Last week Travelle Wharton won the game for the Carolina Panthers. He had at least three huge plays that kept the Panthers in the game they eventually won. Who is Travelle Wharton? He is the left tackle. Everyone who follows the Panthers knows who Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, John Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams are. They are the quarterback, wide receivers and running backs. They have even heard of names of defensive players too, like Peppers, Gamble and Beason. They are the people everyone talks about, but you may never know Travelle Wharton was playing, unless he causes a penalty. But last Sunday number 70, this 6’4”, 312lb, South Carolina native, had a fumble recovery and two massive blocks which enabled touchdowns to be scored. Without those three plays, the Panthers would have lost.
Linemen don’t get the flashy credit that the quarterback, running backs, wide receivers, or even defenses players get. Offensive linemen are the silent warriors week in and week out. They are the massive mounds of flesh that protect the quarterback, open holes for the running backs, and provide enough time for the wide receivers to get open. Without them there would be no one to hike the ball to the quarterback or to fight off the defense from pummeling the other players. They play a vital role in the game but you don’t see interviews with them on ESPN, those usually go to the people who come after the linemen.
Lineman prepare the way for the other offensive players on the field. Jesus had a lineman to prepare the way for his coming. We call him John the Baptist. Jesus’ cousin was called by God to get things ready for Christ’s ministry. He starts to break up the people and especially the religious rulers of the day. He starts to get them ready for the true radical one that is to come.
John the Baptist was a radical himself though. The scripture tells us he was in the wilderness preaching to who ever would come to hear him listen. The wilderness is a special place for the Jewish people. They had been there before as a people, wondering around waiting to be let into the Holy Land. King David spent time out there, running for this life. The wilderness always is a place where a mandate is laid down. You have two choices to make when you are out in the wilderness, either you turn away from God or you enable God to save you. John the Baptist, out in the wilderness, was sharing that same theme with the people who came to hear him.
I am not sure if they were all out there to hear his message though, some of them had to just want to see the freak show. John the Baptist was known for his look. He wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. It wasn’t because he was trying to start a new trend; it was actually an older look. The clothes he wore harkened back to the prophets that came before him. He was a visual reminder of the past. People compared him to the prophet Elijah, which is good because that is the look he was going for.
John the Baptist is like the character Disco Stu from The Simpsons. Anytime you see Disco Stu in an episode he is always wearing some sort of 70s outfit and using 70’s lingo. He is out of place and sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet he calls us back to a time of fun and change in society. The 1970s was a decade of transformation, of war, of bad politics, and of flourishing culture. All we have to do is look at Disco Stu and we are taken back to that time.
John the Baptist called the people of that day to go back too. His clothes and his food were images of the past but so was his message. He had a message of confession and repentance. Confession and repentance are both acts of diving into your past and dealing with it. During this type of spiritual discipline a person looks back at their life and sees all their sins. They confess them to God and ask for forgiveness. John’s message was for everyone to do this, including us today.
John didn’t fit in with the other so called prophets of his time. His message and style were old school but the attention he received because of them he did not want. John the Baptist was a truly modest man. As he was getting all this attention he always made it about the one to come. The one who will come after him. The one that will be more powerful. The one who is so holy John is not even worthy enough to untie his sandals. The one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John always pointed to the one who was coming.
There is a piece of art that is in France now but it was done by German artist, Matthias Grünewald. The piece is for an altar and it has an image of Jesus being crucified on it. To Jesus’ right are his mother and the others the Bible says was at the cross. On his left is John the Baptist, who we know wasn’t actually there at the crucifixion because he had already been beheaded. But in this piece he is there, holding what looks like the scriptures in one hand and pointing at Jesus with the other. His index finger, his pointer finger is abnormally longer than a normal human’s. Grünewald is demonstrating the job of John the Baptist was to point to Christ and what he would do on this earth. That is what John did. He humbly stepped out of the way and let the real purpose come forward, just like a good lineman.
Now in the second week of Advent we are reminded of John the Baptist’s message and purpose. He told us to look back, to confess and ask for forgiveness. We are to do that in order to see the need of the gift that is coming. If we look at our faults, our mistakes and our sins, we realize that we need someone to save us from ourselves. God knew that. John knew that. And so we wait for the gift to come.
We wait for Christ’s arrival but we can still feel his presence today as we partake in communion. We can taste the salvific gift of Christ on our tongue as we eat the elements. The person John was telling us about. The only who is Holy and who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, is here. He was present in the sacrament of baptism in the early part of the service and he is in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Let us celebrate the not yet, by partaking in the now.
And all God’s people said…Amen.