December 11, 2005
Third Sunday of Advent
"The Gift of Preparation"
(John 1:6-8, 19-28)
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
It had to be the most bizarre nativity anyone had ever seen. For a stable he had opened an old Dukes of Hazard lunch box. Half walls were built out of Legos. There was even an arched doorway. The thermos was sitting next the open lunch box like the turret of a castle. And on top of the thermos was none other than Darth Vader, arms spread out as the Angel of the Lord.
Along one side, behind the fence from his farm set, all neatly spaced and set in as reverent an attitude as he could were Frankenstein, the Wolfman and the Mummy as the Wisemen from the East. Each with a small gift box in front of them.
On the other side, behind a Lego fence with a gate, surrounded by several Furbies, beanie babies, care bear figurines and assorted other stuffed animals as the sheep and livestock were a Wookie, the Cat in the Hat, the Hulk and Batman as the shepherds.
On the lid of the lunch box sat his sister's Barbie in a classic Rapunzle outfit, as Mary. Standing behind Mary, leaning against the side of the lunch box for stability and playing Joseph was G.I Joe, in full battle gear. And the piece de resistance was Bart Simpson in a shopping cart as the Baby Jesus.
Surrounding this entire scene were California Raisins, Disney, McDonalds, Toy Story and other characters as well as all the rest of his action figures. They were either spectators or they were the Host of Heaven come to sing Hallelujah to the newborn King, I'm not sure.
It was a site to behold. Mom and Dad had to do everything in their power to keep from laughing. It was obvious by the look on the young boy's face, that he had spent hours designing and picking just the right toy for each of the characters.
Everything about the nativity was wrong or out of place. Who would have thought of Bart Simpson as the baby Jesus. And putting him in a shopping cart as a manger. But at the same time, it was almost perfect, too. Not because of the characters, but because of this boy's love for God and Jesus and Christmas that went into building the scene out of materials at hand and wanting to share it with his parents. What could be more perfect than that? Even if it did feel like drinking a dill pickle milkshake.
That's the way we feel when John the Baptist shows up in our Christmas celebration. And here he is again. Once more muddying the waters of Christmas. Listen to the Passage from John.
John 1:6-8 (NRSV)
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."
 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."
 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"
 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,
 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."
 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
There are some who call John the Baptist "the Stranger at the Manger." I think it is very appropriate for the church to remember John and even lift John because not only did John tell us about "The Gift of Comfort" which Jesus would bring. But he also brings us "The Gift of Preparation."
No matter what else John said, the most important thing he does is remind us to get ready. "Prepare the way of the Lord."
You and I prepare ourselves for all kinds of things. Surgery, a wedding, child birth, a job interview, a birthday party, dinner at a restaurant. We don't like to go unprepared. We like spontaneity, but we like to be prepared for it. God through John the Baptist helps prepare us for the birth of Christ and the celebration of Christmas.
Now the truth is, most of us are a little bit like the Scribes and Pharisees, we don't listen to the voice in the wilderness from weird uncle John. We don't want to listen to this unwanted relative at our holiday celebrations shouting about repentance, baptism and salvation. All we want to do is sing carols, shop and exchange gifts. So, most of us never make it out to hear the message because we're stuck at the mall buying into the commercialism of Christmas.
But weird Uncle John, who doesn't seem to fit into the Christmas story, is actually a gift from God. John reminds us of the important message. John is the annoying Salvation Army bell ringing constantly in our ears, reminding us to care for the least of these: the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the broken hearted, John is the burnt out bulb that makes the whole strand go out and make us hunt for the one light that will make the whole strand shine.
John is God's gift of preparation. That alarm clock voice telling us that the birth of Christ is just around the corner and if we don't quiet our spirits, focus our hearts, leave the mall and journey out to the wilderness where the manger is located, we'll miss it.
So, you see, we need John to wake us up, to get our attention and to get us ready. We need John because it's hard to see the Light of the World in the midst of all the Christmas lights and decorations.
We need John because it's hard to hear the still small voice of God in the midst of the noise of our carol singing, partying, and the constant ka-ching of the cash registers as we go shopping in the malls.
We need John to get our attention: "as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."
He very pointedly says, "I'm not the light. I'm just telling you to get ready, to open you hearts and your eyes, so when the Light does appear, you won't mistake for something else."
A. John gets our attention above the din of Christmas revelry. And reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas. The birth of this child we celebrate isn't about presents and trees and stockings and candy canes. The birth of this child is aobut finding our way back home.
On January 7, 1980, Katheleen drove her daughter, Wavie, to Citrus High School in Inverness, Florida. It was the last time she would see Wavie for a long time. When the sixteen-year-old daughter did not return from school that day, Katheleen and her husband, Jesse, sought help from the police, the FBI, the governor, and even from national TV networks.
Jesse and Katheleen, working people, were not about to give up. They printed thousands of fliers and delivered stacks of bulletins to truck stops across Florida and Georgia. Thousands of people responded. Some said they saw her. Exhausting many of their resources, they never gave up. On Tuesday, June 29, 1982, they received a call that located Wavie in Twin Cities, Georgia. By six o'clock the next morning, Wavie's parents were in the tiny Georgia town, overjoyed at finding their daughter.
Later, Wavie told her story. She really had not intended to run away from home. But on that January day, friendly strangers had offered her a ride to a nearby truck stop, and then on to Georgia. The farther she got away from home, the more frightened she was of being punished for leaving. Each hour away from home made it harder to return. She feared the reunion.
Dozens of times she had dialed her parent's phone number, but hung up in panic before they answered. She had written hundreds of letters to her parents, but never mailed them. She was afraid of returning home at the very same time her parents were exhausting every single one of their resources to find her. (1)
The Good News of Christmas, the Good News John is shouting out there in the wilderness is that God hasn't given up the search for us. Into the world of darkness, where we never intended to run away. Into this world of darkness where we find ourselves too frightened to call home. Into this world of darkness, the Light of all Life Himself came to lead us back home.
B. There's an old story about a particular man named Uncle Ab. The entire community was trying to convert old Uncle Ab. One day a longtime friend tackled the problem. "Ab," he questioned. "Don't it soften your heart to know the Lord loves you?"
"Do you aim to tell me," Uncle Ab scoffed, "that the Lord loves me when he ain't ever knowed me?"
The old friend thought for a minute, then said sadly, "Ab, it's a heap easier for the Lord to love you without knowin' you than if He ever knowed you like I do." (2)
That's is the amazing thing. God knows us and yet God sees so much potential in us that God sent us the greatest gift possible. We don't need to stay away. And don't need to stay the way we are, no matter how we got into the wilderness. The Good News is that God came looking for us Himself.
God put on the flesh and blood of our existence. God wrapped Himself in the rags of our humanity, stepped out of heaven and walked where we walk. God came looking for us, Himself, to show us the way back home.
And that's all John wants us to hear.
The old George Burns-Gracie Allen radio show once had a comedy routine in which Gracie, who played a scatterbrained wife, called in a repairman to fix her electric clock. The repairman fiddled with it for a while and then told her, "Lady, there's nothing wrong with this clock; you just didn't have it plugged in." To which Gracie replied, "I don't want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is."
Harold Vivian took the opposite tack. Harold was a radio engineer in England. Some time ago, when King George was delivering a speech that was being broadcast around the world by radio, someone in the studio tripped over one of the main wires, accidentally unplugging it and knocking the king off the air.
When Harold Vivian saw what happened, he quickly sprang into action. He grabbed the wires that had come apart in his hands and used his body as a splice. Then he held on for twenty minutes until the King's speech was finished. Author Gary Lee Baldwin describes Harold's actions this way, "He literally presented his body as a living sacrifice so that the King's message might get through."
That's precisely what John the Baptist did. John the Baptist might seem as much out of place as Wookies, Darth Vader and Frankenstein in the Nativity. But his heart is in the right place. His love for God and his love for Jesus need to be shared above the noise of our celebrations so we don't miss the most critical message of all and forget to open The Gift of Preparation which John brings.
The mall and Christmas shopping may seem like the wilderness to you, but the real wilderness is standing at the manger, in awe and wonder with John, the Shepherds, the Wise Men and all the other pilgrims of this Christmas journey.
1. Gary Turbak, "Return of a Runaway Child," READER'S DIGEST, November, 1982, pp. 97-102
2. "The Speaker's Digest," Quote, April 1995, p. 112.
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