Monday, December 01, 2008
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
When I was a child, my father was a choir conductor at a high school. He would also do musicals. I remember him doing the Sound of Music, and I remember seeing the posters of shows like Oklahoma. One year, he did Godspell. This is a musical that was written in the late 60’s early 70’s, and the premise is that a bunch of Hippie type characters recreate, loosely the parables of Jesus, taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The movie was somewhat different, but the gist of it was the same, amid locations in New York City.
The character of John the Baptist in my dad’s play was played by a dark haired guy with one of those beefy 70’s moustaches. Now remember, I was 8 or 9, and these were big adult 17 year olds. The theatre would go dark, and he would sneak into the back of the dark theatre. Then there would be a spotlight pointed to the left aisle, and this character would, in a loud voice, go BAAAA! BAAAAA! BA-BA-BA-BA!, mimicking the sound of a shofar, the musical instrument made of horn that is used to announce great religious events. And then he would sing:
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord;
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
This would be followed by the lights coming up, and all the cast coming onto the stage, singing along to those words, and the show would proceed from there. Those were the only words to the song.
I can’t read about John the Baptist without thinking of that kid, that faux-shofar sound, and that song.
John the Baptist is hugely important to the story of the coming Christ. Here is what we know.
John was Jesus’ second cousin. His mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were cousins, and when Mary, the unwed teenage mother, clears out of town for a while, she goes to Elizabeth. As Mary comes close to Elizabeth, Elizabeth feels her baby, six months farther along or so, give a mighty kick, which she phrases as him “leaping in the womb”, and this is the first awareness of John as the forerunner of Jesus—first out of the womb, he knows what’s coming right behind him.
John grows up to be a prophet, unlike what anyone has seen in a long time. When John’s birth is announced to his parents, they are told that he is not to “drink wine or strong drink”, which is the same thing said to Samson’s parents in Judges. Samson was what is called a Nazirite, and Numbers tells us that a Nazirite is not to touch anything relating to a grapevine, and he or she isn’t to cut their hair, and they are not to come near a dead body. They are a symbol of greater dedication to God, and John takes this further, wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating honey and locusts. In other words, grasshoppers.
He goes into the country, to the area of the river Jordan near where Elijah ascended into heaven, and preaches repentance—getting ready for what is coming soon. John may have known who that was going to be, or not, which is the source of his resistance to baptizing Jesus in some of the gospel accounts.
He also hears, or doesn’t hear, the voice from heaven that says “This is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased”.
John is present, more than anything else in our Bibles, as the one who announces that the Lord is coming again, and returning as was promised. His role is to announce and to be an announcement. Is he Elijah? He denies it, but he is set up to fulfill all that. Here’s what one commentator says:
“the parallels between john and Elijah are significant, . . .It is no accident that John identified himself this way, or that his followers regarded him as Elijah, since traditions spoke of Elijah’s return, to avert the wrath of God an to lead Israel to repentance.
In what we call the Old Testament, a passage from the prophet Malachi says it pretty plainly;
“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
The first week of Advent is the week of announcement. Jesus is coming. Two thousand years ago, Jesus came. There may or may not be more John the Baptists coming, there may or may not be any announcements about Jesus return to us or to a future generation. We believe, as Christians, that these prophecies have been fulfilled, and despite some teachings, we will not know when Jesus returns again.
The only announcement of Jesus’ coming that will arrive now is the one that we give. It is up to us to announce that Jesus, born two thousand years ago, God into flesh, is now born into the hearts of those who believe. We are John the Baptist. We are the announcement of Emmanuel—God is with us. We don’t have to wear hair shirts, and we don’t have to eat grasshoppers and honey, but we, as the followers of a physically invisible Lord, do have to live differently so that He can be announced.
When we celebrate Advent, it highlights that we are in a but of a mixed up world. We are celebrating a season of anticipation for something that has already happened. We are calling attention to a past story, two thousand years old, in order to point to the fact that in our spirits, that birth happens every day.
We are the announcement. We are the shofar call. We are the people set aside and sent forth to announce that God is with us. We are John the Baptists.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.