TEXTS: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
(A story) So there I was, at the mall. And I’ve got to tell you, the mall is definitely not my favorite place on earth to be. Because, you see, I’m not a “big crowds of people” kind of person. Those psychology folks would call me an introvert. Which causes me to pause right here in the beginning for a bit of an explanation. Because some of you people might be thinking to yourselves, “If he doesn’t like crowds of people, then why is he being a pastor? Isn’t it kinda the dream of all pastor types that you want to bring in great crowds of people to the church?” Well friends, you sees, I’ve found that lots of pastors are those introvert-y kinds of people and that getting a call from God doesn’t really have much to do with what kind of person you are and whether you like crowds of people or don’t like crowds of people, but more about whether you’re willing to preach the word of God at all and whether you like helping folks from a God and Jesus kind of angle. So for me and a good many of my friends, we kinda talk about ourselves as “professional extroverts”, ‘cause we’re people that’s really introverts but learned to be like extroverts for the sake of the call.
So anyway, there I was at the Mall, a sittin’ on a bench in the middle of the mallway or whatever you call the part between the stores. And I’m a waitin’ for the love of my life to check out something for one of the grandkids. Now let me pause one more time and mention that the other reason I don’t like the mall much is because of the distractions. You see, I’m a kind of “in and out” shopper. I make my list, I check it twice, I look at all the printed ads and maybe go online so I have a pretty good idea of what I’m after, and then I put my head down and march into that store and get my item and march right out. I don’t look right, I don’t look left and if I don’t find what I want, I go home and regroup and do more research afore I march right in again. The love of my life, she’s I guess what you call a browser. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone marching in with her in tow and suddenly I look around and she’s disappeared! Like she fell into another universe or something. I mean she’s just gone! Well, then I have to go looking for her and of course that throws my rhythm of marching in and marching out off completely!
So anyway, there I was, at the Mall, sittin’ on a bench in the middle of the Mallway, a waiting for the love of my life to do her browsing thing. And the bench, its a sittin’ just down the Mallway the whole Santa’s North Pole business, with a line of kids about fifty deep waiting to talk to Santa and parents waiting to have the elf-lady take a picture so that maybe they can put it on a Christmas Card. And Santa’s sittin’ on a big throne of a chair, like he’s some kind of king or something, and I guess for the kids he might be, and behind him is a 20 foot Christmas tree with enough lights on it to cause JCP&L to have to bring another power plant on line, and scratchy music coming out of speakers all ‘round playing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” for the umpteenth time.
And I’m sort of lost in thought, a thinkin’ about how I’m not ready for Christmas and how I don’t really think my church is ready for Christmas and about how my people are really not getting the whole Advent thing at all because they’re so busy trying get ready for Christmas. I’m a thinkin’ about how Christmas has sort of been run over by the whole commercial thing and that we’ve made it all about getting things and maybe a little about giving things and a whole lot about Santa Claus and not much at all about Jesus. And I’m finding myself gettin’ into sort of a funk that I tend to get into just about every Christmas season because I know that lots of people are missing the real meaning of Christmas and can’t begin to wrap their heads around the meaning of Advent and the whole “Jesus is coming again” sort of thing.
And just as I’m about to get into a real “pity party” sort of mood, I glance down the Mallway and I sees a man striding up the way almost right at me, and this man is the kind of man that nobody would ever forget once they seen him. I don’t know any way to tell you about him except to say that he looks like a wild man. He’s dressed in a kind of raggedy Army surplus jacket that couldn’t begin keep him warm in the winter weather, a dirty t-shirt, pants with holes in the knees that I don’t think are supposed to be there like the young folks do these days on purpose, and a worn out pair of sneakers that looked like they were ready to fall apart any minute. And this guy had a head of hair to beat the band! Hair that sticks out everywhere and looks like hasn’t been combed in about a year, and a big beard that looked ratty enough that there might be something living in it. And he has these deep dark eyes that got so much life and so much determination in them that it’s like they’re on fire!
And so I sit there kind of frozen like as this guy comes right at me, and I’m a thinkin’ to myself, “this can’t be good”. But instead of runnin’ right into me, this guy plants one worn out sneaker on the bench where I’m a sittin’ and sort of launches himself right up onto one of those giant planters with a tree in it that you see sittin’ in the mallway. Now this sets all those twinkly Christmas lights on tree to bouncing and dancing. And the guy sort of bellows out to everybody in general and nobody in particular at the same time, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
And the guy’s bellow startles poor Santa Claus so bad that he jumps up, dumping a little boy off his lap and knocking his throne of a chair over backwards into the whole North Pole backdrop business. And that, of course, causes the Santa’s North Pole backdrop to begin to collapse. And part of that backdrop gave the 20 foot Christmas tree a glancing blow and made it sort of spin and teeter like a kid’s toy top. And the elf lady sort of shrieks and lots of people shrink back with parents trying to protect their kids and some of the kids laughing and pointing like it’s some sort of joke.
Now what happened next I sorta have a hard time explaining; because it’s almost like time went into slow motion all around me and the wild man so that , except for us, everything has almost stopped. And Wild Man he spins around and looks right at me and says, “Hi Dan, my name’s John. How are things down at Zion by Wayside?” And without really thinkin’, I says back, “How do you know me? And how do you know Zion?” And he says, “Well Dan, it’s kinda my business to know, in fact I already know pretty much how things are going at Zion, because that’s who I am. So the question was sort of rhetorical, if you know what I mean.” And I asks, as kindly as I can, “And who the heck are you?” And he says, “I already told you Dan, the name is John. John of the wilderness. And you can’t find a much greater wilderness than the mall before Christmas, right? People all frantic, a running around, paying out more than they should for stuff to give to people; stuff that those people, for the most part, don’t really need. That’s why people need to hear my message. They need to think about preparing the way of the Lord. They need to hear it from me and from you too.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. (And I’m actually a bit surprised that I’m even having a conversation with a crazy man while the world seems to have ground to a halt!) “But I don’t think people are a listening, what with all the crazy-ness going on in the world today and in the lives of a lot of these poor people; them getting shoved and pushed all over the place by everything from their own busy schedules to world politics. It’s kinda hard to know whether anything is a gettin’ through to them at all.” “Yeah, I know, says Wild Man, but you just got to keep tellin’ ‘em. They’re good people down deep inside at their core. They know what it means to be faithful and true. You just got to keep tellin’ ‘em, over and over, to prepare the way.”
“Tell ‘em keep to keep sowing kindness. Tell ‘em to keep reaching out in love. Tell ‘em to keep telling others about the love of God. Tell ‘em to fight for what’s right in the eyes of God and not what’s necessarily right in the eyes of the crowd. Tell ‘em at Zion by wayside that their place still has the power to be a light of hope to the people of Long Valley and to people beyond; if they just keep tellin’ folks to keep preparing for the coming of Jesus.”
And just as I’m about to answer all his tellin’, just as I’m about to ask about a hundred other questions, Wild Man says, “Well Dan, I gotta go before the Mall security folks gets here.” And he hops down off that big planter thing just as spry as a teenager, and he strides right out of the place, just as all the chaos around me begins to come back into motion.
So there it is, friends, the word of John of the Mall, John of the Wilderness. Spread the love, tell the good news, work for what’s right in the eyes of God. And if you ever happen to be sitting in the middle of the mall somewhere and you suddenly see a wild man striding down the mallway right at you. . . .
tell him Dan says “Hi”.