In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
I always find preaching during Advent to be difficult. I'd like to think the difficulty is due to the busyness of the season but truth be told it has more to do with John the Baptist. It's not that I don't like John in fact I find him to be an interesting and colorful character. My problem with John is that I don't know what to do with him. Seriously, what do you do with a guy who is unkempt, obtrusive and difficult to be around? How do you help him relate to 21st century people? The only comparison I can come up with is this guy I knew years ago in college who always asked difficult or seemingly off the wall questions of important people. He would literally ask noted professors questions about their politics or religious affiliations. One time he asked a professor how he, a professional educator, justified voting for Ronald Reagan given the cuts to education during Reagans gubenatorial terms. I don't remember the professors answer but I do remember being embarrassed for my friend. Funny thing, he wasn't embarrassed at all. Maybe the key issue here is that I'm not alone in not knowing what to do with John. I think the institutional church doesn't know what to do with him and we're all a little embarrassed of him.
Perhaps this piece of scripture is a good reminder for the institutional church that Advent and Christmas is not about neat, pretty packages. It is in fact about difficult and perhaps embarrassing questions that we need to confront and consider. John is asking humankind the same question that is considered in many cursillo gatherings, "if it were illegal to be a Christian, could you be found guilty?"