I was working on my sermon on Friday, and it was coming together pretty well.
But then I paused at one point to check the news, just to see what was going on in the world…and somehow the words I had written just didn’t seem that important.
The story of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut began unfolding, and words just aren’t sufficient to describe the range of emotions I experienced. I know I’m not the only one.
Such a senseless act of violence leaves us only with questions, because there are no answers.
We live in a broken world that still wrestles with evil…and the God we worship is big enough to handle our questions, our anger, and our grief.
So, Christine and I would like to offer our availability if you’d like to process your own emotions concerning the shooting, whether after the service today, or later this week.
I’ll say right up front that we won’t be able to give you any answers, because we don’t have any answers. But we’re good at listening, so let us know if you’d like to set something up.
So, a couple of weeks ago, my brother sent me a link to an article about a Christmas character that I don’t remember hearing about before.
I’m curious how well known he might be in this room; so humor me and please raise your hand if you’ve heard of Belsnickel before?
I thought there might be some people here who are familiar with Belsnickel, because he has German origins, and according to Wikipedia, he is apparently quite common among the Pennsylvania Dutch communities, at least in Pennsylvania.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with Belsnickel, he is apparently a less popular, less gracious companion of Santa Claus.
Tradition describes him as a short, furry man who dresses in ragged, torn, and dirty clothes. He looks very mean, and he visits homes about 2 weeks before Christmas to ‘prepare the way’ for Santa.
He doesn’t come in through the chimney; he is rather invited in by the parents of the house, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to punish bad children (although everything I’ve read seems to indicate that he never actually uses the switch).
He also administers a test of some kind to make sure the children of the house have been good, and to make sure they deserve to get presents.
So my brother sent me the link because we share a distorted sense of humor, and because he, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, wanted to suggest that we introduce Belsnickel at our family gathering this year in place of Santa Claus.
You can think of it as a bait-and-switch tactic, I have five nieces on my side of our family, and all five of them are expecting a nice, pleasant, typical Christmas with gifts and treats and all the rest.
So it’s a little bit amusing to imagine a short, mean-looking and furry man showing up instead, bearing judgment in place of toys.
That’s just a glimpse into my twisted sense of humor.
…I have to admit, I’m intrigued by this character, this “Belsnickel”.
And I have to wonder why we don’t hear more about him! Santa kind of steals the show.
I think I know the reason though. I have a hunch it’s the same reason we hear so much about Jesus, and so little about John the Baptist, or the reason we spend so much time reading the New Testament, and avoiding the Old.
That is, we prefer stories about grace and forgiveness and mercy as opposed to judgment and accountability and taking responsibility.
We prefer stories that tell us we’re OK, that everything is OK, that the world is a nice, tame place, and as long as you’re a nice, tame person, things will work out for you.
And then an act of unspeakable violence happens; whether it’s through natural means like an earthquake or hurricane, or whether it’s the most recent school shooting…and we’re shocked by just how wild and untamed the world still is.
It’s natural to want the good stuff without the bad.
It’s natural to want Santa without Belsnickel, Christmas without Advent.
It’s perfectly natural to want Jesus without John the Baptist.
But as everyone knows from life experience, that’s just not reality.
The world is a wild place, and it always has been.
Living is not a safe endeavor; no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. So it does us good, at least once a year, to turn our attention to John the Baptist.
He doesn’t visit often, but when he does he always reminds us that the Wilderness is closer than we wish it was. It might be just a paycheck away, it might come with a trip to the doctor, or an accident on the highway.
It could be strangers that cast us into the wilderness; or it could be our closest friends or family members.
We just don’t know when, or how it might come….
But we know it’s there, and we know that all of us will enter the wilderness at one point or another.
We also know there are people like John the Wild Man who have made their homes there. Those people make us uncomfortable, because they have an edge that only the wilderness can give you.
We might wish they’d stay away, because we don’t want the reminder of what the wilderness can do. We don’t know how to treat people like John the baptist, because they make us so uncomfortable.
So my first point this morning is that people who live in Wilderness should first of all be listened to, because they have so much to offer.
It’s really no wonder people came out in droves to hear John preach. It’s because wilderness; either physical wilderness or spiritual wilderness…it changes you, it teaches you lessons; it gives you something to say.
I’m sure you can think back over your own life; when did you learn your most valuable lessons? I’m guessing it wasn’t when things were nice and easy and God seemed like your closest friend.
I’m guessing it was when you were in your own wilderness.
Those lessons are some of the most valuable things you can pass on to others, if you’re willing to share, and if the rest of us are willing to listen.
See, the things you learn in the desert; they’re the most “real” things you can learn. They hold just as true in the rest of life as they ever do in the Wilderness.
People came to hear John because living in the desert had taught him much that is of value.
But one thing it didn’t teach him was how to make friends or mince words.
“You brood of vipers!” he says to the seekers… “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”.
He sounds angry; and when I think back to my most recent wilderness experiences, I can relate to his anger (especially in light of Sandy Hook). The wilderness is not an easy place to be.
It’s dangerous. It’s scary, and when you choose to live in that wilderness place, you forsake the illusions of certainty that the rest of us have to buffer ourselves from reality.
The lessons you learn in the wilderness are hard-won.
And I can imagine Wildman John going around with these hard-won lessons in his heart and mind, and suddenly here come all these people who want the lessons without the work.
They want the diamonds without the dirt.
So he simply commands them to bear fruit worthy of repentance…because that’s how you learn your own lessons!
In other words, do the work!
You can’t get to Jesus without going through the Wilderness…because the only Way to Jesus leads straight through it!
Your family connections mean nothing in the wilderness. Your status means nothing in the wilderness. Your money, your fame, the power you wield in the reality we’ve created…it means nothing in the wilderness.
What matters is sharing your coats with the people who don’t have any.
What matters is sharing your food with the people who don’t have any.
What matters is honesty and integrity in your work, and being satisfied with your wages.
But keep in mind, that’s just preparing the way.
That’s just laying the groundwork for the Messiah who’s on his way; the Messiah who will demand even more from you.
See, we come to Advent looking for Christmas cookies and eggnog, but wildman John offers us Locusts and honey wrestled from wild bees.
We come to this time of year hoping for a new bathrobe and slippers; but wildman John offers us camel hair and leather instead.
Those things are just the beginning. That’s just the foundation.
Because Jesus takes it to another level, asking you even to die to yourself in order to really live.
John baptizes with water, but Jesus uses the Holy Spirit and fire.
Therefore, Repent. Produce fruit.
The way has been cleared before us, but it leads through the desert; not away from it.
Would you pray with me as I close?
Come, O come Immanuel
In the terrible beauty of this broken world
Grant us courage.
Hold our hands through these times
as we grieve
as we celebrate
as the chaff of life gets burned away
by the Unquenchable Wild.
May the Good News proclaimed by John still be
the light in our darkness
as we journey with You.