December 10 – ” (Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8)
Now in some ways, you have to be a small-town Baptist to appreciate the story of John the Baptizer. John goes to the river, holds a revival meeting, people respond in tears and repentance, and get baptized probably dipped all the way under.
Recently, having given an unusually rousing sermon, I heard indirectly that had my “Baptist on” that day. I took that as a complement. You see, despite my theological training and intellectual proclivities, there is still a lot of small-town Baptist in me.
Turn back the hands of the clock to the summer of 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president. An itinerant revival preacher came to our Salinas Valley, California, town, driving a beat-up Buick, filled to the gills with bible literature and worship props. My Dad had invited him to spend that weekend at our church to hold a revival meeting. Apparently, Baptists need to be revived on a regular basis!
His name was Leonard Eilers; he wore jeans, a cowboy shirt with string tie (like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry); had a white ten gallon hat and a lariat that he twirled as he invited us to look forward to our true home, “The Ranch in the Sky.” He sang a song I’ve heard nowhere else and can’t find on the internet, that probably died with this cowboy preacher who passed away sometime around 1990 after sixty years of preaching in cow town churches like ours:
Put your boots in the stirrup
Climb up on your horse
The roundup for God is on!
Somehow his message touched me, I came forward to the altar with tears in my eyes, and accepted Jesus as my savior, and was baptized the next week.
Sometimes the gospel just hits you. Sometimes a word touches your heart and everything changes. What was going to be a routine day ends up changing your life forever. You make a decision, finally, after years of struggling with a habit or addiction, to choose life and not death, to make a new start and let go of old behaviors, to repent, turn around, and begin a new adventure. I am sure that this is what happened at John’s Jordan River revival. Confronted by his words of warning and hope, his listeners made a choice to repent, begin again, and chart a new pathway of life.
Like the desert of which Isaiah spoke, what was dead began to bloom again. What was lost was recovered – faith, innocence, love, acceptance, and healing. Somehow after we’ve heard the bad news, the good news emerges and for the first time in ages, we can reset our Spiritual GPS.
As that old gospel song I grew up with says:
Just as I am without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me
And that thou bidst me come to thee
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
With fears within and foes without
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Now it’s been nearly sixty years since I came forward at that small town Baptist church. A few years later, I left the church entirely – the faith of my childhood was too small for my growing spirit. I survived the summer of love and all that went with it. I never lost God, but my pathway changed, and at the right moment, now 47 years ago, I learned transcendental meditation at a former fraternity house in Berkeley, California, and two weeks later I found myself back in church, with very little doctrine, no orthodoxy whatsoever, but welcomed by John Akers and six-foot eight Shorty Collins, the Baptist chaplain, who saw a theologian and teacher in a long-haired college kid.
You might say, I came forward again, finding the God I’d never lost, but simply couldn’t believe in. You might even say I repented, and turned from one path to another – I gave up some habits that might have harmed me in the end – and found the way of Jesus through a blend of study, prayer, meditation, and social activism.
A few weeks ago, I was inspired to write a poem, perhaps describing my own journey in light of John the Baptist’s message:
Moment by moment mindfulness
Falling down and getting back up
You see, John the Baptist, offered a new way of life. He didn’t expect perfection, but he expected that those who came to be baptized would try their best to turn around, change their ways, go from darkness to light and death to life, and trust God every step of the way, knowing God’s grace can cover every sin and inspire us in our weakness to do something beautiful for God and this good Earth.
Advent is a time for turning. It was in the first century when John came to the Jordan River. It is for us now. We hear the Christmas carols, and the promise of peace on earth, good will to all. And, surely, as a popular Christmas tune asserts, “we need a little Christmas, right this very moment.” But, you can’t have Christmas without Advent, and Advent involves coming to God just as you are every day.
Last week, I talked about “second comings – everywhere.” God doesn’t just come to us once upon a time, but every moment of the day. The idea that there is only one moment of salvation flies against the image of the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep until it’s found. God never gives up on us. God comes to us in surprising and unexpected ways, inviting us to say “yes” to the paths of peace and justice, love and forgiveness, one moment at a time.
Yale Divinity School professor Hal Luccock tells of an encounter with a young street preacher as he walked across the Yale Green. “Are you saved?” the preacher asked. To which Luccock replied, “every day!”
Jewish mysticism asserts that when you save a soul, you save the world. The world can’t fully be saved until everyone’s light shines, breaking through the dirt and filth, the busyness and self-importance, that has hidden it from ourselves and others. The “thief in the night” is no more and no less than God’s invitation to repent, turn around, and see God’s love in you and the ones around you.
A lot needs saving these days, and though we aren’t in the White House or the Halls of Congress, or on the boards of multinational companies, we can still do a lot to save the world. We can treat each moment as an opportunity to serve Jesus. We can train our eyes to see the light of God hidden in a noisy child, a grumpy adult, a homeless addict, a troubled teenager, or a bloviating politician. We can let our sight turn us to prayer; but prayer isn’t enough, when we can act to bring peace to the streets and safety to schools, act to welcome immigrants and support Muslims in the public square, act to reduce homelessness and poverty, and act to save the earth. We can also act with calls, cards, and casseroles.
John the Baptist calls us. He says that before we can say “Merry Christmas,” we need to wish each other a “Holy Advent” and let our wishes become hands that serve, love, and welcome. Then the deserts of our hearts will bloom, wayward feet will find the way forward, and old hearts will leap for joy and learn to love again.