Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Advent: Being John Baptist
This Sunday I will be preaching from the assigned Lectionary calender. This week is the third week of Advent. The passage is John 1:6-8, 19-28 - the story of John Baptist. The question I am asking myself in preparation is, what does this passage have to do with Advent? Well, the word Advent means a kind of waiting for a momentous event. So, as a start, let's remember that John the Baptist was the "Voice crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord! Prepare a pathway for Him!"
John was down in the river baptizing everyone. People were confessing their sins (odd?) to him and he was dunking them in the Jordan river. They came to be babtized and they also came to hear him preach. Luke records "a sample of Johns Preaching." "You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God's coming judgment? Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God. Don't just say, we're safe..." Not exactly the kinds of sermons that attract Joel Osteen sized crowds. So far, I'm not exactly getting filled with Christmas cheer.
Matthew and Mark go out of their way to point out some of the wierd things about John the Baptist. He ate locust and wild honey. He wore camel fur. These little tidbits take up valuable gospel space and seem to add very little to the narrative. Could Matt and Mark just not help themselves? Like your trying to describe someone with a very distinguishing feature...a large mole let's say. "You know, she's kind of medium height, blue eyes, brown hair...no...umm...You know, the one with the huge mole on her nose." "Oh, her, why didn't you just say so."
But let's assume that perhaps this description of John goes beyond the novelty. John was an ascetic. A man of the dessert. A man of simplicity and sacrifice. Some say he lived in the very strict community of Essenes in Qumran. Was it this solitude, simplicity, sacrifice that gave him the strength and focus to speak truth to power, to relgious and royal alike. Like Jesus, it eventually got him killed.
Come to think of it, John shares a lot of commonalities with Jesus. Miraculous conception (his parents were too old to conceive). They were cousins. Both had disciples (some scholars think that Jesus may have actually been John's disciple before beginning his ministry). They preached a similar message. They both preached "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." They both denounced the pharisees, calling them a "brood of vipers." Both spent time in the wilderness. Together they retell parts of Exodus story. God's people passing through the Jordan River toward the promised land, Jesus passes through the river and then spends 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.
Another interesting thing to note is that when Jesus' ministry started, John's didn't end. In fact there was some competition, at least among the disciples. John's disciples say to him, "Teacher, that man you baptized, the one you called Messiah, now he's baptizing people and everyone is going over there instead of coming to us."
I wonder if people were actually getting Jesus and John confused. "Who are you?" people asked John. "Are you Elijah?" "No." Are you the prophet? "No." "Are you the Messiah?" "I am not." "Then who are you?" "A Voice..." When Jesus asks Peter who do you think I am Peter answers, some say you are John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say a Prophet." "Who do you say that I am," Jesus asks. "You are the Messiah. I wonder what it was like to be John, the older cousin of Jesus. His whole focus in life is to point to the coming one. But the problem is, when the annointed one, the messiah comes, he doesn't subscribe to the same program as John. He does a number of unexpected things.
After Jesus really gets rolling (disciples, Healing many, Sermon on the Mount, Disciples sent out) John sends one of disciples and he asks Jesus, "Are you really the Messiah we've been waiting for, or should we keep looking for someone else." Ouch! Jesus' response is this: "God blesses those who are not offended by me." He says look, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is preached to the poor." Basically, what more do you want?!
Jesus goes on to point out some of the differences and how the crowds are pitting John and Jesus against each other. Jesus says, "John the Baptist didn't drink wine and he often fasted, and you say, 'He's demon possessed!' And I the Son of Man feast and drink and you say, 'He's a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of the worst kind of sinners!'"
John was a great man. Jesus says so. "Not a weak reed moved about by every little breath of wind (paraphrased)." He was disciplined. "But the most insignificant person in the Kingdom of God is more important than he is," Jesus says. What could Jesus possibly mean by this? Was John missing something? Maybe he was confused that Jesus did not come to deny life as John himself had chosen to. Jesus came to bring life and life abundant. He drank and feasted and was friends with "notorious sinners." John was ready to sacrifice everything for his convictions. He even proclaims that he isn't worthy to be the servant of Messiah Jesus. but then Jesus himself doesn't seem to share all of his convictions.
Has this ever happened to you? You find God making friends with your enemies. The neatly constructed world that you have created for yourself about what good or bad people do or don't do begins to crumble. John defined holiness as not being defiled by the world. Jesus defined holiness as a radical openness, solidarity and transformation of the world.
Despite some of the awkward dynamics of Jesus' and Johns relationship, I think Jesus loved him dearly. He may have connected and identified more with John than anyone. They probably played together as children, went on pilgrimage together. They both went into the ministry. They were both destined for greatness. I wonder if Jesus looked to John as a colleague of sorts. When Jesus hears of John's death Matthew says he "he went out to a remote area to be alone."
So Advent. Christmas. Right. Hmmm... Let me think. Well, we can learn from John. That kind of expectancy and simplicity and solitude put John in the place where he wasn't going to miss Jesus' coming. But we also learn form Jesus and Johns interactions that thought the Kingdom life will often look like sacrifice, if we look deeper we find that it's more a celebration and participation in the zoe, abundant, GodLife. The simplicity, sacrifice, solitude help us to strip away the distractions, the lies, the traps that keep us from truth and beauty and life.
So my friends, slow down, watch out, breath in, give away, give up, wake up, lighten up, open up, make believe, eat drink and be merry!
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