The Missing Figure

Posted by on Sep 12, 2014 in Faith Words |

Words of Faith

Rev. Rita S. Platt

December 9, 2012-12-17

“The Missing Figure”

Old Testament   Isaiah 11:1-5

Gospel      Mark 1:1-8

A three-year-old was helping his mother unpack their nativity set. He announced each piece as he unwrapped it from the tissue paper. “Here’s the donkey!” he said. “Here’s the shepherd and a sheep!” When he finally got to the tiny infant lying in a manger he proclaimed, “Here’s baby Jesus in his car seat!”

Well, it wasn’t a car seat, but that would be an easy mistake to make, wouldn’t it?

We all love nativity scenes. Baby Jesus in the manger . . . Mary and Joseph hovering reverently over the holy child . . . the angel, the shepherds, . , sheep and, of course, a donkey.

But there is always one figure missing: I have never seen John the Baptist in any of the nativity scenes.

I understand the reason. John the Baptist is totally inappropriate for the way we celebrate Christmas. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus as Matthew and Luke report that holy night many years ago. Mary, Joseph, angels, manger, shepherds; a child is born unto us. Glory to God in the highest! That is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the reason for the season. So we honor sweet, little Jesus boy.

What does John the Baptist have do with Christmas anyway?

For Mark, everything. Instead of Bethlehem and choirs of angels, he begins the story of Jesus’ coming with a prophet blaring and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. In so doing, he adds a new figure to the good news about the incarnation and coming of the Christ: it is John the Baptist. Throughout the centuries the church has recognized Mark’s unique contribution – no matter whether we are in year A, B or C of the lectionary – John the Baptist is a part of the Advent scriptures.

Advent means “coming.” Two thousand years ago, in a place called Bethlehem, lying in a manger, God came to us in the weakness of a baby. God entered our world, put on our shoes, and lived, breathed, and walked among us. He taught, loved, died on a cross, and rose again. God came to us: Advent.

God does not come only “once upon a time,” and then the story is over, “happily ever after.” It is not something the Lord did “one and done.” Nor is the coming of God a once, and then only again at the end of time, reality. God continually comes to us. Every moment of every day, whether we realize it or not, whether we sense it or not, whether we can see or hear God or not, God comes to us.

That’s why John the Baptist is so important. He is all about God coming. He is the forerunner, the one who comes before another to prepare the way. And he can show us how to do the same.

But first we have to go into the wilderness to hear the message.

Wilderness is not simply a geographical concept in the Scriptures. Wilderness represents an aspect of relationship. Wilderness is the place where the people of God get back in touch with God. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 is the text for this understanding:

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and test you . . . He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with Manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Isn’t that exactly what we need? A quiet place. A place to remember who we are and whose we are. And when we commit to regularly enter into that place we will hear the message. It is a message particularly suited to the wilderness. It is a message of repentance.

Repentance is one of those religious words which has a simple meaning. Repentance means we do an “about-face.” We turn away and turn toward. We make a 180-degree change in direction.

When John the Baptist calls us to repentance, what are we turning away from and turning toward? The writer of Hebrews gives us some help here. Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” and “to fix our eyes on Jesus.”

Curious… Did you notice the order? First throw off what hinders you, then the sin that so easily tangles you.

Most of us would expect sin but the truth is all of us have things that are holding us back. Quiet time helps us identify them: the expectations we keep putting on our plate, heaping them higher and higher until there is no room for God. It is hard to turn away from those things, to let go, to turn toward God. But these are the real things that hold us back.

Then there is the sin. Sin – miss the mark. It’s not about God who is legalistic: “Follow my rules or else.” It is about a loving God who wants us to be all we can be. That’s the mark.

Notice two categories come under the heading of “turn away from.” First, there is everything that hinders. Throw it off! Does it surprise you that the writer of Hebrews doesn’t have sin as primary in the order of address? Instead the first order of repentance is to turn from hindrances.

Hindrances – whatever is holding us back.

Jesus is coming. He came 2,000 years ago as a babe in a manger. He is constantly coming to us, in His love, in His grace, and in His mercy. All the promises of God are, “Yes!” in Him. He will come again to bring all things to fulfillment. Are we ready?