By Norris Burkes Dec 17 2023

Honestly, it seems a bit odd that Advent sermons often begin with a lesson from John the Baptist. I mean, I’m uncomfortable that I share the Baptist name with my predecessor.

While J-the-B was Jesus’ second cousin, they shared no resemblance in their preaching style. The “Babble-ist” was one wild-eyed, deranged preacher dude. If he were alive today, his caustic style might recommend him for presidential candidacy.

The man didn’t make any friends when he referred to the local clergy as “a group of vipers” and dead wood fit to be burned. Of course, he really lost his head when he called King Herod an adulterer – literally head on a platter.

But today in the US, we’re a little more tolerant of these crazy preacher types. I often see them during visits to San Francisco where scathing prophets wave signs announcing the end of the world.

But during one particular Christmas-shopping visit to Union Square in San Francisco, I saw a man holding a sign with a much kinder, gentler Baptist message. “Jesus Christ Loves You.”

He must have noticed me curiously inching toward him, and he motioned for me to approach. Jose Rodriguez kept a neat beard and held his sign above his short stature on most weekends and holidays:

Jose’s sign was to the point. Simple. Not preachy.

I expected Jose to hand me an advert promoting the time and location of his services.

“No,” he said, “I’m not a preacher. I don’t really know much about the Bible.”

Nevertheless, Jose found the Bible’s most important message, so I asked him what kind of reaction the sign was generating.

“Most people show their agreement in some way,” he said. “They smile or nod and say, ‘That’s right.’” But no matter what their response, Jose held his sign in the same unflinching way he had begun in 2000.

I admire Jose’s courage, but I also appreciated what his sign did not say.

In a time when fundamentalist fanatics picket the funerals of war veterans and thrust placards of dead babies in the faces of confused mothers, I could fill several columns with what Jose’s sign DID NOT say.

It didn’t name conditions such as, “Jesus loves you if . . .”

It didn’t say “Jesus only loves you when . . .” It didn’t say, “My god hates your god.”

The cynic might have scolded Jose saying that it’s easier to hold a placard about Jesus’ love than to actually put love into practice. It’s the warning James, (Jesus’ half-brother) gave against simply telling the hungry, “Be warm and filled,” without offering them a cup of soup.

While I doubt Jose would argue that point, I do think he was on track to offer love.

After all, I don’t think it’s possible to remind each other too often about God’s love for us. For instance, can you tell a child you love him too much? Can you tell your spouse too many times that you cherish her above all?

Maybe Jose’s message, however many times you see it at football games or on the streets of a major city, is that God’s love will always be too big to define or imagine. This was the love that John the Baptist saw in Jesus when he said in Mark 1:7 that he wasn’t “worthy to stoop down and untie his (Jesus’) sandals.”

Maybe it comes down to a variation of what our mothers taught us: If you can’t say something nice about God, don’t say anything at all.

After I got my fill of sourdough and cable cars that day, I entered the subway to take the last train home when I spied a woman holding a hymnal and singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

I paused, recalling my experience with Jose. His example inspired me to put down my train schedule and join in song. And for a moment our voices managed to flood the station with an echoing chorus that told a busy world of God’s never-ending love.


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