Having a baby is stressful enough without surprises being thrown at you. Especially ones that are not good surprises.
I met a couple at the hospital whose doctor had told them to expect a nine-pound baby. Their surprise? The baby was premature, and they had a three-pound baby.
The little one was healthy for three pounds, but that’s still a really small baby, and they were worried.
I reminded these folks how a trauma hospital is a good place to have a premature baby. I see them go home practically every day in tip-top shape. It’s pretty much a miracle. But for these parents, it wasn’t the miracle they had been expecting.
It was the wrong miracle.
They Had a Good Thing Going
When we read the well-known prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 11:1-10), we are supposed to be filled with warmth and comfort and hope. OF COURSE the Messiah will decide with equity for the meek of the Earth. OF COURSE the wolf shall live with the lamb. OF COURSE — in one of my favorite images from the Bible — the cow and the bear will graze, and their young will lie down together.
Nothing wonderful could ever come from Isaiah’s prophecy of “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” if that stump didn’t already look as dead as a doornail, to borrow from “A Christmas Carol.”
The psalmist wouldn’t have needed to call for the mountains to yield God’s goodness and righteousness if the people were already good and righteous.
And John the Baptist never would have appeared in the wilderness of Judea if the paths of the Lord had already been prepared and made straight.
And yet, long before John or Isaiah or Jesse or even Abraham, human beings had learned to band together, and that is what we have called civilization. Brood of vipers or not, ax being laid to the root of the trees or no, civilization was good at keeping the bears and wolves and lions and leopards away.
So the Pharisees and Sadducees felt warm and comfortable in their place of religious and social leadership. They made the rules and lived by them, and in general, they had a good thing going.
But some people just don’t play by the rules.
Into our civilized land, blessedly free of bears and wolves and leopards, comes John the Baptist.
Turning Their World Upside Down
People don’t have to be loud and obnoxious and insane and smelly to be rejected by the rest of us. They don’t even have to have especially weird beliefs. They simply need to be just different enough and just strange enough to make us think about what we believe, and why we believe it.
What did John do that got everybody so worked up? He was talking about the wrong miracle. He was one more wise-guy, loudmouth prophet showing up on the outskirts of town. All the folks who had grown up hearing and reading about prophets said, “Play it in ‘E’, Mr. Prophet. We’ve heard it all before. Have another go at the scriptures. Tell us something we can ignore, then move on, and let us get on with our lives.”
So John’s own people were not all that charged up when he repeated the wisdom of ages: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” The people didn’t want to be comforted.
They didn’t want the highways to be made straight. Where was the drama in that? They wanted lots of curves and convolutions and curlicues so they could render all sorts of interesting opinions. And as for those “Good Tidings,” well, it was all just the wrong miracle.
Is it any wonder Israel ended up living through generations of doubt and despair? They’d been so far down for so long that it looked like up. So John realized the only way to straighten them out was to turn their world upside down.
Basically, John is saying this: No matter who you are, no matter how wise you are, no matter how long you’ve been trying, there is not enough water in all the world to wash away your sins. Still, comfort, comfort my people. The Lord God comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
He reminds us that all of our laws, all of our church stuff, all of that civilization and its trappings — that business doesn’t really protect us from anything.
Getting the Right Miracle
It’s enough of a blow to simply believe what John the Baptist tells us is real, and factual and true. But we are called upon to believe something even more preposterous than that. We are supposed to take in everything John is telling us and accept it as good news. As the right miracle.
When we look at all the tragedy and misery and loneliness and heartache and trouble in the world, what we see and what we know will inevitably lead us to one conclusion: John the Baptist was wrong. We are all alone. There is no Advent. There is no God. There will be no Christ. There will be no Christmas.
Every year, when we are looking at the dirty dishes and leftovers from Thanksgiving, we would swear on a stack of Bibles in any court of law in the land that this poor ol’ Stump of Jesse is dead.
But then, overnight, somehow, comes forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.
It may not be what we’re looking for, but prophet bards and herald angels assure us — we’re getting the right miracle.
Even in the darkest of days, the Apostle Paul rejoiced with the church in Rome, giving thanks for the promise of miracles that may come to rest with us, now and in every believing heart. Now and forever: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts in human hearts the blessing of His heaven. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell, O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.