“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”
If you’ve ever read the classic story Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss, you know what’s going on. But for the uninitiated, let me summarize. Good ol’ Horton, while enjoying the cool of that pool, sees a speck of dust floating by from which he is certain emerged that small noise. Using his noggin, Horton surmises there must be a person on that speck needing help. So he adeptly plucks that speck out of the air, placing it gently among the soft petals of a flowering clover. For, he declares with some bravado and grace, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
Unfortunately for Horton, a sour kangaroo and her sour-kid-in-training come bounding up, look at Horton and give a great “Harumpf!” They are not impressed with Horton’s thinking, and quickly dismiss his silly idea. Certainly no person could be so small to be standing on a speck of dust. Horton replies that not only is he certain that there’s a person down there, it’s likely to be a whole family.
[callout]A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent on Luke 3:1-6.[/callout]
Well, that sour-y kangaroo calls Horton a fool, and she and her roo jump into the pool. Horton—fearing the splash may harm the tiny family on the speck—quickly covers it with his trunk. As you can imagine, word travels around the jungle about how crazy ol Horton must be for believing such nonsense. The wicked Wickersham Brothers and a buzzard named Vlad rile up the other animals. They all seek to destroy that speck and Horton’s belief that a tiny family resides on it.
But, we readers soon discover is that Horton is almost right. There is indeed a family down there on that dust mite and there’s more. In fact, Horton learns there’s a whole town on that speck called Whoville with people going about their daily lives. (Horton finds he is able to communicate with the Mayor of that town, but the Mayor is having his own hard time trying to convince the other Whos that Horton exists out there in the universe.) So Horton keeps protecting the Whos down in Whoville adamantly declaring that a person’s a person no matter how small.
In our gospel lesson it’s not the fifteenth of May in the Jungle of Nool, but rather the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, and we’re out in the wilderness near the River Jordan. It isn’t a small noise from a speck floating by, but the word of God that comes to Zechariah’s son John. And if you think for a moment that these stories aren’t similar, you’d be wrong.
For Horton and John the Baptist are both prophets. They both hear something tremendously important and respond to it. And that response calls others to action.
Each year in Advent John the Baptist crawls out from his cave there in the wilderness desert of the Middle East, and we cringe. In icons, John has messed up hair and wears coarse clothing—though I’ve yet to see one depicting him with his meal of choice—handfuls of crickets— stuck between his teeth. He’s like that uncle who’s just a bit off at the family gatherings, or the person we friend and then instantly hide on FaceBook, not wanting to offend them by denying their request but also not wanting to have their musings in our daily lives.
Because the call of Prophets is often searing. It works its way into our bones. It pushes our thinking and assumptions, and points us to a better way of life. Could there be any more noble a call than to see the dignity of each person no matter how small? Or the call of the Baptist to make straight our crooked paths, and our rough ways smooth in order to prepare the way of the Lord? Sounds simple enough on both counts, but the practice of these has significant implications: to respond we must alter our course and our way of thinking. And that makes people—and kangaroos—a bit angry.
Because we get set in our ways, don’t we. We’ve learned a thing or two and then believe that’s the only way to respond. Or we get tangled into thinking that our understanding of the truth is the only right way. This equation puts us at the center and pushes others who disagree with us out. We won’t hear it this Advent in John’s sotry, but the local ruler Herod divorces his own wife in order to marry his brother’s wife, and he does it simply because he could. John calls him out on it, and will literally lose his head over it.
I won’t steal next week’s thunder on what John focuses on for the ones coming to hear him preach in order to be baptized, but I will point to another prophet in our world today with his own pointed message. Shane Claiborne is described as a Christian activist, who worked alongside Mother Theresa in Calcutta for a number of months. He later founded the Simple Way—a modern intentional Christian community—in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia. Because of his time in Calcutta, Shane stands non-apologetically for the sanctity of all human life. His most recent book is titled Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and How Its Killing Us. If you follow him on Twitter, you’ll be reminded to pray for the stop of upcoming executions for those on death row, and calls to leaders to spare those lives.
He begins his book Executing Grace talking about how he hadn’t really given much thought to the death penalty—he just knew he supported it growing up as a Christian in the Bible Belt. “An eye for an eye,” is of course biblical, and so that settled it for many. He describes his change, how he saw in each person the gift of life, and how God brings grace rather than condemnation through Jesus. After recounting some difficult truths about the death penalty, he tells the story about the tragedy that took place when Charles Roberts entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in 2006. As is the case when these things happen, it quickly became headline news. However, the narrative changed dramatically due to the response of the Amish community. While Charles didn’t survive the tragedy due to his own hand, the Amish—who are firmly committed to non-violence—“built a bridge to the shooter’s family and went to visit them–Charlie’s widow, children, and parents. They were neighbors. In fact, Charlie was a milk truck driver who delivered to the Amish farms, and he had three children of his own.”
As the news narrative changed, people from all over began sending money to the Amish community. They in turn donated it to Charlie’s family in order to support them. There were many funerals that week, but the Amish community also made sure to attend the funeral of the shooter, grieving with his family so they could find a way forward. Charlie’s widow, Marie, wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for the grace and forgiveness they showed her and her family. Shane describes how Charlie’s mother, Terri, soon began to visit one of the girls who survived that day, Rosanna, a six year old at the time of the event. She’ll forever need the use of a wheelchair, relies on a feeding tube, and cannot speak. “But,” Shane writes, “she is not unable to love or be loved. Terri visits Rosanna regularly; she helps bathe Rosanna, and reads to her, and sings to her. Spending time together helps to heal the wounds of this tragedy.” Through this we can see that it is grace, rather than violence, that gets the last word.
You can likely imagine the response Shane gets online and in person for his unapologetic and forceful critique of the death penalty. The Herods, Vlads, and Wickershams get all in a dither and decry his beliefs. They state that people absolutely get what they deserve. That laws protect us. But he keeps crying out in the wilderness for any and all who will listen. And the words of this prophet make their way into your heart, and begin to bring about change if you let them.
While I often get disappointed each Advent that we get two weeks with John the Baptist rather than just one—I’d rather turn my attention to Mary and the Annunciation on Advent 3—some group of theologians long ago determined that we needed to hear the words of the prophets in order to prepare for the Incarnation, and they’re right. While I’d prefer an easier account to ponder as I’m decorating our home and addressing Christmas cards, the reality is that Christmas isn’t about a sachrine-y sweet holiday made to look perfect on the outside. Jesus’ birth in a few weeks isn’t so I can receive the current gift of my dreams.
Rather he’s coming to bring good news to the poor, and to lift up the lowly. He’s coming to smooth out our rough places, and to bind up the broken hearted. He’s coming to remind us once again that a person’s a person no matter which side of the wall. We need to hear the prophets each Advent or else we run the risk of missing the point of Christ’s birth entirely. He comes to bring us grace and a new way of life, and we need to get ready, for he’s coming soon.