Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent Two: Making Room in the Nativity Set

During Advent, we are a contrary people, reading and preaching from texts about John the Baptist, all grizzled and not terribly "ready for his close-up".   The Christ child is still yet to be born, and we have to hear a message most contrary from the prophet bellowing waist deep in the river Jordan.

As it is today, so it was back in the day:  Such polemical preaching is not usually paid much attention, yet John attracts many to his side and who follow him into the waters.  He spoke a word that was aware of the failings of Temple and Empire, a word that countered the many other voices seeking the soul of the people.  Just as God’s prophets spoke in times past, John’s ministry was not one readily welcomed (see next week’s lections), yet in the midst of his fire and his contrary ways, the people heard him gladly.
            Yet for all of his speechifying, John the Baptist pointed not to himself but to one yet to come.  For all his power, John spoke humbly. John knew that his place was first, yet he was never to be foremost.  When Jesus appears on the scene, ready for baptism, John the fierce voice in the wilderness begins to step away from the spotlight, leaving it for the one he knows to be greater.

            This is the time of year (unless you snuck it in right after waking up from your turkey-induced coma last weekend) we start getting out the Advent sets for our mantles (and in some places, front lawns).  One of the stories I tell about Nativity sets is about the Nativity set with a piece that I believe is missing.  Every Advent, as we put together a Nativity set, I catch myself musing about what type of figurine John the Baptist would make in the Nativity set.  He is very much part of the Advent texts, yet he does not fit into the traditional (and nowadays mass marketed) image of the Nativity, with its shepherds, magi, and Holy Families.
            To me, I imagine John, peeking around the corner of the manger scene, his shaggy head of hair looking out of place with the well dressed magi and beautifully garbed angel.  Perhaps late at night after the lights are off and the household is asleep, John comes to life and slinks his way past all of the “pretty” figurines to the cradle.  Looking around him, John frowns a bit and fiddles a bit with the manger crib’s placement.  He wants to make sure that that little baby is stage center.
            John’s message might seem a street preacher’s noise, yet he sets the tone for the gospel about to unfold.  He is the forerunner, and now shall come the one who will lead, though not in the most anticipated of ways.  His message signals what shall come to pass:  when the promised one arrives, it will be as the prophets of old predicted.  The good grain and the chaff will be separated, just as Jesus will later say in Matthew’s gospel that the sheep will be separated from the goats.  Those who lived a life that is just and good shall receive due honor and welcome.  Those who do not, as John claims, bear fruit worthy of repentance, shall see the consequence of living life by poor or prideful choices.  The axe and the winnowing hook shall come, taking away the unfruitful, yet through this tending and cultivating, those who live with upright ways shall be allowed to blossom and flourish.

              During the time of Advent, we use a lot of purple.  It is not the marketer’s choice for the “holiday” season, with the palette staying primarily in reds and greens.  In the liturgical development of Christianity, purple is the color used for penitential seasons, when it is a time to reflect upon your life before God and admit those things on your heart and in your life that need examination and confession.  More readily, we associate the purple colors with Lent, a season known for its downward movement as the Church moves into a season to prepare for Easter with appropriate humility.
               Purple during Advent runs counter-point to the cultural “Christmas” season where the story of Jesus is overlooked in favor of more marketable narratives of elves, jolly snowmen, and sleigh bells.  Yet, here is the purple of Advent, a subtle challenge to those who come to the four Sundays of Advent rather than just for Christmas Eve.  It is a time to gather together as a community of people who rehearse the patterns of the story called “gospel”, and let the provocative and contrary words of Jesus work their way down into our hearts.
              The word that came from John was best heard when his listeners chose to step away from the familiar or those things that distract or seduce us away from life with God.  The Baptist beckons to us, asking us to come and join him on a journey less hyped, on the road less taken.  Getting on the right pathways is difficult, yet it is a journey we must undertake, if we are to follow the way from Bethlehem to Calvary, from life’s fullness to death’s silence, from death’s word to resurrection’s final word.


  1. John "the Baptist" was still John "the Baby"--about 6 months old at the time of the birth of his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. I preached a sermon some years ago about there being no JTB in any nativity scene I ever saw, and yet he appears regularly in Advent. But now I own a nativity with an infant John the Baptist strapped onto the back of Elizabeth his mother.