Essay

APB: JB MIA

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Ladies and Gentlemen: John the Baptizer is missing!

JB: I am not missing. I am right here. I simply no longer wish to be associated with Advent. All you preachers, choir directors, musicians, and worship leaders, I am no longer available for your Advent plans.

12: I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say. I don’t get it.

JB: Leave me alone! Is that clear enough? Leave me out of your Advent sermons and litanies, your Christmas pageants, concerts, pastoral notes, and anywhere you might be tempted to use me in the next couple of weeks. I’ll be available shortly after that if you wish to mark the Baptism of Our Lord early in the new year. But for now, leave me alone.

12: John, I still don’t get what you’re saying.

John baptizer 12.14

JB: I am tired of being the negative icon of the season, being trotted out whenever you seem to need some gloomy, finger-wagging image in the next few weeks. All this Advent and Christmas stuff of yours totally came after me. I have nothing to do with it, so please leave me out of it.

12: I guess that’s a little clearer—sort of! But I don’t understand what’s driving your non-participation, other than the obvious fact that you predate our Advent and Christmas activities.

JB: Year after year, I hear my name invoked whenever you and your kind want to make some dour and downbeat comments.

12: Like what?

JB: Don’t buy into consumerism. Don’t sing Christmas carols in Advent. Face the deep racism that Ferguson manifests. Care for the hungry person on your doorstep. Your nation is an imperialistic bully. The world is a blood soaked mess with no place for Jesus. All of that may be true. But everyone always uses me to say those things. Say them yourself. Don’t pin it on me. I don’t want to be the blunt instrument used to beat people up.

12: John, you sound almost hurt…sad. I guess I’m surprised.

JB: I know, I know. I only do anger, right? Righteous indignation, that’s me! I’m that crazy guy running around the boonies eating insects and screaming at people. Wouldn’t you be hurt if that’s how you were understood?

12: Well, John, that is sort of the way scripture portrays you, isn’t it?

JB: Not really. Whatever nuance or dimension was once there in scripture has been totally flattened out by now. Everyone knows “John…himself was not the light,” but you don’t hear very often “among those born of women no one is greater than John.”

12: I don’t know what to say…

JB: Then don’t say anything.

12: But it seems like you are part of the run-up to Christmas. That’s the way the Bible tells it

JB: “Prepare the way.” “Repent and be baptized.” That’s what I said. I never said, “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Look beyond the tinsel.”

12: But John, isn’t that poetic license, interpretation, taking your words and applying them today? That’s a preacher’s bread and butter, you can’t take that away. I mean after all, you’re the one who called the religious leaders of your day “a brood of vipers.” You said every tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be thrown into the fire, and the chaff too. You said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” It doesn’t seem like such a leap to put some of those other words in your mouth.

jesus  john resizedJB: It’s the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge and me. The three great Christmas killjoys. I don’t want to do that anymore.

12: But Scrooge and the Grinch, they’re anti-Christmas figures. How not to do Christmas. You, meanwhile, are there to help us prepare for Christmas; a better, truer Christmas.

JB: Tell that to all the beleaguered people dragging themselves out to church next Sunday, shamed and scolded by preachers using me as their pretext. I’ve just had it with that. It’s like I’m the irritable doorman outside Christmas. You don’t get into the joy and fun until you’ve first been blasted by my holy halitosis. The truth is that I had nothing to do with Christmas, except maybe that well-recorded little in-utero hop when Mary came to visit. My message of repent, be baptized, bear fruit, give away your coats—it’s all true. What it’s not is a painful hurdle on the way to Christmas, the required swat on your nose before you get the good stuff. It all becomes so transactional, anti-gospel, quid pro quo. If you can put up with grumpy John for a week or two, then you get happy Jesus the rest of the year. I feel used. Dishonored. I resent it. Not this year.

12: Come on, John, please. Come back!

JB: See you in January.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

One Comment

  • Kristin Tremper says:

    …I mean, if there is one thing you don’t want in life it’s “holy halitosis”. That would really stink 🙂

    While this post was cantankerous to say the least it reminds me that in order to live into the full and holy mystery that Christmas “without the crap” really is I don’t have to buy into works righteous any more than I have to shop on Black Friday in order to do so. Somber, believing, loving, faithful Christians don’t have to be smeared with their sin to wonder at the baby.

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