What do John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common? The same middle name.
There is a story in the Winnie the Pooh books about the arrival of two new characters to the Hundred Acre Woods – Kanga and her son, Roo. When they arrive, the other animals are quite upset. Rabbit, Piglet, and Pooh all gather together to discuss, vent, complain and scheme about how to get rid of them. Rabbit, who seems to be the most frustrated of all says, “Here we are, all of us, and suddenly we wake up one morning, and what do we find? We find a Strange Animal among us.” And in that great A.A. Milne way, the first letters of strange and animal are capitalized, like a proper name, emphasizing those words – “Strange Animal among us”.
I think John the Baptist has more in common with Kanga and Roo than with Winnie the Pooh. For I can imagine someone saying something similar about John: Here we are, all of us, comfortably living in Judea. . . or Eugene, Oregon. Then suddenly we wake up one morning and we find a Strange Animal among us dressed in camel hair, eating wild locusts and honey, telling us to repent and be baptized. What a Strange Animal, indeed.
Winnie the Pooh and friends are concerned because they are afraid that Kanga and Roo are going to come in and change everything about their lives. For that is what Strange Animals do. They change things. Sometimes they even transform things. Kanga and Roo don’t really transform the Hundred Acre Woods, they just make it a little bit better by their friendship.
But John the Baptist, now that guy is not interested in just making a few new friends. John the Baptist wants to transform people, he wants to transform lives. He wants to transform people to give away one of their cloaks when they see someone without sufficient clothing; transform people to share half their bread when they see someone who is hungry; transform people to live as if the Good News of God’s love was true, and no longer be comfortable with oppression and injustice. He wanted people to see that the so-called comfort that people were living was no comfort at all when so many others lived in discomfort. He wanted people to transform how they saw the world so that what had once been comfortable was no longer so as long as there were folks without in this world. John the Baptist was a Strange Animal, indeed. A Strange Animal that wanted to transform the world.
I think it is fair to ask if we really want that kind of transformation. Many folks do not. They are comfortable as is. They do not want to be confronted with the discomfort of others, or the discomfort lying just below the surface in their own lives. “Thank you very much, but I am just fine as it is”.
It is disconcerting to allow yourself to be transformed. It can be easier to be like Winnie and Rabbit and Piglet: when the Strange Animal enters your life, just try to get rid of him or her. Fear is the modus operandi of this world, and this Strange Animal is asking us to confront our fears. We have to confront our fears of scarcity and loss if we are to give that cloak or share that loaf of bread with someone. We have to face our fear of being found out and exposed, or confront our fear of judgment or correction if we repent of our sins. We have to confront our fear of inadequacy if we say that we are not already perfect and need something like baptism to make us whole. This Strange Animal, wearing his strange clothing and eating his strange food and proclaiming his strange message is easier to ignore or domesticate than listen to.
All four Gospels explain John the Baptist through the prism of today’s Isaiah reading. John was the one to prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah said would happen. This Strange Animal was preparing the way for an even Stranger Animal, one who would not only stand by the Jordan River baptizing those who came to him with water, but who would go out into the world where people were and baptize them with the Holy Spirit. One who would transform not only one life with half a loaf of bread, but one who would transform five thousand lives with just five loaves of bread. One who would not only share the Good News of God’s love, but one who would be the incarnation of God’s love.
John the Baptist, that Strange Animal, is preparing the way of the Stranger Animal, Jesus Christ. Isaiah talked about the transformation that this one would bring, being so profound that even the earth would be transformed in the process: the valleys would be lifted up, the mountains would be brought down, rough and uneven land would be made smooth and even. You can hear the same truth of the power of this transformation echo in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, that we will hear in a couple of weeks. Mary sings of how the lowly are lifted up, and how the powerful and mighty are brought down. Jesus comes to transform personal and social orders that prevent God’s love from being fully felt and known and realized in this world.
Here in Advent, as we prepare our homes for Christmas, as we prepare our presents and bake our cookies, may we also prepare our hearts to welcome these Strange and Stranger Animals into our lives. May we be willing to be transformed by them. Be not like Rabbit or Piglet or Winnie the Pooh, but listen to the message that John the Baptist proclaims. Confront your fears in order to prepare your heart to welcome Jesus and his transforming power and love. Welcoming him not only to the messy manger in Bethlehem, but into the messy manger of your life.