Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a neighborhood that had a lot of boys my own age. There were eight of us that were all about the same age. We seemed to do everything together, especially in the summer.
Where we lived was not far from a county park and a large lake. It seemed as though we were always walking down to the lake and hiking around it one way around or the other. The trails were, obviously, too narrow for all eight of us to walk side by side so one would lead. We would go down there so often that it never really mattered. Whoever was out front was the one that would lead.
As we got older, we would go on more difficult hikes. Into high school we would go backpacking in the national parks and the one that would lead was typically the one with the map. Our next-door neighbors also had two boys, Leslie and Walter. They were about as different a pair of brothers as you could imagine. Leslie was the organized born leader and his brother, Walt, was the opposite. Where Les would have the most efficiently organized backpack Walt’s looked as though he had thrown things in right before we left home. There was never any question, Les would always lead.
This was a responsibility and obligation that he took very seriously. He would study the maps days before we left. He would plan out water stops and overnight camp sites. He knew if the day was going to be flat and easy or steep and difficult. And what I appreciated the most was that Les would always carry a very tall hiking stick when he led our group.
This may not seem like a big deal, but when you are a tall hiker not having his tall walking stick leading the way would mean that I would spend the day wiping spider webs and other hanging debris from my face. I came to appreciate that the one leading a journey had a huge responsibility.
In today’s gospel we heard Jesus make reference to his famous cousin; “Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist”
Very high praise indeed! He goes on to say; “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear.” … Up to the time of John. That is the benchmark, that is the end of the time of waiting and the beginning of the time of fulfilment. John is to come first, the one with the organized backpack, the one with the maps, the one with the tall hiking stick.
At some point in my time hiking with my friends, I realized that Leslie was born to be the leader of our hikes. It was in his nature to organize his backpack that way, and to plan out our hikes that way, and to bring the tall hiking stack that way. Just like John was born to prepare us for Jesus that way.
The story of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John’s parents, is proof if you ever needed some of this fact. John’s birth was foretold by the same angle that visited Mary.
Have you ever heard the music from the Broadway play Godspell? One of my favorite songs from that play was sung by the character that represents John the Baptist. The song has just seven words, and those words are first sung by John and then repeated by more and more of the cast members until everyone has joined in. The seven words are, “prepare ye the way of the lord.” That was it, that was the entire 3-minute song. And when you think about it that was really the entire content of John’s message. That was what John carried in his backpack, it was the reason for his long walking stick. “Jesus is coming, and you had better be ready”.
John isn’t typically thought of as part of the Christmas message. Unfortunately, there is little room for John with Santa, Frosty, and the “Christmas lobster” (you had to have seen the movie, trust me). But if there is no room for him in the Christmas story, then he has to be the central character in the Advent story.
As we continue our journey through advent toward Christmas let’s think about John. Let’s think about “a voice of one calling in the wilderness”, saying “Prepare the way of the Lord”. Because he truly leads the way for us … after all “this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus said to the crowds:
“Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John.
And if you are willing to accept it,
he is Elijah, the one who is to come.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
December 9, 2021
December 9, 2021