Posts Tagged ‘John the Baptist’


December 4, 2016

John the baptist always makes me a little uncomfortable.  The stories of his birth suggest that he will be someone special.  His sudden appearance as an adult – scruffy and strange and screeching repentance to the crowds – that’s unnerving.  And of course, there’s his famous address to the religiously secure, recorded for us in Matthew chapter 3.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Saducees coming for baptism…” he called them names – he lost his cool – he made accusations that put powerful people in very uncomfortable positions; a dangerous strategy, no matter where you live.  Especially dangerous if you have no social standing.

We know how it ends for John.  He manages to avoid punishment long enough to baptize Jesus – but eventually his accusations affect someone at the peak of power, and he pays for his truth-telling with his head.  But lets think for a moment about the truths that John told.

He Speaks about the failure of these religious “experts” to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  They are guilty of going through the motions of faithfulness, in other words; a quick splash in the Jordan River isn’t going to change their habits or save their souls.  He speaks of one who is coming – superior to John in righteousness and discernment.  One who will see through the religious facade people are inclined to build for social effect.  One who will see with the very eyes of God – straight to the heart of us all.

He is speaking of Jesus, sure enough – the one in whom our cultural, religious and spiritual boundaries meet.  And it is Jesus who helps us make sense of John’s dangerous words.

John should make us all uncomfortable, because his accusations are not just for the religious ‘experts’ of his day – he convicts any who presume to call themselves faithful – all who gather in community and dare to imagine that they are ‘saved’.

For most of us have come to faith as a habit – and a good one, to be sure.    These are the churches of our ancestors – our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.  “This is my church” we say with pride – claiming some ownership – some sense of responsibility for the preservation and maintenance of the structures of religious life.  And John speaks to us – Jesus comes with ‘unquenchable fire” for us.

Those whose faith is in their heritage – Presbyterian all the way back, as my father once told me – are told, quite bluntly – that isn’t good enough.  God can raise ‘children of Abraham’ from the very dust.  It is not enough to wear the badge of honour, signifying your faith, such as the Pharisees and Saducees did.  The trappings of faith aren’t good enough for John.  Don’t just claim faith; be faithful.  Bear fruit, be attentive, show me that your faith has changed you…

That’s the sort of talk that get’s John killed.  Jesus too, if you’ll remember.  Dangerous talk indeed.

As it was then, so it is today.  We stand shaking, on the verge of serious change in the world – politically, religiously, in terms of climate and culture – change is in the air; and in such times, hard questions abound.  The divide between religious and spiritual; between emergent church and traditional church; between progressive and conservative – none of these meant anything to John (and they mean less to Jesus, unless I’m mistaken) – these to share this conviction in common:

God does not need our historical faith, or our doctrinal perfection.  God wants our lives transformed by an encounter with the Holy; God seeks an admission from us that “God IS”; we are asked to show evidence of such an encounter in our attitudes to one another, toward the poor and oppressed, toward those in need, toward creation and Creator.

Religious ritual such as baptism, communion, worship and prayer can lead to acts of faith – and acts of faith do draw us to religious ritual.  But the arrival of the one whom John proclaims – the one who comes as judge and Saviour – as servant and Master – signals the greatest change of all.

Our Saviour has come – a child of poverty; a friend of sinners; a judge of righteousness; an encourager to those who would seek God in all things.  and Jesus invites us to live into our faith in ways that ‘bear fruit’.


I’m not the Messiah…

December 14, 2014

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. This is the news that John the baptizer is presumed to bring. And John’s Gospel weaves the story of the Word – the Light – the Son of God, together with this messenger – this puzzling preacher – this ‘other’ John in a very deliberate way. Yet John the baptist is not the figure we want to hear from. Ten days remain; the desperation is starting to creep in to our preparations. There’s not enough time left for the baking and the decorating – some shopping remains undone, and some of us have yet to mail our Christmas cards…John the Baptist does not fill us with ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but his is a voice we really must hear. The baptizer will ensure that we are fully prepared for Christmas, so when he appears in the midst of our annual rush I, for one, am relieved.
Jesus’ story cannot be separated from this strange, insistent figure in the wilderness. Luke’s gospel suggests that there is an actual kinship between the two men – their mother’s are related by blood – but whether or not they are related, where John is, Jesus soon follows; it’s only natural, then, that when he is questioned, John the Baptizer takes Isaiah’s words and apply them to himself:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’

John isn’t found wandering about shouting these words like one who has lost touch with reality. In John’s gospel, the Baptizer appears rational, sensible and fully aware of his surroundings. It is the questions posed by the religious authorities that draws this prophetic description from our hero.
The people have seen John at work, and it is their appeal to the religious experts – the priests and Levites – to discover if this is a man sent by God. These are not evil, authoritarians; they are interested in this new voice, and hopeful that it might represent the one they have been waiting for.

John’s gospel takes us right to the heart of their discussion. “Who are you?” they want to know; John’s response is, at first, baffling;

“I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not ‘the prophet’ ” This is not ordinarily how you answer authority. If a lawyer, or a police officer asks you your name, would you say “I’m not Stephen Harper.”? (perhaps you would if you were interested in a free ride and a night’s lodging…) – but John wants to be clear; he knows that there is more to their question than just a request for basic information. He shares their heritage, and he shares their desperate longing for the salvation of God – he is not going to manipulate their expectations, or feed them a story designed to elevate his own activities (quite the opposite, in fact). John (the baptizer) knows his role, and he wants to be sure everyone is clear about what he is doing, and (more importantly) what God is already doing.
I’m not the Messiah. I know that’s what you want, but we’re not there yet. In your haste to examine me, you betray your anxiety – your impatience – but God’s ways require infinite patience and the utmost endurance. All must first be prepared; your patience will be continually tested; your flaws will be examined and your excuses exhausted, until you are open and eager for the new way that the one coming after me will pursue.
This is the reminder that we need – here in the middle of December; with our patience exhausted, and our preparations in chaos – John speaks truth to our delusions, and we should listen.
John is more than just an echo of the ancient promise. He is that voice of preparation – the reminder that every generation needs, calling for an awareness of God’s presence in our chaotic reality. Our current preparations – the buzz that starts as early as mid-November for some – are geared toward what we call ‘the holiest of nights’; and we have turned it into something else. We don’t know what we’re waiting for, and we don’t know what to expect when this long-promised redeemer finally appears in our midst. John called those he baptized to repentance, and he calls us in our anxious waiting to remember what it is God promised.
God’s people are still caught in systems of oppression who, as a result, are exiled from the peaceful presence of God. God would have us back, but on God’s terms, not ours. Seek justice, do mercy, walk humbly, says the voice of ancient wisdom – yet this is not what we have been preparing for. Our preparations exalt ourselves – satisfy our cravings – justify our personal sense of power and authority. Yet the one who is to come – who has come – who is coming – is more powerful than any and all of us; Messiah has the power to reconcile us to God.
I’m not Messiah. I am a messenger – as are all who dare to call themselves God’s people – witnesses to the slowly unfolding promise of God that always finds us unprepared, yet nonetheless urges us to recognize the beauty, the gravity and the remarkable freedom that promise holds. The joy of this blessed season is in our hope of discovering the truth about the One John proclaimed, for in Christ we meet the promise of redemption – a word which here means we are welcomed as full partners into God’s continuing works of justice, mercy and peace. These surely are tidings of great joy, for all people.
Thanks be to God. Amen

…and on the Sunday morning after…

December 16, 2012

I have written and preached in the past

about the difficulty of having John the Baptist intrude on our Christmas preparations;

it is familiar ground for me.

I am sensitive to what seems like a distraction in the lectionary every year,

for I am driven (along with the rest of you) toward the more comforting,

more familiar territory of seasonal Scriptures.

The main event is looming –the nativity is set up-

this week I purchased the tree –

and yet, once more we are enduring John’s warm-up speech.

Given the events of the last three days, however –

dozens of children damaged or dead

at the hands of damaged individuals in China and Connecticut –

perhaps John’s intrusion is worth our time.


“Your heritage cannot save you” he says to the indignant children of Abraham;

“Your good intentions are no good to God…” –

for these had come to John in the wilderness seeking the safety of his baptism.

They were, instead, singed by the fire of his indignation.

John offers a troubling metaphor: “The garden of God faces a pruning…”

And suggests that it is time to consider what their so-called faith has produced.


I wasn’t instantly sure that being hollered at by John the Baptist

was a remedy for the pain and grief that has been inflicted on humanity in the last 72 hours.

A wild-eyed man from the desert may remind us too much of those unfortunate souls

who have fallen through the cracks in our mental health system,

and become (at best) annoying diversions in our normal routines,

and (at worst) the source of horrific headlines .

But John’s voice is the voice of truth and reason, in spite of his appearance.

John’s conviction that God is ready

to overwhelm us with the power of divine mercy, justice and liberation is too sincere to be ignored.  John confronts brutal truth with brutal truth – the dismal with the divine –

and offers a hope that cannot be denied.


John is just laying the ground work, but you cannot help but admire his style.

Blunt.  Unapologetic.  Careless of his own safety or reputation –

the more I reflect, the more I am convinced that John offers an instructive model

for ministry (and many other things) in the 21st century.

In his dangerously direct fashion,

John points directly to the revelation of God that comes in Jesus (the one who is to come).

Not worried about offending lesser sensibilities,

not slowing down for extended explanations,

or caring one iota about how the message makes his audience feel,

John is concerned with getting the message out.


A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is what John offers (according to Luke).

He appears in the wilderness, and offers this cleansing ritual against the coming kingdom.

He draws crowds on the strength of his unusual approach, his heavy-handed preaching

(and, no doubt, because of his unique appearance).

Luke jumps right to an encounter with some who have gathered in curiosity –

and we are treated to an instant lesson in the theology of John…

beginning with an insult, and followed by accusation and threat.

(who wouldn’t want that on a Sunday morning…)





But what does that mean, Baptism of repentance?

It means that you who call yourselves the people of God have lost sight of God in every possible way.

It means you care more about reputation and appearance

than the divine principles of mercy, justice, love and grace.

It means that your traditions cannot atone for your sins –

your buildings cannot grant you sanctuary –

your religion cannot place you in the presence of the living God.


This is hard news to us, but we are used to hearing hard news;

news that defines itself by body counts and broken promises.

The reporting of these events give rise to arguments about social policy and cultural expectations,

but no where do the pundits offer hope.

Hope does not feature in the news of the day,

because hope is a political trick, designed to earn votes, not trust –

so John’s news, delivered with threat and accusation,

should sound different to us;

it should sound wonderfully promising to us.


Open your eyes, says John.

Share from your abundance – do not play games with the wealth that is God’s gift to you.

Do not “work the system” to enhance your importance.

Do not imagine that God does not know you well enough

to be grieved by your petty offences against one another…


Jesus leads us in this direction too,

but when Jesus says it in the gospel versions of his speech,

it is tempered with love and understanding and the very mercy of God.

John simply tells it plain.

And it becomes GOOD NEWS!


There is hope, John promises, because God can see beyond our brokenness.

There is joy in God’s promise deliverance from our wretched despair.

There is mercy for those who suffer and those who cause suffering…

Once we recognize the truth that John has prepared us for.

It is both the truth of our failure, and the truth of God’s success –

And we meet these truths in Jesus;

born into poverty – nurtured in uncertainty –

persecuted in jealousy – killed in anger – raised in glory.


That’s not a Christmas message – it is the Christian message;

independent of season, sorrow, or sadness.

It is our Good News – even on this day.  Amen

What would John the Baptist do?

December 10, 2011

John the Baptizer doesn’t really belong here, does he?


This is the time of year for shepherds and angels;

for nervous teenage mothers, and harried innkeepers

for dreams and visions of heavenly peace, not to mention sugarplums.

But this morning, our attention is once again directed to John, holding court by the Jordan River.


“Who are you…what are you doing here?” we may well ask.

And this is the testimony given by John,

“I am not a shepherd. Nor am I an angel, a prophet, or travelling astrologer;

I am outside the usual cast of characters.”


“What is your purpose, then? What brings you into our Advent celebrations?”

We’re not trying to be rude, but we know what we like,

and we don’t like John’s strangeness.

He don’t fit our idea of Christmas well observed –

there’s nothing neat and tidy

about the way John looks – or talks – or acts.

We want the prologue that we’re used to.


“Oh, if it’s a prologue you want”, says he, “then how about this;

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

You remember, from Isaiah.”

That doesn’t really soothe our minds, does it.

Isaiah prophesied of great upheaval in the current world order.

Isaiah called to a people in exile – bereft of their God –

and described God’s coming restoration (for the faithful) and judgement (for the rest).

This is not the kind of news we want to hear at the manger.


Yet here he is – roughly dressed, no fixed address –

one of those people it would be better to ignore.

Not caring an inch that no one approves of his manners, his appearance, or his speech…

and then there’s the troubling matter of his…his humility!

He will only define himself in the negative.

He insists that he is not the big news, that another is coming –

at whose feet John will gladly grovel.


This is no herald angel – no jubilant shepherd – no humble maid.

This is a voice to be reckoned with.

But what is he doing here?


In every age, the church has attracted and produced individuals

that confound our expectations and demand our attention.

Those who proclaim the promises of God –

faithful folks who propose new ways to imagine

restoration and right relationship with God are met with both hope and suspicion.


But John (and people like John) come along every so often

to remind the rest of us what it is we’re really waiting for –

what it is that God has promised to liberate us from;

they plead the cause of justice, against governments that offer only distorted visions of justice

they cry out for real equality – perfect peace –

pillars of God’s promised kingdom whose shadows are only faintly seen

by people who have traded God for the flavour of the day


So John lands in the middle of the promised land,

among those who call themselves promise-keepers,

and tells the simple truth:

“I’m not the promised one, and this is not the promised kingdom –

something better is coming.”

As we approach the cradle of Christ –

with all our preconceptions, all our traditions,

not to mention those sugarplums dancing in our heads –

it takes John’s voice to move us out of the dream-like state that Christmas has become for us.


Recalling Isaiah, John reminds us that Christ is not simply for our December amusement.

Echoing the words of a world changing prophet,

he stands alone against the common conceptions of the day – in defiance of them –

and dares the so-called ‘people of God’ to deal with the new perspective he offers.


The church has often compared itself to that ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’,

but the truth of the matter is this.

We regularly gather in worship to hear a single voice

tell the gathered faithful something of the wonder and promise of God’s gift in Christ,

and them we go home assured that all is well with us.


The truth of the matter is,

once the church door closes behind us, we all become like John –

our personal experiences of faith – our telling of the tale of Christ and the power of God –

all separate us from the world we live in,

and we need to decide what to do with the knowledge we receive

while we are safely gathered in this place.


Our baptism is not one of silence.

Our personal profession of faith is also a promise to speak out – to continue to profess…


We can refuse the part – we can say (and we do) that we’re not prophets –

we’re not John the Baptist (he lost his head, in the end…)

but the truth is we are sent into the world alone,

thrust into the wilderness that lurks beyond these doors with an incredible tale to tell,

and in the end, that makes us all more like John the Baptist than we’d like to admit.


Our job is not to pay homage in worship –

to simply observe the forms, admire the music, endure the preaching, and then head home satisfied.

The message in the gospel will not stay silent within us.

We are, each in our own way,

driven to ‘make straight the way of the Lord…;

to unravel our part in the gospel story – the grand tapestry of God’s handiwork

and offer that as our witness to a wondering world.