No truer words have ever been spoken.
We have failed to protect our children by allowing gun violence in our country to become routine. We have failed; and for that we must repent.
If you follow the Sunday lectionary for Episcopal churches, you’ll know that John the Baptist makes an appearance every year in Advent. He is in fact one of the key players in the Advent and Christmas stories, right alongside Mary, Joseph and Jesus himself, and his message is a call to repentance.
John’s conception, like Jesus’, was miraculous. When John’s father, Zechariah, a priest, was chosen to go into the temple at Jerusalem to burn incense, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers for a child had been answered, and his wife, though barren, would bear a son. The angel also told him that John would be filled with the Spirit of God, and that he would be the one who would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah (Lk. 1:5-25).
In the Gospel reading for this morning, we read of John making his first public appearance, traveling in the region around the Jordan and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He is referred to as the voice calling in the wilderness to all people to prepare the way for the Lord: to make the crooked roads straight, the rough ways smooth, to fill in the valleys and to level the mountains and hills, so that all people would see God’s salvation in the world.
When Hollywood depicts John, he is usually wearing the fur of a wild animal. His feet are calloused and filthy, his wild hair is long and ratted. He’s pacing in the desert heat, with honey dripping off his scraggy beard, and a distant, possibly crazed, look in his eye, as though at any moment he might lunge forward and begin to spout off whatever choice words come into his head.
The Roman historian, Josephus, says that crowds of thousands were known to follow him (Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, 18.118). His sermons were doused with fire and brimstone. He had a propensity for name-calling - “You brood of vipers” was a favorite - and, every year, he makes an appearance in the lectionary, ringing down destruction and confronting and condemning the powerful of his time. His fate was that of most prophets; he was imprisoned and endured a violent death by beheading (Kamel, 47).
Over the centuries, the church has sold John short by telling us that his only relevance was to point to Jesus. But his message - powerful enough to attract great crowds, and provocative enough to get him executed - had to have been more important than simply pointing to the next guy. John has something to say, and we’d be wise to listen.
Now, no one necessarily wants to be chastised by John, especially this time of year when our hearts are full of good cheer, Christmas music, holiday to-do lists, and pats on the back for doing our annual good deed to help those less fortunate than us.
Yet the lectionary gives us John every year, and his challenging words from the wilderness remind us that there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without facing, and honestly and critically evaluating, the good, the bad and the ugly - in ourselves, our relationships with others, our corporate structures, our national politics, and our world (Beach-Verhey, 49).
The only way, John says, to prepare to receive the Messiah is to repent and change our ways.
But what kind of repentance does John call us to? That is a good question. In the verses that follow the ones we heard this morning, we discover that John has something very specific to say: You who have two coats, give one away to someone who has none. You who have two loaves of bread, do likewise (Luke 3:11).
At the time, the Jews were living under a rule characterized by violence, greed, exploitation and cruelty, and they were ripe for change. They longed for God once again to deliver them and set them free from the yoke of oppression and fear (Kamel, 47).
And, it is into this historical setting that God speaks. And, God doesn’t speak to those in power. Rather, as one theologian notes, “the cosmic target for nothing short of the Word of the Lord is the most unlikely, unsavory, off-putting, itinerant preacher named John. God speaks to - and through - this nobody named John in that no-place called the wilderness” (Kamel, 47).
John’s message is clear, simple and economic: Repent of your greed and indifference to suffering. Take care of the poor. Have mercy on the most vulnerable:
Have mercy on the homeless living on the streets in downtown San Diego.
Have mercy on those so desperate to escape the horror of their lives that they risk everything to make the 2,700 mile journey from San Salvador to Tijuana.
Have mercy on the families of Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15-years-old, and Dominic Blackwell, 14-years-old, both gunned down shortly after their parents dropped them off at Saugus High School.
And what about the lives entrusted to our own care - the students whom we see and teach every day here on our campus? What words of grace and hope and love can we speak into their lives?
Who among us will remind them that this - this grade, this class, this acceptance letter - does not determine their self-worth or define the rest of their lives?
Who will remind them that they are good enough?
Who will remind them that they were created in the image of God, unique and beautiful in every way?
Who among us is ready and willing to become the cosmic target for nothing short of the Word of the Lord in their lives?
And what about yourself? What words of grace and hope and love do you need to hear today? What parts of your life feel broken, empty, hurting? How can you pause, rest and be still enough so that you can hear the quiet whisper of God’s blessing in your life?
God looks to ordinary people living ordinary lives to speak God’s truth into a world filled with pain and hurt. God speaks to and through the least likely characters - John the Baptist, you and I. God speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts.
When we humble ourselves enough to get outside of ourselves and listen to the spoken and unspoken cries for help around us; when we slow down enough to listen for the still, small voice of God in our lives, we say yes to the cosmic forces of grace and hope and love. It is then that we begin to make the crooked places straight and the rough ways smooth.
And, you never know just when, and in what circumstances, God will call upon you to be God’s Advent hope in this despairing world.
The former Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Ed Bacon, lost his cousin, Shannon Johnson in the mass shooting in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015 that left 14 dead and 22 injured. Shannon was only 45 years old the day he died. He was a native of Macon, Georgia, former high school athlete, 18 wheeler truck driver, and an environmental health specialist for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department.
He was an ordinary guy living what appeared to be an ordinary life, and he sacrificed his life in an extraordinary way - using his own body to shield a coworker from the onslaught of bullets. The woman whose life he saved wrote this:
“This is Shannon Johnson. Wednesday morning at 10:55 am we were seated next to each other at a table, joking about how we thought the large clock on the wall might be broken because time seemed to be moving so slowly. I would have never guessed that only 5 minutes later, we would be huddled next to each other under that same table, using a fallen chair as a shield from over 60 rounds of bullets being fired across the room.
“While I cannot recall every single second that played out that morning, I will always remember his left arm wrapped around me, holding me as close as possible next to him behind that chair. And amidst all the chaos, I’ll always remember him saying these three words, ‘I got you.’ I believe I am still here today because of this amazing man” (LA Times).
Hope comes at the least expected time, in the least likely circumstances, through ordinary people like you and me. Hope comes in three words: “I got you.”
The cosmic target for nothing short of the Word of the Lord on December 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, California, was an ordinary man named Shannon Johnson who chose to stand on the side of light.
“What kind of world is this?”
“I got you.”