixing this”. In other words, thoughts and prayers aren’t doing it. Harsh words, but perhaps not unlike John’s: “bear fruits worthy of righteousness.”. Don’t just wait for God to fix it. Do something.
If we want peace in our world, we can’t just wait passively for it to come. We must work, prepare, cry, ache, and yes pray for that world.
Personally, I feel convicted by the Daily News, by Claiborne, by John the Baptist. I feel like I am part of a silent majority. I believe that there are many of us who support the right to own a gun, many of us own guns ourselves, but we also believe in common sense gun safety and laws that enforce that safety. But we as this silent majority largely shrug our shoulders and say that there is nothing we can do. We offer platitudes, “thoughts and prayers.” Let’s just wait passively while this continues in the news week in and week out. We can offer our thoughts and prayers to victims, but perhaps it is time for us to be silent no more.
Perhaps we should heed the words of American Baptist pastor Tony Campolo, who has long suggested that it is Christians who should take the lead on gun safety regulation. He writes that it is our responsibility to limit our own freedom, for the sake of others. He uses the argument that Paul makes in Corinthians about eating food sacrificed to idols. Paul thinks it’s perfectly fine to do, but knows that if he eats this food, it will get in the way for others who disagree. For him to demand that right gets in the way for other people. So, Paul suggests that he and others should limit themselves for the sake of peace, so that the good news of the Gospel won’t be deterred. Likewise, Campolo writes, when we demand that we have the right to access arsenals of mass destruction, we become a stumbling block for others. We can support gun safety legislation, AND our right to bear arms. As Christians, he writes, we should be in the forefront of that fight to ensure the peace that Jesus came to preach.
But I shrug my shoulders like the many of us.
This is where I feel John the Baptist would point a finger at me and scream “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” As we wait for peace, we work for peace. We work to be midwives of a new world.
How are we working to bring peace and justice to our world? In the rush to sweet baby Jesus, how many people are we pushing aside to get there?
And in the end, of course, it becomes clear that John’s goal is not to keep us from getting to the manger, but merely slowing us down, trying to get us to understand its significance. In fact, by the end, we find that he is pointing to the manger all along. “One is coming who is more powerful than I; I am not worthy to untie his shoes!”
And so, with a new pace, and a new eye towards peace and justice, and love of neighbor, we turn our hearts toward the manger. Not to rush it, and seize it, and plaster it all over the place. But to humbly worship the one who lays there. Who has grown up to teach us about justice and peace. Who should be in our hearts this season and every season. Who is working with us to be midwives of a new world. “Let us go together to the manger,” John says. “For that is where we will find true peace.”