Someone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the BellSomeone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the BellDo me a favor and open the door and let em in. (Paul McCartney, “Let em in,” 1976)
I realize that this isn’t your typical Advent hymn, but Paul McCartney’s tune from the 1970s does catch well the message of the day. The question is: If there’s someone knocking at your door; shouldn’t you go let them in?
But, if you do open the door, you could be in for a surprise. That’s because the person could be, none other than John the Baptist, dressed in skins and toting a lunch pail full of locusts and honey. The reason he’s at your door is because he has a message for you: "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Vs. 2, CEB). This is a message about preparation – clean up and get ready, for the Lord is coming. Yes, this time it might be John, but next time it’s likely to be the Christ.
1. THE SPIRIT OF THE KING.
It is Advent, and John the Baptist figures prominently in the Advent story. That’s because this man of the wilderness serves as the advance man of God’s kingdom. To get an idea about what John is up to you might consider what happens when the President of the United States comes to town. Members of his staff will go ahead of him to make sure everything is ready. The Secret Service checks out the security, other handlers make sure the President has a place to stay, and they set up all the speaking opportunities. Nothing is left to chance.
As Jesus’ advance man, John wants us to be ready when he comes to visit. And that means, cleaning up our lives, so that we’ll be ready to welcome him into our midst. That is well and good, but maybe you have questions of your own about this coming king. Maybe you’d like to know what kind of king is coming, and what his reign will look like. After all, history has unveiled all kinds of rulers. Some have been benign, and others have been evil. So, what should we expect? John answers our questions by telling us that he is not worthy of even tying the shoes of the coming Messianic King, the one we’ve been waiting for, and that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire, instead of water.
As we consider what kind of ruler Jesus might be, Isaiah offers us some possible answers. According to the prophet, this hoped for ruler will come bearing gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. With these gifts in hand, the one who is coming will rule wisely and justly. He’ll judge not by sight nor by what he hears, because these senses can be easily corrupted. In fact, human judgments can be skewed by riches and power, but neither of these enticements will impress the coming judge who will rule on behalf of the poor and the meek. (Isaiah 11:1ff).
John’s message to us is this: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Because, when the messiah comes, things will be different! Yes, I know, you’ve heard that one before. Politicians always come making promises that they rarely deliver upon. It’s not that they’re evil people, it’s just that making promises is easier than keeping them! But could this be the time when things are different?
2. THE BLESSINGS OF THE KINGDOM
The message of John is this – when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, it will bring a reign of peace, something we all long for. Indeed, as we lit the Peace candle this morning, we declared this to be our hope for the world. In lighting this candle, it is appropriate that we lift up in prayer those who live in areas that know not peace: Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Mexico, Columbia, Israel and Palestine. And, there is that desire to see peace come to our own streets, homes, and even congregations.
True peace, Isaiah says, comes as the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf, and when the little child leads them. A little child comes to us with innocence, trust, gentleness, and friendship. Aren’t these the qualities we wish for ourselves? What a contrast there is between this image of the child king and the tyrants of history – Bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin. And if we think Americans are immune from violence and hatred, just think back a few years to Abu Graib. You might want to also remember that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world.
In the midst of this reality, we hear John calling out to us: The king is coming, so get ready! Change your hearts and your lives.
If we can look forward for a moment, we’ll discover in due time that this promised ruler will come to us in a most uncommon way. He’ll not be born in a palace in Jerusalem but rather in the little town of Bethlehem. Although there isn’t a manger in Matthew, perhaps it’s appropriate to imagine that setting for a moment. It helps us realize that this king won’t come into our lives in the same way as Caesar or Alexander, with armies and fearsome weapons in hand. Instead, this new born king comes bearing the message of Isaiah: the nations will beat "their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks," so that there might be peace on earth (Is. 2:4).
Does such talk seem unrealistic? Perhaps. And yet, this is the message that Jesus brings to us. It is the message he seeks to embody. It is a message of peace, hope and reconciliation. Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote: "violence provokes more violence and really solves nothing." Gandhi said, "an eye for an eye leaves the world blind." And Jesus said: love your enemies, even as the angels sing: “Peace on earth and good will to all.”
3. TRAVELING LIGHT
I realize that the lure of Christmas is difficult to ignore, even as we come to church for an Advent service. The bells are ringing and the songs are in the air, and would just as soon skip the preliminaries. And yet every journey requires preparation, and Advent is a season of preparation. It requires a bit of discipline in the face of our impatience.
If we will heed the call of the prophets, whether Isaiah or John the Baptist, and step back and consider the one who is coming, then we’ll be better able to heed his message of peace. And preparation for the coming king, according to John, requires of us repentance.
I realize that repentance isn’t one of our favorite words. Not only does it mean saying you’re sorry, it also means changing the way you think and live, and that requires us to do a bit of self-examination. But, if we’re willing to follow John’s lead, we will be ready to receive into our lives the one who is coming, the one who calls upon us to abandon lives of violence, anger, hatred, dishonesty, slander, while embracing God's peace, love, and grace. William Stringfellow wrote that this message of repentance is "no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation." (William Stringfellow, "The Penitential Season," in Watch for the Light, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 2001).
And remember the other part of John’s message – the one who is coming will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Fire is the refiner of our lives, burning off the chaff, the parts of our lives that do not honor God or serve as a blessing to our neighbors. And having been refined by God’s fire, which goes beyond the cleansing waters of John’s baptism, we are then ready to receive the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers and guides us on the journey, a journey that we’re better able to take, because we no longer carry with us all that baggage that weighs us down and keeps us from enjoying God’s presence.
Consider for a moment the Dickens tale, where Marley tells Scrooge that the chains he bears are the chains he put on in life. According to the ghost of Marley, in death he carries the weight of his disregard for humanity. As we prepare for Christmas, like Scrooge, we’re invited to let go of the things, the attitudes, the grudges, that keep us from experiencing the joy of the kingdom. Travel light, is the advice that both Jacob Marley and John give us as we prepare to welcome the coming King.
In Revelation, we hear Jesus say to us: “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear this word from a former President, Jimmy Carter: “We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit, as my sister Ruth seemed to know. Whether the door is open or closed is our decision” (Partners in Prayer, Advent 2004, Dec. 3, Chalice Press).
Yes, “someone’s knocking at the door,” will someone let him in?