May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
John the Baptist plays a central role in our Advent and Christmas stories, but I have yet to see the figure of John the Baptist appearing in any nativity scene or Christmas pageant. The Magi loom large, even though their appearance in the Christmas story doesn’t happen until Jesus is about 2 years old. But the gloriously robed Magi with their gift-wrapped presents look nice on our mantel. Not so much with scruffy, rag-clothed John the Baptist. I can just hear a young child pointing to the figurine of John the Baptist asking why he had things like locust legs clinging to his honey-sticky, unkempt beard. John the Baptist is not someone we like to think of during our Christmas preparations, let alone put out on display. He’s just not the Hallmark kind of guy.
Rev. Diane Strickland, trauma specialist and United Church minister, offered a podcast entitled, “A John the Baptist Christmas.” She notes that John is “an under-employed character” in this season. But this year, she adds, John the Baptist may be just the prophet we need. For one thing, we might all be resembling John a wee bit these days:
- John didn’t change his clothes very often, if at all. Those of us hiding behind Zoom have learned how to save on laundry soap.
- John’s diet didn’t change a lot—it was pretty much locusts and honey every day. With company a bit sparse, it’s pretty handy to just cook up a big pot that will last a few days.
- John had a nasty habit of lashing out at people and calling them names. These days, with added stress, I’m sure none of us can relate!
John, himself, began to have doubts about his work and sent his disciples to Jesus, asking him, “Are you really the Messiah, the one for whom John is preparing everyone?” By this time, John was in prison and had a sense that his life was done for. Doubts plagued him in his hell-hole–was his whole life for naught? When we’ve been separated from loved ones and from community, our sense of intuition and communal affirmation has become a bit rusty. And we, like John, may find ourselves questioning things we never thought we’d ever question.
John’s rough manner and blunt words destabilized people. He threw them off kilter and cracked open their reserve. Suddenly they stood exposed of all that they had kept carefully guarded. Their lives were upended. Nothing was certain anymore.
We are in a time of destabilization not only from the pandemic, but also from the myriad of other grave crises that seem to come one after another as waves of dominos go down. The Black Lives Matter rallies forced us to acknowledge our country’s systemic racism. We are faced with the reality of poorly paid, under-staffed personal care homes and under-staffed health care system. And then, the graves of missing Indigenous children began to be identified. I don’t think it was a coincidence that these crises happened during the pandemic. COVID destabilized us, cracked open our comfortable lives and opened our eyes to injustice and racism that has long been with us. And the crises continue as we come face to face with the magnitude of devastation that climate change is beginning to bring: forest fires and now floods and landslides.
In our raw state of disorientation, these crises are living more deeply inside us. We can’t brush them away as easily as we once could. This doesn’t feel good, but it might, in the end, bring us to a better place.
In disaster management, the best outcome doesn’t hope that people will not be diminished, because people will be diminished. We will have lost many things—our naiveté being one of them. Rather, the best outcome is that diminished people will find resilience and abilities to do things they never thought possible. They will be able to pivot in their thinking, which will lead to a change in their actions.
This is what metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, signifies. It means to change direction and more specifically to change our thinking. Repentance is exactly what will bring us through these times.
John the Baptist called the crowd to repent in the face of impending doom. He did not discriminate between the elite rulers or the commoners. He levelled the valleys of oppression and the mountains of privilege, calling everyone, regardless of status, to account.
Repentance is actually a message of hope. All is not doom and gloom if we’re able to think differently in response to our different reality. God’s reign of peace and justice is ever before us as we learn how to think in new ways for the benefit of the least in our midst. God’s grace can enable our changed thinking to change the world.
As we begin to come back to church and to other community groups, we will find that they have changed. They will not be the same. Most of our community organizations and work places are still there, but they’re different. Change itself seems to be on steroids.
Churches across the country are finding that key leaders have gone. And they are finding new people who are bringing new ideas. We are not the same, but we will still be the church.
Within this period of upheaval, the United Church has also been changing in leadership and governance. One month ago, General Council approved a new mission and vision statement for the United Church, which you’ll find printed in your bulletin or placed on the screen. Please read along with me:
Called by God, as disciples of Jesus, The United Church of Canada seeks to be a bold, connected, evolving church of diverse, courageous, hope-filled communities united in deep spirituality, inspiring worship, and daring justice.
This is loaded with action-packed words that offer a dynamic vision of a church ready to change to meet the changing reality. We are called to be bold, connected, evolving, diverse, courageous and hope-filled. How do we do this? Through deep spirituality as we seek to deepen our own spiritual practices and grow in our faith, through inspiring worship that is gradually bringing more music back into our services, and through daring justice as we continue to work with other faith communities and justice initiatives. We can do this. Westworth is well-positioned to live into this national vision of the United Church.
There is one more area of change that John the Baptist can help us with. It has to do with our families. Some members of our family may have been so affected by these multiple crises that they no longer seem to fit. Their social skills and abilities to self-monitor have regressed and they are behaving—well, much like John the Baptist.
John, the ultimate misfit, is a place-holder for those who no longer can find their place. John holds the place of truth and shadows. In our Advent services and Christmas preparations, John is the wise sage in the shadows of our liturgy. John has waded through discarded ribbons and wrappings to hold the place for those whose old traumas have come back to life and old habits have returned. Trauma can bring out the best in us when we pull together. But sometimes trauma overwhelms and our old ghosts come back to haunt us. Then, it becomes more difficult to moderate our speech and actions.
So what do we do about this? John’s wisdom is to prepare. Prepare both for what is coming and who is coming. On a practical level, Diane Strickland draws on her trauma training to suggest that we prepare for these interpersonal challenges and odd behaviours. She is going to make one dish a week and put it in the freezer for Christmas Day dinner. She is planning to take a 10 min. break every hour when the festivities draw near to either lie down and do some deep breathing exercises or go for a walk. Dogs come in handy. She asks us to lower our expectations for this Christmas and keep things simple. We are not the same, so we should not force ourselves to do the same myriad of things that tradition dictates.
On a deeper level, John is asking us to prepare for the one who will bring us through all of this. Protect some sacred time every day to breathe in deeply the peace of the Christ Child. And when you are disturbed by the behaviour of a family member or a stranger on the street, try looking beyond the disturbance into their eyes. Look for the Christ Child who dwells deeply within them. And as you find the Christ in them, may they find the Christ in you. Amen.