our watchfulness for the coming of the Christ-child, this is the Sunday for
John the Baptizer, one of God’s last Old Testament prophets, and the original
whistle blower. But then again, who among the prophets is not a whistle blower?
the history of the Church, a mythological figure of John emerges from our collective
consciousness. For example, as Frederick Buechner reminds us, John was not a
buyer of clothes per sé. John does not appear in middle-class American attire,
with the latest fashion from Lands End, Brooks Brothers1,
or the Gap . . . not even Wal-Mart, Target, or the local Goodwill enticed his
kind of interest or time. He wore clothes of the wildest of God’s people in
a world teetering on the brink of despair as he preached in clothes that even
the rummage or flea market sales people wouldn’t have handled. There are no
coiffed hairs upon his head, or a scent of manly perfume upon his body.
even for that day and age, he dressed the dress of a wild man of Borneo, the
original Looney Tune cartoonish Tasmanian devil and monster-like creature, ripping
a whirlwind tornado behind and before him wherever he goes. John largely subsisted
on a starvation diet, as did his disciples. There was no time to worry about
the latest faddish, South Beach or Atkins diet plans, nor did he worry about
where one might fit in exercise during the day.
was not alone in this respect: Let us not forget that he was not alone in this
world: he, like other prophets, had followers, so there were more like him in
the world in those days. One question I keep mulling over: were the followers
of John dressing and acting the same way as John? If so, imagine the weekly
gathering of this group of outsiders, seen as derelicts by some, according to
the then-societal norms. The intensity of this gathering would be enough to
possibly set off fireworks that would make mockery of our Fourth of July events.
captivates us and draws our attention to this train-wreck-about-to-happen in
our midst, is that in John the Baptizer we clearly see and hear what happens
when the Holy Spirit truly captures and saturates the entirety of a person’s
life. There is no guile, no shyness, no double entendre in his speech or in
his mission. With John the Baptizer, we do not need to worry about parsing a
word, or discussing if “is” is what “is” is supposed to
be. To use a modern cliché, John is a straight-shooter; he is direct
and to the point. He is obsessed to the outsider, a “freak of nature,”
while John probably feels inside like he has no other choice but to tell the
truth, and nothing but the whole truth, being bold in telling it in a way that
would capture people’s attention. It just keeps bubbling to the surface, try
as hard as he might to stifle such an impulse.
today’s world, we have come to coin the term “Whistle Blower”, making
it a proper noun for naming those people who see and hear the truth in a dark
and dimly lit place, amid smoke and mirrors, in which someone in power would
like to shade, if not hide, the truth. The Whistle Blower simply cannot stand
idly, by, acting as if truth has not been covered up, or no injustice has occurred.
The Whistle Blower cannot let truth be swept under the carpet, have the lights
turned down low, hide truth in a hall of mirrors, or let the strobe lights and
fog blind us to the truth. The Whistle Blower cannot abide such an abrogation
of honesty and truthfulness. There is no hiding the truth any longer in the
life of the Whistle Blower.
truth-telling on the part of the Whistle Blower comes at a high cost. Most who
would be labeled as a Whistle Blower readily admit they would not do it again.
Why? Because the cost is the destruction of one’s career, vocation, or one’s
personal life is great and lasts a lifetime. Once someone blows the whistle
on injustice and mistruth, then that person is forever marked with the sign
of truth-telling. And if there is ever any fame, fortune, or movie-of-the-week
on one’s life, it only comes after the Whistle Blower’s life has been destroyed
by those who would wish to hide the truth.
the Baptizer could also be known as John the Whistle Blower, a truth teller,
from the old school of prophetic whistle blowing. In the words of the prophet
Malachi, one who shared the same Godly vocation as John did, we read and hear
that there is going to be a messenger, who is going to prepare the way before
God, and that God, who the children of Israel seek, will suddenly come to his
temple, which we presume was still in Jerusalem. Malachi then prophecies exactly
how this messenger was going to deliver the news of the coming of God with a
series of questions: “Who will be able to endure the day of his coming,
and who will be able to stand when he appears?” For he is like a refiner’s
fire that would clean the excess off of the metals like. silver, and like fuller’s
soap, a soap that was a most powerful cleanser, the strongest of astringent
powers, that would literally tear at the skin, let alone the dirt.
comes into the scene as prologue, as narrator, setting up the scene before the
actual, coming of God. Let us remember that people did not know in what fashion
or form God would come. They truly expected God to appear as an almost cinematic
“shining knight on a white horse” to save the day, a triumphant warrior
king to lead the battle of Zionist against whoever was ruling the world in which
the children of Israel lived. People expected God to fight powers of darkness
with the powers of light and might, not with the powerlessness of a babe born
in a manger. What kind of power does powerlessness have in this world?
abides the power of John’s word to the world then, and the world now: the Gospel,
writes Frederick Buechner, is always bad news before it is good news.2
It is the news that we are sinners (to use the old word), that within us is
evil in the imagination of our hearts, minds, and bodies, and that when we look
in mirrors all in a soapy lather or shaving cream beard, what we see is at least
eight parts chicken, phony, slob, and baloney. This is the truthful tragedy
of our situation. And by our hands, it doesn’t get any better, but only worse.
came through loud and clear in John’s words that cut through the pretentiousness
of the people living in those days, and the way we live today as well: John
went into all the regions around the Jordan river, proclaiming a baptism not
by just sprinkling water droplets or happy and safe words, but proclaiming a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is a two-fold process:
a baptism of repentance is the first act, followed by the second act of grace.
We are called to repent of our sins, to confess in what ways we have hurt God
and thus ourselves this week.
is not a strange act to those of us in the Reformed tradition. With some fire
and brimstone, John Calvin admonished his people to be about repentance, since
we are born as natural sinners, one and all, and in us there is no innocence.
and he wasn’t writing about himself. In the Presbyterian Church form of worship,
as outlined in our Book of Common Worship, we are instructed to gather
together and, after the niceties of gathering and singing hymns of praise, we
are called to confession before we do much of anything else in worship. Why?
Because before we can truly hear and be open to the Gospel, the Good News, which
is found in both Old and New Testaments, our bodies, minds, and spirits must
be cleansed, as we pray with the Psalmist, “create in me a clean heart,
O God, and put a right spirit within me.” Our coming to confession, corporately
and personally in the context of the body of Christ, is made possible and is
our deepest desire because God’s Spirit is already nudging us to make ourselves
ready for the incoming rush of God’s love and salvific grace. Soon after we
confess our sins, we are affirmed and assured that God, who loves us anyway,
cherishes us, forgives us, and bled for us, forgives us our sins, as we should
now forgive one another.
in our sin the sinner – or slob as he writes of us – is loved and
forgiven when the very mark and substance of our sin and of our slobbery is
that we keep turning down the love and forgiveness because we don’t believe
it, or don’t want it or just don’t care about it. But the Gospel is extraordinary,
and incredible things happen to us, just as they do in fairy tales and the world
as God created it to be.
of how the Gospel that is going to be in-breaking with the birth of the Christ
is like a dam bursting wide open, bringing life to people who do not deserve
life but only death: Zaccheus climbs up the sycamore tree a crook and comes
down a good man. Paul sets out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes
back a fool for Christ, while tax collectors like Matthew and prostitutes like
Mary Magdalene find a pathway of life over destructive habits in the One who
sat and ate with them in simple, ordinary meals. It is impossible for anyone
to leave behind the darkness of the world we carry on our back like a snail,
but for God all things are possible. That is the wish. That is the fairy tale.
That is the truth of the Gospel.
John is the ultimate whistle-blower in God’s arsenal of whistle-blowers, telling
us the truth when it is the last thing we want to hear about. “Prepare
the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” said John. Every valley,
every rivulet of our life that is filled with darkness is going to be filled
in with love. Every mountain that seems impossible for us to climb over, and
every problem that seems impossible to get over, is going to be made low. The
crooked way of life is going to be made straight, no matter how much our sins
have made us crooked people; and the roughest places in our character and personality
are going to be made smooth. And here’s the big point of the whole story: all
flesh shall see, shall hear, shall smell, shall feel, shall notice, shall intuit,
the salvation of God.
the rest of the world would want to shut down the whistle-blowing John, and
Herod finally does call for the death of John, no thanks to his step-daughter
Salome, the prophet could only speak truth, for the truth had him by his very
limbs and the muscles that controlled his mouth and larynx. Like other prophets,
he did not speak the good news because the good news had not quite broken through
yet, but they spoke news. John put words to the way God wants us to be until
everyone’s teeth rattled. Beneath the words John uttered, or deep within his
words, something rang out which was new because it was timeless, and the silence
rang out, the truth that is unutterable, that is mystery, that is the way things
are. And the reason it rings out seems to be that the language of John the prophet
is essentially the language of poetry which, more than any kind of academic
writing or theology is the language of truth.
the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”
couldn’t help but say these words of truth; words of wonder and mystery, for
the words were inspired by God’s Spirit.
did not thoroughly understand who or how exactly God was going to be coming.
It isn’t until later in the cycle of stories that John is frozen in the waters
of the warm Jordan, bending down and haltingly, with wonder of whose feet were
before him, untying the sandals of God. But it is the experience of poetry,
of words that cut through centuries of time, that still make us sit up and prepare
for the coming of God, even today. John’s words are most prophetic and truthful,
stirring in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without
knowing that we starve. Using words and images of valleys and mountains and
pathways, John tells us truthfully where we are and where God is and where the
Gospel meets us in our lives.
this meal, this Holy Communion, in this season of Advent, we have before us
a way of tasting truth as John must have felt it in his bones, and embrace the
prophetic good news, in the bread broken and the cup shared for all of time
and all of humanity.
One who loves us and draws us closer to the Divine mystery of love is present
at this meal, calling us to come forward and partake in the mystery, the divine
comedy, and love story, made incarnate in God in Christ. Let us join in the
circle of truth spread before us this very day. Consider it bread for the journey
into the truth of the love of God.
Webb-Mitchell is a writer in Pittsboro, NC.
1. Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (NYC: Harper & Row. 1979),
2. Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (NYC: Harper & Row, 1977),