John the Baptist in Disguise
Mike has the ability to attract and repel at the same time. A member of the congregation I served for 25 years, Mike deals with chronic mental illness. Bipolar, he tends toward the manic side, always with another get rich plan just around the corner. His world is bigger than life. I first met him at a church supper. I was brand new to the congregation. Mike took me under his wing. He invited me to sit with him, asked all sorts of questions, and told me all about how God was going to grow the church. Mike is self absorbed and his family continues to pay the ticket price for the emotional roller coaster he rides.
And yet, when I envision John the Baptist, he looks a lot like Mike. The last time I saw Mike, I walked with him after he had been discharged from the hospital. He had lost so much weight that he ran out of holes to cinch his belt. His pants were slipping off his hips. We stopped in the hallway and tied his belt around his pants. Not an elegant solution but it got him to the car.
His weight loss is not what reminds me of the man whose diet was bugs and honey. There is very little about Mike that suggests that he would make a good prophet. At times he can be crude. He speaks his mind. He pushes. Sometimes his words are inappropriate. Oh, wait; that sounds just like the one God chose to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Before he retired, Mike's wilderness was his taxi cab. His fares were just hoping to get from point a to point b, but Mike had this way of pointing them to Jesus. More than one person found their way to our church through Mike. II seems to me that he was such an unlikely person to prepare the way for another to meet Jesus. And yet - God seems intent on using unlikely people. God really is quite peculiar! Maybe His image is best reflected in the odd among us.
To join in this Advent story, perhaps were going to need to let our "odd" out; admit our own rough edges; adjust our avoidance of the characters in our lives. Maybe that's how to prepare the way of the Lord.
My grandparents lived about 90 minutes away from us. They lived in Blue Island, outside of Chicago and we lived in Milwaukee. Every so often the telephone would ring and they would say they were on a day trip and on their way to visit. I would know it was Grandma and Gramps on the phone because when Mom hung up, she would call us away from whatever we were doing. "Okay kids, we're on M.E. alert. Grandma and Gramps will be here in 30 minutes. Get to it." An M.E. alert stood for Maximum Effort. It meant we had 30 minutes to pick up clutter, dust the furniture, put soda bottles in the icebox. Dad was in charge of picking up the toys outside and getting the porch in order. Mom emptied the dishwasher, Bob and I made our beds, straightened our rooms, threw our dirty laundry down the chute to the washing machine. There was always scurrying around, gripeing by Bob and me, a few mild expletives from Dad and heightened anxiety for Mom. Somewhere in the midst of any complaining we might do, my mother would remind us that the neater we kept the house the rest of the time, the less last minute effort we would have to expend. M.E. meant maximum effort, get ready, company is coming.
I read an interesting article recently that made me think with fondness of those M.E. alerts. The author noted that our homes and churches tend to be at their best and we tend to be on our best behavior when compnay is coming. If we don't expect company, we tend to let things slide. Dishes in the sink, broken screen doors, hedges needing work; its good enough, its just us after all. Advent is the season of preparation, of getting ready, of watching expectantly, because - Company is indeed coming.
Sometimes we get lost in the preparations though. We stuff things under the bed, pull out the gaudy gift we got from our guest last year. We spend too much trying to impress them. We want everything just right. Getting ready means getting fake, putting on appearances. Advent can be a corrective for that kind of mindset. The One we're getting ready for was born in a barn. And getting ready for Him isn't about overdoing it or putting on appearances. Advent is the yearly opportunity to find room for Him in our lives.
Of course He tends to show up in our lives in all sorts of guises; many of which make us uncomfortable. He doesn't always fit in at church; he tends to make demands and turn things upside down. Like pushy Uncle Joe, we prefer he comes in short doses. And yet, being on the look out for Jesus, waiting expectantly, keeping the door open to Him and His ways, can turn each day into joyfilled expectancy. Company is coming. Let's get ready.
Kate Kotfila is Pastor of Cambridge United Presbyterian Church. She and her husband David live in Jackson. They have two adult children & a faithful (if clueless) Plott hound, Arnie.