A Sermon for the Feast of John the Baptist
John the Baptizer hardly ever gets his own attention. It seems like we hear quite a great deal from him in Advent and then at Jesus’ baptism, but we hardly ever talk about him. In Advent, the discussion is more about Zechariah’s, his father, lack of faith compared to Mary’s trust in God. After Jesus is born and grown, the actions focus on who God is in him and what God is doing. John is a footnote to that story as well.
This week when I asked for questions about John the Baptizer, only one person dared to ask anything and they sent the question in a message, rather than in any kind of public forum. The question ran along these lines: Do you think John ever wondered if he might be The One? Did he always know he was the forerunner? What was it like to always know that you were second?
I had to think about that for a while. John would have grown up hearing his own birth narrative and that of his cousin, Jesus. He was probably raised in a very particular way, given his father’s priesthood and the specificity of his dedication to God. He may have even been a Nazarite with strictures on cutting his hairs, touching dead bodies, sexual practice, and eating. In fact, the camel’s hair clothing and the locust and honey diet are supposed to help us understand that he lives the life of prophet- like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.
Given the way that John is depicted, as such an obvious bridge between the promises of the Messiah and the advent of the Messiah, it is hard to think that he ever thought that he might be the One Who Is to Come. Yet, don’t you think every little boy of the time thought he might be the Messiah? If your stories of God’s anointed are of David to the tenth power, when you and your friends played Roman invaders versus Holy Warriors, don’t you think one kid always climbed on top of the rock and declared himself “The Messiah”?
Would John have thought that might have been his name? Names were important as we saw in today’s reading. People did not speak the name of God and the names that were bestowed on children carried weight and power. And in other Christian denominations, John receives much more serious treatment and gets other names. He is the Baptizer, the Forerunner, a prophet among prophets. As the Holy Forerunner, his entire work is pointing to the One Who Is to Come. Given the seriousness of his nature and his focus on his work, I’m not sure I would blame him if he had occasionally wondered if he might be the One. Somehow, I doubt it though. Once Jesus appears on the scene, John knows him and is inspired by God to understand who and what Jesus is. Still John wonders and eventually asks, “Are you the One Who is to Come or are we to wait for another?”
And there it is, folks, the doubt of the Holy Forerunner. The question of the ages… Jesus, are you it? Who among us hasn’t asked that question? And has anyone hear fulfilled their own call with what appears to be the certainty of John the Baptizer? He lives into what he believes and still dares to ask… Are you the one? He’s AT THE BAPTISM… and he dares to ask… Are you the One?
What was the work that John was doing again? What does his father prophesy that he will do: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77) John prophesies at the side of the Jordan- telling people that the times- they are a’changin’. He is offering a baptism, outside of the temple and separate from the culture of sacrifices, for the forgiveness of sins. He speaks truthfully of sin and separation, of false truths and false leaders. He speaks of transformation, of lives altered by an experience of God’s promises and trust in their truth.
In a time of permanent Advent, John says the Light is coming and you better be ready! And the message he brings attracts people. John has disciples. John is condemned by the temple leaders. John gives the ruler, Herod Antipas, serious indigestion. And it is not because John is saying that “I’m all right, you’re all right.” It’s not because John is saying, “God is love.” It’s not because John is saying that the Messiah will bring joy.
People are coming because of the promise of new life. People are attracted because it seems like this is something to give them hope. People are coming because they are being told that God has not forgotten them. That God is still acting. That the voice of God in the world has not been silenced. That God is speaking to them about the expectation of changed behavior and the reality of promises fulfilled.
People wanted to hear the message that John was preaching. People want to hear the message that John was bringing. In truth, I think we ask ourselves “What would Jesus do” because it seems easy. You can either tell yourself, “But I’m not Jesus” or you tell yourself that Jesus welcomed and care for all kinds of people. Both of these things are true, you’re not Jesus and Jesus did minister whole-heartedly to all kinds of people. But we are not baptized into Christ for an easy life or for comfort or for consolation. We’re baptized into a life as co-workers in the kingdom and what if our work is supposed to look a little more like John’s?
What if the work to which we are called is political, like John’s- calling out injustice against women, children, men- all races, all nationalities, all faiths? What if our task for the kingdom is to call out leaders who bend the rules for their own benefit, but ignore the possibilities of their power to bring justice and change? What if our work is theological, like John’s - not be Jesus, but to point to Jesus, to explain who Jesus is to us and to the world? What if our work is prophetic- affecting what we eat, what we wear, where we live, with whom we are seen? What if our work is revolutionary, like John’s - to call for change in hearts (including our own), in minds, in churches, in communities, in governments, in the world?
And what if we are called to this work at the very same time we ask the question, “Jesus- are You it? Are you The One?” Keep in mind, John asked that question through his disciples, while he was in prison for doing the work to which he had been called. He knew he was the Forerunner, he knew he pointed to the Light. He was just checking, one more time, to be sure Jesus was it. And then he kept going, right to his death.
We wait. We wait for a new heaven and a renewed earth. We wait for the kingdom where justice and peace are at home. We are Easter people, resurrection people, living in the second Advent, waiting for Jesus to return (Jesus- are You it?) In a world that lacks justice and peace, where people commit the same sins over and over again… maybe in this perpetual Advent- the world needs a little more John, a little more promise, a stronger expectation of change, a demand for righteous action, and an unambiguous pointing to the light.
We too are holy forerunners, pointing to the One Who Has Come and Will Return. God shapes us into the people the kingdom needs for our particular time and place. Occasionally, when the world is dark and has great need, the Holy Spirit is equipping us- not to be like Jesus- but to be like John.