“I hate John the Baptizer. I love John the Baptizer”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

During Advent, we are invited to stand on a bridge of the present that spans the gap between past and future. On the one hand, we are upheld by the fulfilled promise of God, Christ’s coming to Bethlehem. On the other, we are supported by another promise of God, that He will come again. Both give strength, life and beauty to our present; neither gives way under the pressures of raging evil and moral decay all around us. It is a season of profound hope and great peace.

The hope and peace of Advent are echoed in all three of Sunday’s lessons, but one lesson introduces a character who seems out of place in any time or season. A few years back, John N. Cedarleaf wrote, “Like a skunk at a garden party, John the Baptist comes on the scene.” John has a message of hope and inspiration — the impending arrival of the kingdom of God — but he introduces it with words like, “Repent…you brood of vipers!”

John’s words are very similar to words from Isaiah. The first six chapters of Isaiah have a fire and fury that leave no one unscorched. Then, suddenly, we read a promise about the sign of Immanuel. More scorching follows, with Assyria being identified as the Lord’s instrument for the destruction of Judah. Another sudden interruption reveals that “those in darkness have seen a great light…for to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” That is followed by more words of God’s anger toward Israel and woe to those who make unjust laws. Then comes a promise that Assyria will eventually get theirs as well!

Finally, we reach Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, another interruption: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding.” It is a promise of a kingdom of such profound peace that wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves, lions, yearlings, cows, bears, and oxen will all dwell in harmony, “and a little child shall lead them.” Children will play with cobras and vipers. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord…the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.”

Bishop William Boyd Grove wrote in The West Virginia United Methodist, that some words deserve to interrupt all other words and conversation. They are words like: “The house is on fire!” “The war is over.” “Your hostage brother has been released!” They not only deserve to interrupt other words, they interrupt all life and activity, demanding action and response. John the Baptist has a couple of words like that in Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. One is “Repent!” The other is “After me will come One who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” The words have a propriety and order. We must respond to the first before we can respond to the second. We cannot make His paths straight while our lives are so crooked. “Repent” is the price tag and, like so many tags found by shoppers during this season, for many it is too high.

Glendon Harris also wrote about “interrupting” words: “Announce is an adrenaline flowing word. It signals important information and, therefore, triggers excitement.” The word “attention” is a preparatory word. It can begin the flow of adrenaline. We often hear: “May I have your attention, please. I have an important announcement.” John says that comprehending his important announcement takes our complete and undivided attention.

But our attention is incomplete and divided. We are so caught up in all the wrong stuff that the right stuff can’t begin to touch us. Did you hear about the people who were terribly hurt and unhappy because they missed the Christmas Eve service last year? They were stuck in traffic at a shopping mall!

We often hear today about “Back Door Losses.” It’s a contemporary catchphrase for people who drop out of churches. They do it for a variety of reasons, but there is always someone to blame — someone else. The pastor or someone else did this or that; the pastor or someone else failed to do this or that. One author borrowed some fire from Isaiah and John and wrote, “When will we stop being shocked and stymied by the discovery that people in the church, pastor and others, are sinners? When will we remember that we are the church and we are sinners? When will we repent?”

I have a hate/love relationship with John the Baptizer. I hate him — every year he comes around and reminds me of how I have failed. I have brought pain instead of healing; I have hurt instead of helped; I have been a source of conflict instead of extending the kingdom of peace. I have spoken words that I wish I could retrieve and failed to speak when it was needed. At the same time, I love John — he comes around every year and reminds me that Christ came into the world to save sinners like me. Jesus was born a tiny infant, but grew into a manhood unmatched by any before or since. He healed and helped and gave His life, rather than taking the life of any who, like me, deserved His wrath and punishment.

Jesus is the tree of life. “That tender shoot from the stump of Jesse,” wrote Leonard Sweet, “came to its fullest expression in a wondrous and terrible way — on a tree of death.” G.K. Chesterton called the cross, “that terrible tree which was the death of God and the life of man.” Feddersen’s Fables has this old story:

John stared at the fireplace, but he could feel his wife’s rising anger. She called out from the kitchen, “Why can’t you go to the Christmas service with us?”

Sinking deeper into his recliner he said, “Helen, I don’t want to argue about it. You know I believe in God, but I can’t understand this idea about God becoming a man. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t go to church and pretend.” Silence followed, until a door closed, the car started, and Helen and the kids drove away from the farm.

It was a bitterly cold night in Maine; a heavy blanket of snow covered the ground. John threw some more logs into the fireplace and became lost in thoughts about why the infinite God of the universe would ever, as Christians claim, become a human being.

Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a loud thump on the window pane. He jumped to his feet to look out into the dark night. A flock of birds had been drawn to the warm light of the house. As they fluttered in the deep snow, their wings began to be coated and to freeze. The birds looked so pitiful. John opened the door, but he knew they would be too frightened to enter. He quickly got a coat and a lantern, and headed out toward the old barn. He forced the door open against the heavy snow and spoke tenderly to the birds, “It’s not much, but it will shelter you from the snow and wind.”

When they didn’t respond, he circled behind them and tried to shoo them toward the stable, but they scattered across the barnyard, a confusion of fluttering shadows. “Come,” said John, “I’m not going to hurt you. Can’t you understand?” Then, without regard to how it might look to someone driving by on the road, he pretended to flutter his arms and stumbled through the snow toward the barn door, hoping to show them the way. Again they scattered.

His heart was growing heavy with compassion as he realized that the birds would likely freeze to death. “If only they would understand that I’m trying to help them,” he thought. “If only I could get one of them to go in. If I could be one of them and lead the way.” He looked at the frightened, dying birds and thought again, “If only I could be one of them…” Suddenly, he looked up; silently, he understood. A messenger had come to John in the night.

But the most amazing thing Christians believe is not that God became a human being. It is not even that He died on that terrible cross, transforming it forever from a symbol of cruelty into a reminder of God’s eternal love for us all. The most amazing thing is not what we believe, but what God believes. He believes that sinners like me can become messengers of the Gospel, missionaries to all people, lights in the darkness. He believes that you can . . .

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