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Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015

The only time I remember being introduced on stage is when I was class valedictorian in high school. I had on my best yellow-flowered dress that mom had made under my maroon robe and my cap and tassel rode proudly on my head. The principal said a few words about me and my academic performance and school activities and then there I was, on stage, to give a speech. I don’t remember a word of what I said, but I know I would have said something about how ready we were to go into the future and be successes.

One of the most famous introductions in the entertainment business was Ed McMahon’s introduction of Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show”. Ed would warm up the audience, and when the time came, he would say, “And here’s Johnny”. Out would come Carson, ready to give a monologue and talk to and laugh with his guests. We came to expect it. But what if we were watching the first show Johnny was ever on? There had certainly been items in the news about him, but no one knew how well he would take over from Jack Paar. It was somewhat of a mystery.

Today, we get an introduction to John the Baptist from Luke. This is the adult John, the one of the miraculous birth, the one predicted by an angel. This is the John who was sent to prepare people to receive the Lord, to give a message of hope. We know a bit about him, but let’s see what we can learn about John that brings us good news.

So here’s Johnny! Luke starts out his narrative with a whole bunch of names of who was in power at the time John preached, from the emperor to the Roman governors to the high priests – anyone who was anyone in the political and religious structure of the world at the time. And then there is John. John is nobody important in the grand scheme of the world’s definition of power. He was the son of a priest, and he lived in the wilderness. He had not done any great things that made him a hero. He had nothing to boast about, but the word of the Lord came to him. The Holy Spirit spoke to John and made him a prophet full of God’s word for the people of Israel. Luke introduces him as the Old Testament prophets were introduced, naming who was in power and naming John son of Zechariah. John is the last in the line of the Hebrew prophets, and he brings a command from God.

And here’s Johnny! John lived in the wilderness – It was hard to live in the wilderness. It was difficult to get proper food – though locusts and wild honey were apparently plentiful. It was lonely and it was scary. John had been drawn to the wilderness so he could hear God without the distractions of the world. God had used the wilderness before as a place to speak. It was there that the Israelites went to learn how to be God’s people in the world. It was in the wilderness that Elijah heard God’s voice the clearest, not in the crashing thunder or in the roaring wind, but in the still small voice that came in the sheer silence. And of course it was to the wilderness Jesus went for forty days to be tempted, but also to learn about his mission and ministry to the world and be able to hold fast to that through any evil power that assailed him. Jesus also frequently went away to lonely places to pray in Luke, for refreshment and encouragement from God.

And here’s Johnny! John came with a message: baptism for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. The Israelites were heavily oppressed and ripe for God’s redemption (Mariam J. Kamell), but prophets always come with a warning, and John was no exception. The Israelites had wandered from God again and were not following God’s laws. They were not living in a righteous manner. John preached all around the Jordan because he wanted as many people as possible to hear the message. He quoted the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. Valleys would be filled when people who were anxious and fearful repented and became ready to have God lift their burdens so they could be of service. Mountains would be made low when pride and self-centeredness was put aside and people stopped focusing on themselves and turned in service toward their neighbor. The crooked would be made straight when people ceased to behave unethically in their business dealings and their daily interactions with others, and the rough places, which were rocky and hard to get through (Wesley D. Avram), would be made smooth when people began to break down the barriers of grudges and envy and even fear that they had toward their neighbors.

And here’s Johnny too! The prophet Isaiah, even that far back, said that all flesh would see the salvation of God. That’s the Jews and the Gentiles, believers and non-believers, the despairing and the delighted. From the beginning of Luke’s gospel, he wanted everyone to know that God’s salvation was for anyone who desired it. God wanted to wrap God’s rms around the whole world and transform it into a new creation.

What can we learn from John to help us in our own Advent journey? We can learn that it is a time to repent. We say the general confession before we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, but is that enough? Can you imagine people in the river saying, “I’m sorry for all my sins, whatever I’ve done” or do you think they were more particular. Can we be more particular? Can we examine ourselves for the specific things we have done or not done, maybe write them down and offer them to God? Can we turn ourselves around and open our hearts to be ready to receive the Lord when he comes? The hope of repentance is forgiveness. If we repent we will be washed clean by God as the water symbolizes. We will be made new people. New people with the will to listen to and follow Jesus into whatever life brings, knowing Jesus will always be present.

We can learn that we may be called to do great things in our neighborhood, our community or even larger spheres. We usually don’t think we have much to offer – we are certainly not the Zuckerburgs of Facebook who just willed much of their wealth to philanthropic efforts. But John was an ordinary guy too, and he was called to great things. We can learn that in our wilderness times, which make us very uncomfortable, that God can transform us into a new people together as a church community and individually. The discomfort we feel that comes from uncertainty, fear or being in a new routine are ways God turns us to new life in Christ. Even if we are in the wilderness because of grief and pain, God can comfort and heal us. We can learn that our God is a great God – not just for us but for all the people. And God’s salvation will change us all forever.

Johnny Carson was a man of humor. Our Johnny is a man of hope who brings us knowledge of our importance in God’s sight, the transforming power of the wilderness, the repentance – even though uncomfortable – that brings forgiveness of sins to all who desire it, and the blessed truth that God is there for everyone – you and me and our enemies too.

It is our job in Advent to prepare – first with repentance, and then by living in hope of the coming of God into our lives and into the world. Here’s Johnny! Listen to what he says, believe and take action. Prepare the way of the Lord!

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:
Mariam J. Kamell, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 47
Wesley D. Avram, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol.1, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 46