By Bruce Stanley, president / CEO
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. –Matthew 3:3-4
As we deck the halls of our administration building we put out several Christmas creches. Each is unique; They are from different countries, different cultures, and made from different materials including pewter, wood, and ceramic. While the styles vary, the substance does not. In each there is a manger, a holy family, a shepherd’s crook, sheep, and wise men bearing gifts.
Those are the beautiful and celebrated parts of the Christmas story. Yet they do not tell all of the story. There is one essential character in the narrative who has already come and gone in Matthew’s narrative: John the Baptist.
Every year this awkward, unkempt guest shows up on the second Sunday of Advent. He comes unwashed, out of the wilderness, with challenging words of repentance and accountability for our sins. He is wearing a camel’s hair shirt and a barbed belt that purposefully chafes him each time he moves as a reminder of his sins. No Christmas cookies for him. He eats severely – only wilderness foods. While he seems out of place and unwanted, his importance cannot be denied. His awkwardness is essential to Christmas.
Many times as a pastor I have seen the unwashed, unexpected, or uninvited guest become the one who ushers in the Christmas spirit. Grace UMC in Wilmington is located on the same block as the Cape Fear Gospel Rescue Mission. In my second year of ministry we planned a Christmas party with the mission. The idea, of course, was that we, the advantaged, would provide presents/party/program for the disadvantaged. We shared a wonderful meal, we handed out presents, and then our choir led us in Christmas carols.
Unexpectedly, in the midst of the caroling, one of the homeless residents stood. He was tall and so slender as to suggest chronic hunger. His hair was clean but unkempt and he had a couple days stubble on his chin. In wavering southern voice, he spoke in the idiom of the rural church. He said, “I want to favor you with a special.” Then, without accompaniment or permission, he sang ‘O Holy Night.’
When he sang the words, “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,” we all teared up. His voice was untrained. He wandered between sharp and flat. And yet, this awkward, unexpected soloist who came to us out of the “weary world” brought us into hope and rejoicing. Forty years have passed, yet I can still see his flannel shirt and blue jeans. I hear his untrained voice not with my ears now but with my heart. We who thought we were bringing the gifts were given a greater one. I doubt he ever realized that he was “the voice of one singing out in the wilderness,” but that day he prepared the way of the Lord.
As we wait and prepare for Jesus to come, let us do so with a renewed appreciation for the role that all of God’s children have to play in our lives. Let us actively welcome those who come from wilderness or weary world.