Every year, a few weeks before Christmas, my family and I set up several manger scenes in our home.
One is from Haiti. Another from Peru. Another from Mexico. Another from the West Bank.
I enjoy these various depictions of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Their different skin colors remind me of the scope of God's love. God doesn't just love me or people who look like me. God loves the whole world.
The more I gaze at the crèches, however, the more aware I am that someone is missing. The scene is incomplete.
Where is John the Baptizer? Where is the one who proclaimed, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near?"
John serves as Jesus' herald. He puts us on notice that God is about to turn the world upside down. It is John's job to make the paths straight, to level hills and mountains for his arrival, to prepare the way for Jesus.
John is like that eccentric uncle who says and does things that keep us hiding our face in shame. He dresses in camel hair. Camel hair? Who in their right mind ever dresses in camel hair? And consider his favorite snacks: Wild honey and locusts. Locusts? Yes, locusts. They were eaten by the very poor who lived in the desert.
His appearance and diet, however, barely scratch the surface of our discomfort. Old Grasshopper Breath charges out of the wilderness with fire in his belly. To the refined religious folks of his day he shouts, "You brood of vipers." I can't imagine that went over very well.
John is on a mission: To clear the way for Jesus. If that means leveling the pious or insulting the wealthy or scaring the wits out of the old and young alike, then so be it.
And, perhaps, that is why we tend to avoid him around Christmas. We genuinely cherish our time with friends and look forward to a respite from the demands of the world. Manger scenes comfort us and reassure us and fill us with a warm glow. Christmas is for family.
John just doesn't fit in.
But he also won't go away. There he is reminding us again and again that the kingdom is drawing near. There he is challenging our assumptions, values and priorities. There he is confronting our narrow view of God's embrace. There he is calling us to repent and love others the way God loves each and every one of us.
And then sometimes, more often than not, we surprise ourselves and one another by actually hearing John's words. Midst twinkling lights and eggnog, we hear and respond.
Every time we drop a few coins into a Salvation Army bucket, the path has been straightened.
Every time we help to feed the homeless, a mountain of hunger has been leveled.
Every time we hammer a nail for Habitat for Humanity, we have prepared the way. Every time we support homeless refugees, the crooked road has been realigned.
Every time we come face to face with our greed and our own complicity in the brokenness of the world, a dangerous hill has been flattened.
Don't look for John in your manger scenes. You won't find him.
Take a long, hard look in the mirror and you might just catch a glimpse of that eccentric old uncle who has something to say about how the world can be made anew.