Beating the Blues with the Baptist
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
THE WORD OF THE LORD.
As most of you know, in past years, I ran regularly to keep myself in shape. I did this especially in Lexington in my subdivision behind Tates Creek Centre. It was a perfect place to run. I would step out of my house, put ice-cold water on the doorstep, and then set off down the road. My path took me in a circle that measured a 5k or 3.1-mile run. Halfway down Belleau Wood Drive I would encounter a hill – for a car it was a slight incline; but for a runner it was a mini-Everest. Once I reached the top of the hill, I was on my street. All I had to do was make a left at the corner, and I could see my house in the distance. What joy – I was almost through; I had survived the hill, and I could see my house with the ice-cold water just waiting for me.
But wait. Before I could reach my home, before I could drink my water, before the angels could sing – “Gloria in excelsis”- at the top of the hill, turning the corner, I saw “It”. That is right – “It”. The “It” was a German Shepherd in the corner yard. I had to pass it to get to my house. I did the only thing I knew. I kept running. When I got to a certain point, the dog growled and charged. No fence was in the yard, so I thought I was a goner.
Suddenly, I heard a snap. The dog was jerked back at the neck by its chain as he reached the edge of the pavement. I ran on, saved by the chain hidden in the grass. The dog was not hurt in the least, for he kept barking as I ran down the street. Through the years, the dog never stopped barking at me as I made my way home.
John the Baptist reminds me of that German Shepherd barking at me as I tried to reach home.
John the Baptist is a strange character to meet in the weeks as we journey towards Bethlehem. He does not fit into the story. With him, Christmas Carols do not echo their sweet silent songs. With him, there is no “all is calm, all is bright.” With John, we do not see “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” No, John growls all the way up to and through Christmas. (“John the Baptist is the Doberman pinscher of the gospel.” Barbara Brown Taylor) It is tempting to forget John the Baptist, and to pass on to the manger. However, here is the thing. To get to the Christ Child, you have to go through John the Baptist. The path to Bethlehem goes through the desert where John preaches. Before we get to John, let us first understand the background around him.
John the Baptist was what Judaism called a “Nazirite” – not a Nazarene, a person from Nazareth – but a Nazirite. Nazirites took vows that they would abstain from wine, vinegar, and grapes. They refrained from cutting the hair on their heads. They would not even comb their head with a comb, though they could use their hands.
John kept himself pure by staying in the desert, living off locusts and honey, and wearing the fashionable camel’s hair shirt with a leather belt.
John’s preaching was not the smooth silky words we would hear from Jesus in the Beatitudes or the sophistication we would hear from Paul in Romans. John’s message was simple, direct, and told with an attitude – “Repent. Be baptized.”
John was not a candle burning in the stillness of the desert night. His preaching was a California wildfire blown around by the Santa Ana winds.
John’s message hit the right chord because people came to see him. Whatever John means to us, to the people of his day, John preached a word they needed to hear. Even Jesus needed to hear his words. What he said changed their lives.
What does John say to us as we journey towards the manger? We are seven days away from Jesus’s birth, why do we stop here in the desert to hear “Uncle” John? We stop because John has something surprising to say to us.
First, many preachers today misrepresent John the Baptist. They portray John as this gruff man with a bad attitude, who scares people straight with talk of hell and damnation. He says – “The Judge is coming, and I am here to serve subpoenas.” (Quotation statement- Fred Craddock)
That is how the other gospels picture John; but Mark does not see him as grisly or gruesome. He is not there to tell people they are going to hell in a hand basket. His message is simple – “to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John is not what people portray him to be. That is the first thing we can say.
Second, and here is the important thing, it is about the people who go out to hear John. We have heard sermons where John preaches to people full of pride and arrogance needing someone to cut them down to size. But the people who went to John were not the powerful or the prideful; they were the peasants. They were the people at the bottom of the barrel. They got no tax cuts; for them there was no trickle-down economics. For them food was scarce, work was laborious, and there was no health insurance for their children. If their children got sick, they died. And no one in government cared. Nevertheless, they still had to pay their taxes. The soldiers who went out to John were not Caesar’s generals, but lowly soldiers drafted, and shipped off far from home to fight what Rome called terrorists. There were addicts or alcoholics in the crowds. They too had no pride. The officials said it was all the people’s fault. If they would just say – “No” – all would be fine. The truth was more difficult to explain. The pained, the peasants, the impoverished had no way for themselves or their families to get better. They were the dogs of Roman society and religion. These ones went to see John. They needed no repentance of pride. Any pride they had was beaten out of them long ago. So it was not for that they went out to see John.
Third, the people who went to see John were not full of pride, but they needed baptism. They did not need baptism to repent from sin. John’s baptism was not like our baptism. It was not a sacrament to get you into a church or a creed or a community of like-minded persons. This was not the baptism, which baptized a Hitler, or an SS person, or the person who saw genocide and said nothing, or the chaplain who said prayers over senators but remained silent when they heard children were denied health care. This baptism was not for those who once in power became pedophiles or misogynists. Rather, this baptism was for those whose only need for a rope was to hang themselves. This was a baptism for those who had no job except slavery, no food but the root of a desert plant, who were depressed beyond words because they knew their lives, would never change.
John’s baptism was for those in despair. It was for those who needed to repent of hopelessness. It was for those who knew this life offered no hope for them because those in power, the Roman corporations, would always keep them down. They knew a truth we forget – all corporations, all empires, all superpowers – must have a foundation of slavery and laborers to keep them going. “Offer them hope,” they say, “but never fulfill it.” So, the poor remain poor.
Fourthly, scholars say the crowds came to John out of guilt. They did not. They came because they had nowhere else to turn. Why do you think Jesus came to John? Not out of guilt, not so a preacher could preach hell with an altar call. Jesus and the crowds came because John offered them hope. God through John called the poorest of the poor to not despair. But to repent of despair and be baptized to new hope.
John’s baptism was to cover the person in the river waters; to surround them with water was not to make them clean, but to bring them back to their time in the womb, when they were surrounded by liquid, by embryonic fluid, and then they came forth from the water in the womb to birth in a new life .
Finally this, people came to John because he offered them a baptism and a repentance from disillusionment to a new life and new hope. That is why we come to John today. We come today because we need his words. We need his baptism into new hope. We come to John today because we have nowhere else to turn but to the God that Jesus and the crowds heard John preach – a God beyond all religions, all churches, all mosques, all temples, all synagogues, and all creeds. A God of hope for all people – all people who are in despair. Amen!
(Copyright 2018 by Jack Hughes Robinson. Use by Permission Only.)