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December 4th 2022

SERMON: by Rev Joel Crouse

One of the most memorable experiences on my trip to the Holy Land, was seeing where John the Baptist spent most of his years living. He wasn’t from the polished stones of Jerusalem. He didn’t come from the rolling green hills filled with olive trees and rich vegetation. He came from the yellow, dusty, rock of the wilderness. There is no wind or rain or life running over the hills. There is only dry, dusty rock to crawl around. I learned a lot about who he was by standing in that still, rough wilderness. When we talk about John emerging from the wilderness, our sacred text is not overstating things. He, quite literally, came out from under a rock. But coming from the wilderness, no doubt, shaped John’s message, as surely as our own roots shape ours. He learned to live with little, among people who had little. Living a life where you are just trying to get through the day, narrows your focus. You have less time to think about how your neighbors are doing, what your neighbors are thinking, how much your neighbors are buying. You are focused on surviving. Those attitudes stuck with John: he didn’t worry about his appearance. He wasn’t sucked in by wealth. He didn’t have much time for rules or manners. And when he heard the call from God, he translated it in that context: distilled the gospel down to his core message. He was not wrapped up in the airs of his position. He did not seek to take glory from Jesus. He was immune from all the trappings of society. And he was not shy about being the angry one, so that Jesus could be the loving one. But, be careful: don’t overlook the honesty and kindness of John the Baptist because he is yelling at us. Because his manner is not gentle. Because his clothes are not stylish. Because he is just a little bit smelly. If John the Baptist forces us to listen, then we also learn a lesson – to be awake to hear the word of God, and feel God’s presence, among those who may not look the part. It is not the dirt and grime that makes John the Baptist notable; it is that he did not fit in, he did not follow the rules, he was not the message people would have expected from God. And yet the people listened to him, because amid all the shouting, even with his camel hair clothes, John the Baptist was, in his heart, a protector. He drew the people in and he promised to keep them safe. He welcomed the downtrodden, the rejected, the outcast – for he understood their plight. And when the Pharisees sought to intervene, he shouted them down, and chastised them, for placing themselves above others. And ultimately, behind all that bluster, John was a good news guy. He was an optimist. He believed that the path of God would be put straight. He placed his hope in someone he had not seen since his birth. He trusted in the strength of his own faith, in the power of his own voice. And he believed that people would listen to him. But there is one line, in John’s message to the Pharisees, that would perhaps speaks especially to us today. He tells the Pharisees, that brood of vipers: “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” John is saying quite clearly that it doesn’t matter where you came from, or what family you were raised in, or what status you claim today; God lifts everyone up. People listened to John. They gathered around him in crowds. They travelled great distances just to hear him preach. They sought to be baptized by him. He was a powerful, eloquent orator, however he might have looked. But in the end, it was because his message was one of hope, faith and grace. It was possible to get ready for a new life, John said, whoever you are. It was possible to turn around from all that stuff that was robbing you of life, and produce new fruit – to start over in this moment. It was possible to release yourself from the shackles of your past, and move forward. It didn’t matter where you were born, or whose daughter or son you were, God would accept you. Jesus would take the wheat in all of us, and leave the chaff behind. It may not sound like a radical message but let me tell you it was. In fact, I still believe it is. Ultimately, John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness to upset things, to rock people out of their perception of comfort, to shock people into action. But the reason why people responded to him, the reason why we might respond to him today, is because the core of his message was one of potential and hope. That is what we hold on to in Advent. The undying, unwavering welcome of God. The openness of faith. The path that John begins to mark out for us, leads straight to the manger, to where everyone finds a place. Behind all that bluster is a message of hope. John the Baptist knew that for us to hear it – so far from the stillness of the wilderness - he would have to get our attention. Listen to the words of John the Baptist this morning and hear the hope for new life that wants to happen. Amen

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