Don’t you just love it? Here’s good old John the Baptist again, yelling about some fellow who will be coming after him with more to offer than John has to give. For someone who has, in his own words, less power, less meaning, less impact on the coming of God’s kingdom than Jesus, John sure does show up a lot. Advent and again in Lent, he seems to be a bit more important than he liked to admit.
And his beginning most definitely holds a significant role in the Christmas story. Born to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin John enters the story of Christ’s life while still in Elizabeth’s womb. As his mother greets the very young Mary, John cushioned by the protective waters within his mother’s womb will leap with joy startling his mother Elizabeth to smile as she feels the stirring of her yet unborn child. Years later, we read that John, cushioned this time by the River Jordan’s water, will rise up with joy once again as Jesus approaches to accept baptism from his cousin John at the river’s edge.
But that moment hasn’t quite yet arrived. John prophesizes the expected coming of the one who will issue in “the salvation of God.” He calls for repentance so that those who will receive God’s hope and life will be forgiven their sin. This beautiful litany is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible and musicians and artists have tried to capture its significance in word, tune and image. But how do we receive these words this morning? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness… Prepare the way of the Lord.”
I listen to a lot of National Public Radio. So it was easy to come up with the title of today’s sermon. I just based it on one of the shows featured on NPR with the same name. “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” is a show hosted by the well-known playwright and actor, Peter Segal. Segal leads a panel of equally famous personalities in a question/answer format designed to elicit laughs from the audience and there is also a call in contestant who gets to answer a few questions for the glorious prize of having Carl Kasell record his voice on the winning contestant’s answering machine or voice mail with a greeting. Each show ends with the celebrity panelists offering a possible news headline either stating a present reality or predicting some future event. The predictions are usually outrageous and totally unbelievable to any who might be tuning into the show.
Well, it might have seemed a bit outrageous and somewhat totally unbelievable to those who gathered at the river’s edge to hear the call for repentance of sins and to hear also, the promise of God’s salvation. We know that God’s salvation had been predicted, a savior, a Messiah prophesized over centuries of persecutions, disappointment and pain. The nation of Israel had waited for the coming of this Messiah through David and Solomon, through the prophetic times of Ezra, Isaiah, Amos, Joel, Hosea, Ezekiel and endless other bearers of God’s prophetic hope yet centuries had come and gone and none were able to produce a shred of evidence that the hope for a savior was among them. Now, here was John, following the long, long tradition of all these prophets and speaking as though the moment had come, was here, the Messiah was among them. Could they, should they believe it? And were they prepared in their hearts to receive this coming Savior?
John wanted it to be so. He stood knee deep in the Jordan calling to the gathered crowds to receive the good news, calling for the people to repent, the nation to repent so that their preparation of heart, mind, body and spirit would be inviting to a different kind of life, a life filled with meaning and purpose. It was old message from a new voice. This voice was speaking with a surer knowledge than those who had come before him. He knew the Christ while still in his mother’s womb and in that very moment, God’s purpose for John’s life…to prepare the way of the One who would come with power and authority, who would bring peace and healing, hope and promise…God’s purpose would become John’s life mission. He called then for change, for a turnaround in people’s lives and in a “down-through-the-ages, in a scripture-still-speaks way,” John is calling us to make a change too. We are being invited to step into the waters of our own river Jordans to receive the healing, anointing waters of forgiveness, to repent as individuals, as a nation, and as a world – to wait upon the Lord for God’s hope and promise for our lives so that we might also be made whole.
Stephen Vincent Benét once wrote a Christmas play in which the wife of the innkeeper, a small part indeed, has a wonderfully memorable line. As she witnesses to the wonder of the strange events that took place on that holy night when Christ was born, the innkeeper’s wife realizes that something of tremendous import has happened and it happened right there in her husband’s barn. And so she declares:
‘Rise up! The loves we had were not enough.
Something is loosed to change the shaken world,
And with it we must change!’
That’s the message of John the Baptist: something’s happened, and we must change.
So in this season of preparation, we rise up to embrace the hope of new life in the love of God for God’s people. In the words of Isaiah, yet another prophet, “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”  Amen.