When I was a kid, I sang in the choir of the Anglican cathedral in downtown Toronto. On Friday nights and Sunday mornings, my dad used to drive my brother and I from where we lived in the far east end to the cathedral. To get there from the east you had to cross the Don River near the lakeshore and as you came over the rise of the overpass, this sign would appear just above the guardrail. It said “Christ is coming! Call Jim” and a phone number.
All my childhood I always wondered about that sign. It was a landmark for many years, perched on top of a large old evangelical pentecostal church on the west side of the river. I wondered if Jim knew something the rest of us didn’t, like when or where Christ was coming. At some point, it occurred to me that maybe Jim didn’t know and that’s why he had the sign. Maybe it was kind of a “call me if you see him” kind of thing.
Turns out Jim just wanted you to come to his church so he could tell you how to be ready for when Christ gets here. He was pretty good at that, too. Apparently the sign was still there long after Jim had retired and was spending the winters in Florida. I guess you just got his voicemail then.
But maybe, if you went to Jim’s church - I confess I never did - Jim just told you to repent and be ready. Like John the Baptist did.
John’s not really part of the Christmas story. Although, the gospel of Luke says that John’s mom, Elizabeth, was a cousin of Mary - Luke suggests Jesus and John are related! - and Luke tells the story of John’s conception (it involves an angel, too) and of Mary visiting Elizabeth to share her own news. So John’s only about six months older than Jesus. On the other hand, Luke’s the only gospel that tells this, so maybe it’s just a good story.
Anyway, here we are for two Sundays in Advent, hearing about the fully grown John, how he’s the fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah, how he comes to proclaim the arrival of Jesus and how we should repent, be baptized and be ready (Mark 1). He’s not really just The Baptizer, he’s The Announcer. Christ is coming! Call John.
Thing is, Advent’s not at all about the chronological telling of the Christmas story. If it were, it would have to start nine months before Christmas. Or even six month’s before that if you want to include John’s story.
No, Advent’s about preparing for Jesus’s birth and the beginning of what Mark calls “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s why we hear John calling us to repentance now, to literally turn away from sin, and be ready for Jesus.
John didn’t have a sign, but he did have lots of personality and he got lots of attention. At least, I think we see him that way. All Mark says is that he came out of the wilderness, wore clothes made of camel hair and ate locusts and honey. Further stories maybe lead us to believe he was pretty direct and spoke his mind with not much subtlety.
I’ve often wondered if a more contemporary John might be like one of those street corner preachers, yelling at the world as it goes by, shouting at us to “Repent, the end is near!” Have you ever stopped to listen to one of them? Maybe it’s John. It could be. Or maybe it’s Jesus. Quick, call Jim.
The thing is, all that brings a question to my mind: how are we announcing that Christ is coming? (Or - if you been following me the last few weeks - that Christ is here already?) Do we have a sign like Jim? Or shout to the world like John? Or do we live like Jesus and speak with our actions, not just our words?