This is the season of preparation. Advent. We hear the notes of hope and expectation, but we also hear the note of repentance. John the Baptist is the wild prophetic figure who storms our lovely party of positives (as in, “Let’s keep it upbeat and positive”), with his classic one-line sermon. “Repent and believe the good news.”
We don’t like repentance because it implies judgment—that something is wrong with us. But John asks us not to be afraid of judgment. He says it’s actually “good news.”
Think of it. When you’re in trouble, do you want someone who will shield you from the truth in order to spare you the “bad news”? Imagine you’re in the doctor’s office. You’ve just had a routine check up, and a battery of tests. You sit down with the doctor, and she says, “Everything looks good except there’s something that you ought to take a look at on this MRI.” And she turns the computer screen toward you so you can see. And you say, “Whoa—wait. This isn’t going to be bad news, is it? Because if it is, I really don’t like bad news.”
What the doctor has before you is a judgment. The facts are on the screen, and her trained eye can see it and make the call. It’s a judgment. It’s not the kind of “judgment” that says you’re a bad person or a good person. It simply declares what is true and actual.
Maybe this Advent we need to stop thinking about John the Baptist in the biblical image of the wild prophet dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, and think of John, rather, as a very good doctor with terrible bedside manner. Imagine, instead, a disheveled doc in a rumpled white lab coat. An intense diagnostician whom you wouldn’t want to spend ten seconds with at a cocktail party, but people tell you he’s so legendary in his field—it’s almost spooky. His colleagues say, Nobody reads the data better than Dr. John. This guy can read film like he’s the one with x-ray. This guy, they say, makes the MRI talk to him. He makes diagnoses nobody else would catch. If you really want to know what’s ailing you, this is the guy to see—if you can take his manner. And sadly, some can’t.
Some years ago when our kids were in college, Pam and I set out at the crack of dawn for Ohio to pick up our daughter. About an hour down the road the yellow “Check engine” light went on. Now, it’s 8 hours there and 8 hours back. We had to get there—we didn’t have time for this inconvenience. I drove for about 10 minutes while Pam and I talked about it. The car was running smoothly. It had to be a faulty light. I pulled off and checked the oil and the other vitals and everything was fine. Got back in and the yellow light was still alarming me. Well we rationalized, until we finally decided we had to have it looked at.
We pulled off and found a Toyota dealership. It was 7 AM and we had to wait an hour until 8 when the technicians came in. When they finally looked at it, they said it was clogged valves in the emission system. $278.00 and two hours to do the work. I said, “Well, I’ve got to get to Ohio and back today. I can do this when I come home, right?” And the man said, “When these valves clog, they heat up, and eventually they can burn holes in the valves. But, hey, sir—this is your car.”
Well, of course I stopped and had the work done then and there. But you know the real, main reason why I could not believe that there was anything wrong with my car? Because I’d just washed and waxed it. And it looked so good on the outside!
Instead of being thankful for that warning, and then for the judgment that the service technician rendered, I wanted to deny the judgment. I wanted to run from it—I heard it as “bad news.” It was stealing my time and my money—not thinking I could lose the whole weekend and the whole engine if I didn’t stop and fix this.
This is Advent—the yellow light goes on: Check Soul. Something’s not right. The light goes on when our priorities are wrong. When we’re neglecting the care of the soul, the nurture of our inner life, and our connection to others and the needs of the world.
What’s ailing you on the inside? Dr. John—the wild Doctor of the Soul—is ready to see you now. Can you listen? Can you hear the good news?