It happens every year. We get off to such a beautiful start in Advent, and then he shows up. This season of hope and expectation opens with the lighting of the first purple candle and a glorious reading from Isaiah. Then comes the second Sunday of Advent, and he makes his annual appearance, the man who smells like a camel with locust legs stuck between his teeth, the man who makes Martha Stewart cringe. Here he comes, shouting, “Repent!”
“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” (Mark 1:4).
Back in 1993 Art Moody, a retired priest, was speaking at our church in Pennsylvania. Old Art told a story I’ve not forgotten—of an outdoor symphony concert in New York. One of those “symphonies in the park.” And the orchestral piece was to begin with a far-off trumpet, setting the tone for the piece.
In rehearsals the conductor moved the trumpeter off into the wings and finally he decided he wanted the trumpeter way off—so he put him in the bushes about fifty yards from the orchestra on stage. It was to be a really dramatic affect.
On the night of the performance the conductor took the podium, the audience went quiet, and he raised his baton. Then, out in the bushes, the trumpeter stood up and played the startling opening theme. Immediately the park police ran over and tackled the trumpeter! They thought he was a crackpot, someone trying to disrupt the performance.
That, said Art, is our response to John the Baptist. All of us cultured folk are gathered for this dignified, urbane liturgy. We’re all bedizened in purple and gold, and John the Baptist stands up in the back and trumpets, “Repent!” The ushers have to tackle the guy in the aisle and haul him out.
We experience this tension every Advent. This wild man invading our lovely, well-appointed churches, calling us out into the wilderness. Telling us we must repent.
We need this tension, need this wild man. As much as we love the candle light and homecoming and the sound of Salvation Army bells and children with silver pipe-cleaner haloes and pinned-on angel wings, Advent must also alarm us. We are not living in the light, our world is haunted by darkness. One by one, we must repent. Turn around. Walk in newness of life.