Today - the second Sunday in Advent - traditionally honors John the Baptist, the prophet who came in from the wilderness to herald the coming of messiah, and to call the people to repentance.
But before he could accomplish that, he had to get their attention…and it couldn’t have been an easy task. The promised land was a hot mess in those days. The country was ruled by a corrupt king, who in turn bowed to the Romans, who were often cruel and violent. And the religious community was divided into parties that could find little common ground. But they could all agree on one thing: The Romans needed to go, and the country needed a Messiah king to make them go. And they looked for the sign that Messiah was arriving, the reappearance of a prophet who had been assumed into the heavens a thousand years before them
There were a lot of voices vying for attention in those days; many who claimed to be Messiah, so John needed something extra to catch the peoples’ attention…something to set his message apart. And he had something extra…John had fire in him.
I think the fieriest image I have of John the Baptist comes from – of all things – a television mini-series from the late 1970’s called Jesus of Nazareth. The series was well done with an impressive cast, including Michael York as John. He played an anguished and angry prophet, grieving over the spiritual state of God’s people, wearing sackcloth, fitfully writhing in the dust…spitting, sputtering and yelling about a better version of Abraham’s children that could be raised up from among the stones. It was a vivid performance, but maybe it rang true.
In the gospels, John, with his rough clothes, strange diet, and fiery disposition, was meant to bring to mind the image of Elijah the Tishbite, the powerful Old Testament Prophet who was expected. And this unmistakable image served at least two purposes: First, it reminded the early church that the coming of Jesus was a fulfillment of what God had been promising through the prophets for centuries.
And second, John served as a sort of bridge in salvation history between the law and prophets on one side, and grace on the other. Not separate entities, but forever connected…one covenant unerringly leading to another.
John had a fire in him, and it was needed to stir things up…to prepare the way for the messiah who was coming to them. John, with all his fire, was truly needed in that place, and in that time. But what about now…or in the future? It’s one of the traditions of Advent that we anticipate not only the first, but also the second coming of Christ. And the gospel readings for the past month have urged preparation for the return of the messiah. So, do we need another John the Baptist? Or would someone with that kind of fire just make us feel uncomfortable?
The first year Star and I lived in Connecticut, we took our daughters down to New York for a day of sightseeing and window shopping. We rode the Metro North into Grand Central, and then took the subways everywhere. During one of the subway rides, just as we left the stop, a young man with a very large Bible stood up to announce that he wasn’t there to ask for money, and instead sought our attention as he launched into a fiery prophetic announcement concerning the imminent fate of New York City.
According to the subway prophet, the entire city would soon go up in flames. Possibly that very day… and the skyscrapers would come down into the dust and not one brick would be left upon another. And anyone who survived would regret surviving.
And bodies would be stacked like cordwood, and there would be disease, vermin and bad water…yadda, yadda, yadda.
Ann – a cradle Episcopalian - was 10 or 11 then, and had never heard such. The subway prophet frightened her, and she huddled up against me. Not afraid of Armageddon, but of the subway prophet; she’d never seen anything like him in Glasgow, Kentucky.
With a few exceptions, fiery prophets are generally a thing of the past. Can you imagine someone like John showing up at annual council, or better yet, at the general convention, demanding repentance and conservative religious reform…?
We wouldn’t do well with fiery prophecy, but still, every year we remember John the Baptist, and celebrate him as the herald of the messiah. And John had a fire in him. Maybe what we need is someone with a quiet fire in them.
Have you ever known someone with a quiet fire of faith in them…?
Someone who didn’t make a lot of noise about it, but still kept the quiet fire of faith in them burning, and expressed it humbly by loving God and neighbor? Maybe it was a quiet fire that led them to be constantly of service to others, in spite of the demands it placed on them… a Sunday school teacher from many years ago, or a youth worker, or a pastor. Maybe it was someone who seemed to always go out of their way to welcome, or to comfort, or to call, or to pray, or a hundred other little ways of expressing the quiet fire of charity that burned in them.
I think all of us - to some extent– have a fire of faith inside, even if it seems like it’s been a while since it burned. But all of us are called to show the Messiah to the people around us. And we do so through acts of charity, and encouragement, and prayer, and worship, and hospitality, and service and selflessness…acts of discipleship energized by the quiet fires of faith.
And there are millions of quiet fires of faith burning across the creation, lighting the way to grace, declaring that Christ is Lord, and that he will come again. And these are the modern day John the Baptists, called to point others toward Christ.
John came in camel’s hair and leather, shouting, cajoling, condemning. I don’t think we are called to the same extreme. But I think we are called.We’re called to let others witness our faith as we go about living in the world around us, showing the reality of Christ through acts of quiet, everyday charity and love, worship and fellowship, friendship and hospitality, and prayer…all ordinary acts of grace.
There’s no big secret to it. No extreme demand that can’t be met…no need for extraordinary powers, raging fires inside, or monk-like austerity…just ordinary acts of kind grace. For it is through those ordinary acts of kind grace, fueled by those millions of quiet fires of faith, that - like John the Baptist - we herald a savior… who has come, and will come again, and who is with us still, even until the end of the ages.