It is great having you all sit so close; it works to hear John the Baptist’s words:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…”
John is not mincing words. On the fringe of society, at a river at the edge of the wilderness, John is baptizing & preaching. The religious authorities and maybe Rome too are watching him closely. I suspect that they feared his message and his popularity. And he knows this.
He challenges them and us to consider our lives and to show the real meaning of our lives by how we live them out, bear good fruit, fruit of repentance & hope. Certainly as John the Baptist preached on the edge of a river, calling people to repent from sin, he did this so people’s lives could be changed, that they would mark a new direction, out of the water would come a new life.
Advent is such a time for us, a call to change direction in our lives, to maintain balance when the holiday season can be too much hustle and bustle, too much buying, too much of well, everything. What Advent calls us to do as we await with patience the coming of God into our midst, is to remember that what is most important is the good fruit of our lives. How we live even in the midst of tragedy and violence.
For the past six years, Syria has been torn apart by a lethal combination of civil war and tribal hostilities. To outsiders, there seems to be only villains and refugees.
But there are heroes. Enter the White Helmets: ordinary Syrians - teachers, tailors, builders, doctors - who didn't flee the country and didn't take up arms; instead, they return day after day to the scene of some of the worst carnage on the planet. Known by the distinctive headgear they wear, the White Helmets sift through the rubble of Aleppo looking for survivors. They treat the wounded, work tirelessly to repair and maintain water and electricity, seek to re-unite families separated by the bombings and occupations, and bury the dead.
The White Helmets grew out of a disparate set of local groups scattered throughout Syria. They number more than 3,000 volunteers in rebel-held areas across the country. They are all civilians - the White Helmets' code of conduct forbids their taking up arms. Members are trained in how to search collapsed buildings, how to put out fires, how to handle unexploded bombs, what to do in a chemical attack. Even militants who had fought in the armed rebellion have laid aside their weapons to join the White Helmets.
Since the White Helmets organized in early 2013, White Helmet units have saved and rescued 60,000 of their fellow Syrians. One hundred forty-one White Helmets have been killed while serving.
A war defined by impossible choices and implacable hatreds has also produced a model of heroism that reflects the best of humanity: ordinary people who rush in to help after every attack and bombing that devastates their neighbors and homeland. Their credo is a single verse from the Quran: "Whoever saves one life, saves humanity." [TIME Magazine, October 17, 2016.]
A prophet is "one who proclaims" - and those who don the White Helmets are "prophets" in the truest sense of the word. In their selfless, dangerous work, the ordinary Syrians who wear the White Helmets "proclaim" the justice and mercy of God in the devastation of their homeland, offering hope in the midst of violence and death.
In our own commitment to the moral and ethical principles that are of God, we can be no less prophets of God's love and mercy in the Jordan banks of our homes, businesses and schools. John the Baptist is no one’s idea of Christmas joy: subsisting on locusts and wild honey, clad in camel hair, haunting a wild river bank. We happily take on the role of Santa or Kris Kringle, but no way do we see ourselves as John the Baptist. To hear, John the Baptist calling us to repent, to not gorge ourselves in a Christmas that began weeks ago, but instead bear that good fruit, to become like John in our lives right now.
But that is exactly who Advent calls us to be. In our own baptisms we promised to become Baptizers along our own Jordan Rivers. So let’s take on the work of the “Baptizer” this Christmas; let’s become heralds like John of the Good News as we go about our holiday preparations:
May we give the gifts of “comfort” and joy to a people weary and worn. . . may every kindness and generosity we extend this Christmas mirror Christ’s presence in our midst, who brings us such love into our lives . . . may we joyfully take on the hard work of creating a highway through the rugged lands of estrangement and alienation, to be ministers of reconciliation, as we too strive to bear fruits worthof repentance in our time . . . and may the gifts and greetings and hospitality we extend proclaim the good news that God’s compassion has dawned, that love has come down for us.
Every Advent, John the Baptizer calls us to embrace the meaning of our own baptisms: compassion, repentance, forgiveness, justice, selflessness. This Christmas, let us take up John’s Advent work: to straighten the crooked roads of our lives, to transform ‘deserts’ barren of love into places of welcome and reconciliation, to gather up the lost and forgotten, to proclaim the coming of God’s Christ in our midst. Amen.