Christ Centered Resources

Brother John Prepares for Christmas

Rev. Ed Searcy

Luke 7:18-35, Luke 3:1-20, Luke 1:1-80
University Hill United Church : Sun, December 7, 1997
Once again this year there is something missing. Every year it is the same. We pull out the box of Christmas Books and it isn't there. We get out the old nativity scene and it isn't there. Missing. Always missing. The story of John is missing. Go over to the theological library and you'll see what I mean. Thousands of books about the babe in the manger. But how many can be found about the other babe in the story? Six. That's how many you'll find. Six. It is time for number seven. Time to find the Christmas Book that has always been missing ... a book that tells the story of the character who is absent from all of our nativity scenes ... the story called: "Brother John Prepares for Christmas" by Rev. Edwin Searcy Sitting in a cold, dark prison cell, Brother John peered through the bars in the tiny opening high in the wall at the cold, frozen ground outside and wondered about celebrating Christmas in such a place. His thirty-something face blended the rugged look of outdoors with the tired look of age. His long red hair was, as always, pulled back in a pony-tail. Even here he looked like someone to be reckoned with. Brother John could hear the sound of Salvation Army bells down on the corner by the liquor store and he could see the cars filling the mall parking lot across the street. The Christmas muzac drifted like incense from the stores into his cell but it brought no cheer. Soon the shadows crept up the wall signalling the end of another day. John lifted his mattress off of the floor and found his closely guarded secret : the little cloth bag which held a single candle and some matches. He held his breath and waited as a jailer's heavy footsteps passed by the cell door. When it was safe again he carefully set the candle on the floor and lit it. Staring at the tiny flame he prayed with all of his being for hope. It was his nightly ritual. Before the footsteps could return, John blew out the flame and hid the candle away again. Until tomorrow. Again that night he couldn't sleep. He stared at the ceiling and remembered. He remembered the strange and wonderful stories of his childhood, the ones that he used to ask his mother to tell him again and again. "Alright, alright" she would say with a twinkle in her eye, "climb up on the bed beside me and I'll tell you again how it happened ... Your father and I had always dreamed of a child but one had never been granted to us. We were already very old and had given up on our dream. We would never have a child of our own. It wasn't to be. Then one day, your priestly pappa was on duty in the Temple. As luck would have it he drew the short straw and took his turn entering the Holiest of Holy places to offer the incense. Outside he could hear everyone praying and chanting, but inside it was very quiet ... so quiet that the angel of God who was standing by the altar nearly startled Zechariah out of his wits." John always loved this part of the story. Even as a grown man, lying on his bed in the prison cell, he found a smile creeping on to his face at the thought of his old man meeting the angel of the Lord. "The angel told us that our prayers had been answered, that our dream was coming true ... that we would have a child, that we should name him John and that he would bring us great joy and gladness." Whenever Elizabeth said this a tear would form in the corner of her eye and John would watch as it slowly rolled down her cheek ... "But there was more. The angel told your father that you would be a great prophet like Elijah, one to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to wisdom ... that you would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Well, you know your father. He simply couldn't believe it. So the angel Gabriel said that, just to prove it would all happen as promised, Zechariah would not be able to say a word - no matter how hard he tried - until you were born." Then Elizabeth laughed ... she always laughed at the thought of her preacher husband speechless for nine whole months. But John always wanted her to hurry, to get to his favourite part ... the part about the time when Mary came to visit ... "It was the strangest thing", Elizabeth would always say. "Mary came to help when I was so pregnant that I could barely get up anymore ... I wasn't exactly a spring chicken you know! I'll never forget when she walked into the house ... I heard the door slam ... and recognized her voice and before I could say or do anything you started kicking and poking me so badly that I could hardly move ... it was as if you knew who it was. And the more I heard of Mary's story the more I wondered if you were jumping for joy for a reason. When I told Mary that she must be very blessed to make my baby so excited all she could do was sing for joy. And she did. She did. Then you were born. What a day it was. Everyone thought we should name you Zechariah, after your father. But your pappa wrote the name 'John' on a pad of paper. Everyone was mystified. There was no one in our family by that name ... not even a second cousin once removed. Of course, they were no not nearly so startled as when he began to sing. That's right, after nine months of saying not a word your Dad's voice returned and he sang and he sang and he sang." With that, John drifted off into a fitful sleep. It wasn't long before the dreams came again. Every night John would lie there, half-waking, half-sleeping reliving the past few weeks in his dreams. They always began in the same way ... Brother John splitting wood at his cabin in the middle of November when, like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, it hits him: "I can't stay silent any longer, I must speak, the time that the angel predicted has arrived". He was sure that it was the voice of God speaking ... but who would believe him when he told them? In his dream, as in real life, John left the axe wedged in the chopping block, picked up his Salvation Army thrift store jacket and headed for civilization ... then the dreams were always a confusing collage of scenes ... ... he sees himself climbing onto Santa's Sleigh in the middle of the suburban mall enraged by a society in which adults imagine that they can bless their offspring by heaping toys upon them. Pointing to the gang of teens hanging around the fringes who are feared and despised by the shoppers, John cries: "Look what your disobedience has created ... a lost generation of children. Things have gotten out of hand ... it's time to straighten things out, it's time to turn things around." It takes the security guards hired by the mall just a few minutes to escort Brother John outside with a warning that he never return. ... then John sees himself standing in the heart of the banking district, megaphone in hand, his voice echoing off of the steel towers: "Shame, shame ... shame on you who live and work in luxury while in the alleys and rooming houses the poor live and die alone ... you up there behind the glass are protected from the violence that we cannot escape down here on the street. Things have gotten out of hand ... it's time to straighten things out, it's time to turn this all around." It takes the police just a few minutes to respond to the 911 calls. The pepper spray, the paddy wagon and the court injunction insure that Brother John will not return. ... and the dreams always include Brother John in church, where he suddenly bursts into the sermon unannounced: "Do you really think, even for a second, that preparing for Christmas is all about getting out the lights and decorating the tree and cooking the bird? Don't you realize that if God is arriving soon in these parts we have some major cleaning up to do ... and I don't mean house cleaning, I mean life cleaning. Look at us, look at our families, our relationships ... look at this world. Things have gotten out of hand ... it's time to straighten things out, it's time to turn things around." It takes the ushers just a few seconds to quietly escort Brother John out the front doors. One hands him a food voucher. The other questions if this stranger is in need of psychiatric care. the dreams always end in the same way ... with great crowds of shoppers and bankers and church-goers gathering at the river, eager to wash off the grime, ready to straighten out, to turn things around. Standing waist-deep in the water John's voice has the half-crazed sound of a prophet: "You're like rats fleeing from a sinking ship ... you see what's going on in your society, that it's coming apart at the seams ... but do you realize that it is happening because of the way you live? Do you really intend to change ... or are you just looking for an easy out? Never mind being baptized in the water ... it won't mean a thing if you don't change the way you carry on with one another. I'm not talking cosmetic change ... it is radical surgery that God calls for, God intends to cut to the roots of an unjust system that no longer bears fruit. That's how your Brother John the Baptizer prepares for Christmas. Are you with me?" Even in his dreams the crowd's response takes John's breath away. He had never imagined that they would come in such droves, that repentance would look so appealing and be such good news to so many. But it was! Soon the water was full of converts, soaked from head to toe ... the movement growing before John's eyes, the angel's promise coming true ... good news of great joy ... Until the black helicopters moved in, while police surrounded Brother John. "A threat to national security", they said, "He endangers an entire way of life, the status quo is at risk." He is charged with seditious and subversive behaviour. Even in his sleep he can feel the cold metal of the handcuffs and hear the loud clang of the prison doors locking behind him ... even in his sleep he knows that it is no dream. Brother John awakens to the sound of a jailer's key in his cell door. The same guard goes through the same drill. He checks John's cell for contraband and, as he does on every morning, he keeps a blind eye to the candle under the bed. As they walk together to the exercise yard the guard asks him: "John, what should I do? How should I live?" Brother John waits until no one can overhear ... "Don't abuse your power. Don't rough up these prisoners ... be a model of justice". Out in the yard, John is approached by two dealers. His reputation for wisdom is spreading like wildfire. "What should we do?" they ask him. "Don't you dare steal a cent ... and don't take advantage of these poor addicts, don't abuse your power". Before long everyone in the prison yard has gathered around John. Even here people sense that he is someone to be listened to. "What should we do?" they all ask him. "Don't hoard what you have ... even if it is only a little. If you have two coats, give one away. If you have more food than you need, give it away." The warden watching the whole scene had to wonder at such power. Maybe, just maybe, this Brother John was some kind of Holy Man. Soon word spread of John's power over even the most hardened of cons in the pen. People all over the countryside wondered if John might be just the kind of leader that the country needed ... a man with vision, with courage, with charisma. He had all the markings of a new Messiah. Heaven knows that they had been waiting long enough for someone to lead the country out of the wilderness. But Brother John remembered his mother's story about Mary and about her visit long ago. Then John would feel his heart jump for joy all over again thinking of what still lay in store for him and for a world in waiting. "It's not me" he would say to anyone who asked, "It's not me you're looking for but one who is even more powerful than I ... He will fill you with the Spirit of God and burn away the chaff." Taking him back to his cell, John's trusted prison guard stopped before closing the door and said: "Brother John, this may sound a bit crazy but it strikes me that everything is backwards here. Look at us. Don't you see? The truth is that you are the guard ... and I am the prisoner!" John glanced at his jailer with a puzzled look. "The more I listen to you, the more it seems that you are the one with the key that can set me free. You have the power to let me enter God's kingdom. I keep hoping that all it will take to walk free into God's new land is biding my time until my sentence is over. But you ... you have shown me something else. You say that we'll only be ready for parole when we are rehabilitated ... when we learn to live the laws of God's commonwealth. Then ... and only then ... will we be ready to welcome the Messiah. I need you, Brother John, to straighten me out so that I can be free of my old ways ... free to live in new ways." Suddenly John himself felt free, very free, even as the cell door lock latched closed. Brother John had lost all track of time. Over the weeks his small candle had burned down until it had hardly a few moments of light left to give. Then, one night, his door opened unexpectedly. It was the guard ... the one guard John could trust. He closed the door and quietly locked it from the inside. Without a word he passed John a candle and some matches ... and motioned for him to light it. Together they sat silently in the candle's glow. Then the guard spoke: "I thought that you should know that one of those who you baptized has begun spreading your message." Brother John sat up, his pulse raced. "But he's doing more than this ... wherever he goes the blind see, the deaf hear, the poor eat, God's Kingdom comes. He's calling others to follow him ... and I am one of them." John asked: "Are the police after him yet?". "Yes, I've seen them undercover whenever he speaks. What should we do?" "Don't worry. God's rule comes. God's will is to be done. It's as Gabriel said it would be." The guard wondered what on earth Brother John could mean. Before he could ask, John began to pray ... and this time, for the first time, it was not a longing prayer for hope in a hopeless cell. Now it was a joyous prayer of thanks to God that the promises made so long ago to Elizabeth and Mary had been kept. 'Amen' said Brother John. 'Merry Christmas' said his guard.