At this time of the year, music and theatre lovers have lots of musical offerings from which to choose. “A Broadway Christmas Carol” at the MetroStage. The Folger Consorts’ “A Renaissance Christmas.” The Washington Choral Society’s annual “Joy of Christmas” Concerts at the National Cathedral. From the secular to the sacred, from the ancient to the modern, there is no lack of seasonal music. And of course, this season of year would not be complete for some of us without the grandeur and power of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, a work with which any musician—vocalist or instrumentalist—is familiar.
Even those of us who try to honor the season of Advent are seduced by the sometimes haunting, sometimes powerful, music of Handel. So it is not long after Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie that I give in and let Handel’s music pour over me.
After a lyrical orchestral introduction, the tenor soloist stands to sing:“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. . .Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Vocalists, instrumentalists, or people who appreciate Handel’s genius have sung or heard these words many times over the years. In fact, most of us have heard this magnificent oratorio so often, the message no longer registers. Perhaps if we really paid attention to them, we would not see a tenor in black tie; rather, we would see a scruffy, long-haired, barefoot prophet dressed in camel’s hair. We would see John the Baptist.
When John the Baptist appears, there is no lyrical orchestral introduction. The only introduction in Matthew’s gospel is this: “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Then the writer explains a bit more about why John has entered this gospel. “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Clearly, John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry is rooted in the history of God’s people. Yet no explanation really prepares us for John. As twenty first century Christians, it would be easier to hear Isaiah’s words—proclaimed by John the Baptist—from a tenor in Handel’s Messiah, because we could lose ourselves in the recitative. We could recast this radical prophet in tuxedo and black tie. Instead, what we get on the second Sunday of Advent is the stark image of John the Baptist.
This prophet comes raving out of the blazing hot wilderness of the Judean desert. Rugged. Nonconformist. He wears very little—and very strange—clothing. He eats strange food—locusts and wild honey. We might say that “he seems more like a cartoon figure in The New Yorker, who walks Park Avenue in a dirty robe, toting a sign that reads, ‘Prepare to meet thy God!’” Not someone we want to take seriously—much less invite into our lives during this holiday season.
Yet the season of Advent invites you and me to make room for John the Baptist in the wilderness of our lives—to look for the kingdom of heaven in our daily lives. John the Baptist—a prophet who stands up to his knees in a muddy Jordan River and proclaims to anyone who will listen: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He means that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, in the real person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, has come to change to world. The world in the first century. The world in the twenty-first century.
The irony of this is that this reality feels as unreal as we know holiday decorations in store windows to be. But why should a prophet’s reality not feel unreal? The truth is that when the kingdom of heaven comes among us, our world can seem unreal, because it is turned upside down. What seems powerful and authoritative is overturned. Transformed by a man who picks up a towel to wash our feet. The rich are sent away empty. The poor are filled with good things. Perhaps in this transformed world, big banks and corporations now share their wealth with the working poor. Perhaps the homeless and mentally ill now have addresses and good medical care. Those with chronic diseases are cured. No one suffers from heart disease or cancer. Unfortunately, the world around us does not look this way. Not yet. And oftentimes, the effort of living on earth until God’s kingdom is fully realized wears us out and wears us down. At times, we would rather focus on positive things, like jingle bells and chestnuts roasting by an open fire.
We don’t want to hear John the Baptist challenge us to repent, to turn our lives completely around, to work to make a way for God to come to us. Yet this prophet won’t be quiet. He keeps demanding our attention. So sometimes, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we give in to our curiosity. We slip out of our comfortable slippers and away from the Hallmark specials to go see John. This prophet who has burst out of the wilderness to proclaim that yes, God has come among us. We need to wake up. Pay attention. Repent. Be willing to be completely changed. Maybe we, like the Pharisees, are willing for God to change us. . .but not too much. Maybe we could just dip a toe in the Jordan River. (Okay, a foot.) But to let God plunge us completely into baptism’s transforming waters? To commit our lives totally to God? Well, let’s not get carried away. A little repentance is better than none. And there’s no need to grovel before God—at least not until Lent. Maybe we could just say the General Confession on Sunday and that would be enough repentance. Maybe. Maybe.
Yet John the Baptist will not be placated by our rolling through Sunday morning confession so quickly that we no longer even think about the words. No. John reminds us that God, the Creator, can transform cold stones into faithful children. Are we cold stones or are we faithful children? He reminds us that God plants trees and expects good, healthy fruit. What do the fruits of our daily lives look like right now? How do we live out our faith in real time, in real ways? John reminds us that Christ, who came to bring God among us, has the power to transform us into such lovers of God that we stand to sing the Hallelujah Chorus with our very lives.
You and I may be reluctant to go meet John in the wilderness. What if there is no good news out there? Yet if we are honest, we will admit that it is in the wilderness of our lives where we really hear and see God the best. Out there, in the stark desert, we are stripped of all pretenses. We are left with only the most basic provisions. The sun burns us by day. The wind howls all night. Yet here is where God comes to us.
When nothing else is left, we pay attention to what is real. Out there in the wilderness, as we cry out to God, God purifies us in the refiner’s fire. God transforms us in ways in which we could never have imagined. We prepare the way of the Lord when we are willing to meet God in the wilderness of Advent. We prepare the way when we welcome God into our lives, any time, any place, in any of God’s creatures or creation when God comes to us.
What will God look like today? Who will God look like today? How will God sound today? Get ready for God’s coming. Wake up. Pay attention. Turn your lives around. For whether God comes in fire, or water, in child or old woman, in simple lullaby or complex chorus, God does come. At the end, as in the beginning, we stand with a chorus of saints and witnesses to sing, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!” Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
 Walter Brueggemann, Charles R. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 17.