the large and startling figure
Around this time of year, we encounter the prophet John the Baptist. He is in the wilderness railing against the hypocrisy and injustice of time, as all good prophets in his line do. I can't think of this wild man without thinking of something the American writer Flannery O Connor once said. Defending her depiction of people from the South (she drew her characters large, loud, and extreme). She said this:
"... you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
John the Baptist comes to awaken the nearly blind. Part of his critique involves a sense of entitlement. He calls out those who defend their righteousness based on borrowed credentials; I deserve this or can do this because I belong to this particular group of people. John has seen this no doubt, or maybe he is calling them out before the defence of their action (or inaction) but either way, he says, in effect, that will not do.
Your credentials mean little before our God. We stand on our own. That moment of judgment or accountability will be between our God and us. Ultimately, as mature adults, we are responsible for our lives. There is a refining fire on its way. I find John's voice an excellent counterbalance to a season that has all the potential of descending into schmaltz.
If you want to get people thinking superficially, place a baby in front of them, and surround the season with tinsel and 'light as air' carolling. You can float away on the back of such breezy sentiments. (That image I might have borrowed from Mary Poppins, a movie Erin currently loves to watch!)
John grounds this, encouraging us not to confuse this birth with a YouTube kitten video! God's redemptive is serious business.
Jesus is the cornerstone of God's plan to mend the universe. He comes to redeem, to challenge. The rulers of the world are already running scared, putting plans into place to dismantle the emerging power of someone who, at this moment in time, is wearing a swaddling cloth. It is an irony indeed that the evil forces of the world are more awake to the presence of Jesus than the ordinary citizens of the time.
John the Baptist is the expected prophetic forerunner – the one who throws down the gauntlet and lets the world know what is taking place. He also lets us know that we won't be hiding behind anything.
Our credentials won't be worth the paper they are written on, and our excuses for not taking the life of Jesus to heart will seem like chaff. We will be responsible, and accountable. Did we respond to Jesus? Did we align our lives with his? Did we respond to the issues Jesus acted for and against? In short, did we take his life seriously?
I only failed one course in my life. It was a languages course – Zulu. I took it as a bit of a throw away' university credit. It was silly, and my heart wasn't in it. I made it through right till the end. You see, the tests were sometimes group work, the turned in work I borrowed from others. I'm not proud of any of this if you're wondering, though I would not be the first tertiary learner to offer less than 100% effort!) But right at the end, we had an oral exam.
We had one midway through the year. We answered in class, clustered in groups. Hands went up, some names were called, but I managed to squeeze through on the backs of others and through sheer luck of knowing the answer to the single question directed my way.
Unknown to me, the class ended with another oral examination. This time though, no one was present except for the learner and the lecturer. So there was nothing else to fall back on. I failed outright. It was a harsh lesson to learn and an awkward half-hour of my life!
Christmas, if left unchecked, takes us in the wrong direction. We accumulate. We are sold an easy lie: material possessions will sufficiently minister to your spiritual need. Is your spirit in crisis? Why not try the new Peugeot SUV? (Seriously, go YouTube the advert for that and see the brazen connection between buying and your spiritual well-being.) If we clutter our lives with more stuff, that will either treat the underlying issue or momentarily hide it from view.
John the Baptist asks another question: When all is stripped away - when it is just your heart before God's - what will your God find? Like all good penetrating questions, it's a hard one to answer, but if answered sincerely will open the vista to the abundance of life.