A sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019
John emerged from the wilderness, bursting onto the first century Palestinian scene with an incandescent temperament and an intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.
Intrigued, people throughout Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and the region along the River Jordan went out to see him. And what a sight he must have been!
Bony, given his all-organic, grain-free diet of locusts and wild honey, yet brawny given the rigors of his desert existence. His hair, long, matted and unkempt. His face, unshaven.
The people thought that he might be the prophet Elijah of generations before who scripture described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist”(1) and whose return the prophet Malachi, four-hundred years earlier, had foretold to announce the Day of the Lord(2) when God would intervene in human history, setting all things right.
It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years before, Isaiah, with the same words, declared the end of the Israelites captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land.(3) But now the Roman Empire held the Israelites captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, it was heard as a prophecy of liberation!
And when some curious Pharisees and Sadducees, the respected religious elite, came out to see John all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” John screamed. Snakes hadn’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve. It was the worst of insults! Nevertheless, John’s point: “You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s faithful chosen, but you, who do not practice what you preach, aren’t true to God! Vipers!”
In the past, others had come from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He never said he was a prophet. He acted like one. And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling, ascetic Essenes and only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John embraced, embodied humility; never promoting himself, always pointing beyond himself.
But then came misfortune most severe. King Herod Antipas arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John.(4)
Nevertheless, for those who went out to see and hear John, the power of his presence and word remained. For his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, fell short of their best and needed help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining of who they were destined to become, needed hope.
In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of new life. New life found only on the pathway of repentance; constantly turning around to face God and themselves and their reality. All of it. Their highest, unspeakable joys and their deepest, unspoken fears. Love and hate. Courage and fear. Trust and betrayal. Communion and separation. Intimacy and abandonment. Life and death. And then, in facing God and themselves and their reality, all of it, they rediscovered that new life is born and thrives precisely in that paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything would not, could not destroy them, for they were a part of something greater, which, who is God.
Do we, today, going out to see and hear John, believe this, too, and know it to be true?
(1) 2 Kings 1.8
(2) Malachi 4.5
(3) Isaiah 40.3
(4) Matthew 14.1-12
Saint John the Baptist, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). Note: Murillo depicts a prayerful John the Baptist wearing camel hair clothing and a cloak of red (the color of martyrdom). He bears in his hand a staff with the Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei; being the words John spoke referring to Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (or “Here is the Lamb of God” John 1.29, 36).
The Beheading of John the Baptist (1608), Caravaggio (1571-1610)