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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Advent 3 – Year B

Some of you have heard me talk about the time the President came to visit my home parish – Christ Church in Alexandria. I was a teenager and Jimmy Carter was in the White House. It was supposed to be a special service and the rector asked if I would be the crucifer that day. I will never forget arriving at the church early, wanting to make sure that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do for the service. There were Secret Service Agents everywhere – the church yard, the parish house, the Sunday School building, I even saw one coming down the rickety old steps from the steeple. They were part of the President’s advance team checking out everything before the President’s arrival.
After watching them for a while, I made my way into the sacristy where the acolyte robes were kept. The Altar Guild ladies were busy arranging flowers and setting out the linen and silver. Standing in the back of the sacristy was another member of the President’s advance team but one unlike any of the others. This agent wasn’t some guy in a blue suit with dark sunglasses but a stunning young woman in her late twenties. I was a sixteen-year-old teenage boy – let’s just say she had my full attention. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Not only was she gorgeous but she was also very kind and friendly. We started to talk while I was putting on my robes and after a few minutes I completely forgot that she was a Secret Service Agent working on a presidential advance team and tasked with doing whatever it took to protect the President’s life. I forgot, that is, until the point in the middle of our conversation when she put her hands on her hips and I could clearly see the submachine gun hidden under her jacket strapped to her side. In that split second I realized this beautiful young woman shouldn’t be underestimated. If necessary, she could be quite dangerous and she was there on serious business in advance of her commander in chief.
During this season of Advent, we can think of John the Baptist as Jesus’ advance team. He comes to us every year, ahead of our Lord’s birth, and exhorts us to prepare ourselves for the arrival of our savior. And although we talk about John as the wild looking prophet who wears camel’s hair and eats locusts for dinner, I think we often underestimate John and the savior he heralds. We take him and his message for granted. We’ve heard it all before. But, make no mistake about it, both John and Jesus are potentially dangerous, and both have come on serious business.
One of my favorite comic strips has always been Calvin and Hobbes. They haven’t been in the newspapers for years and I miss that little miscreant and his stuffed tiger. I have all their books. In one of my favorite strips, Calvin is talking to Susie (remember Susie, Calvin’s arch enemy) about a test they had just taken at school and Calvin asks her: “What grade did you get?” Susie says, “I got an A.” Calvin replies, “Really? Boy, I’d hate to be you. I got a C.” Curious, Susie asks, “Why on earth would you rather get a C than an A?!” Too which Calvin smugly replies, “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone’s expectations.”
Sometimes I think there are people who believe that the message of John the Baptist, “to prepare the way of the Lord,” and even the birth of Jesus himself, are easier to take if we lower our expectations – if we keep John at a distance and if we keep Jesus cuddly and tiny and lying in a manger. John isn’t so scary, his message isn’t so tough, and the savior he proclaims seems far less intimidating if we only think of Jesus as the Christmas Eve baby lying amidst the straw in a Bethlehem barn. After all, what could be less threatening, less scary than a newborn babe? But what John knows and heralds, and what we should never underestimate, is that this newborn babe grows up. And the man he becomes demands and expects quite a lot from you and me.
In his gospel, Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan and after his forty days alone in the wilderness, Jesus returned home to Nazareth and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. The people there know he was a rabbi and they invited him to read from the scriptures. Taking up the scrolls he unrolled them to book of the prophet Isaiah and read aloud, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” the very same passage that we read this morning. After that Jesus put the scroll away and said to everyone present, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Can’t you see, the cute cuddly Jesus who adorns our crèche sets grows up to be the savior who proclaims good news to the poor, release of the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. He comes to demand justice from individuals and nations alike. He comes to care for the downtrodden, the weak, the outcast – and he expects his followers to do the same. During his ministry he wasn’t afraid to physically cast the money changers out of the Temple or call the religious elite a hypocritical “brood of vipers.” He wasn’t afraid to proclaim that the meek, the poor, the merciful, and the peacemakers are the people blessed by God and not the rich, the powerful, and the well bred. He ate with tax collectors and harlots, and everywhere proclaimed that in the Kingdom of God the first will be last and those who have always been last will be first.
Whatever else we can say about Advent, we are not just waiting for the arrival of the cuddly baby Jesus. Rather, we are waiting for the arrival of the Messiah who proclaims that love and self-sacrifice and service to ones’ neighbor are more important than life itself. We are waiting for the arrival of a savior who not only gives up his life to die on the cross but who tells us that in order to follow him we too must pick up our crosses. Before we get too far ahead in our Christmas preparations we should be clear about exactly what kind of a savior we welcome on Christmas morning. Certainly he is all about love, forgiveness, and the everlasting presence of God’s grace. Certainly his life and death saves us from the darker parts of our selves that would surely destroy us if we were left to our own devices. But at the same time, he demands that we do more than just appreciate what he did and listen to what he said. He demands that we repent of our selfish and self-centered lives so we can act as he did and live as he said. He doesn’t come to ask for our admiration but for our undying devotion and obedience.
So when you hear John proclaim – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” you’d best pay attention to this member of the advance team. Prepare yourself not only to welcome the Christ child but prepare yourself to welcome the Savior who lays claim to your very life. Amen.

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