Going Out to See John

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

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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!

Saint John the Baptist, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)

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)

The Beheading of John the Baptist (1608), Caravaggio (1571-1610)

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?

 
Footnotes:
(1) 2 Kings 1.8
(2) Malachi 4.5
(3) Isaiah 40.3
(4) Matthew 14.1-12

Illustrations:

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)

2 thoughts on “Going Out to See John

  1. Wow!! Powerful Paul!! Thank you!! I pray that I know this to be true!! We just have to believe!! There are a lot of Vipers in this world, and I think the hard thing is not following them or giving them too much attention so that we can stay true to God and do all the lessons that John preached about.
    So amazing that John never pat himself on the back, he just kept moving forward with his words and deeds, being faithful to God…. that’s so hard to focus on today, given that we are surrounded at every turn by “it’s all about ME” people! For me, what has worked is focusing on the beauty in the world so that I CAN be true to the way we are supposed to be living!! I would definitely have been one who would have gone out to see and hear John!

    Much love

    Like

  2. Always, Loretta, I thank you for reading and reflecting, and then responding to my posts.

    As I continue to think about John the Baptist, a few more thoughts…

    I imagine that he, as a prophet, one called and sent by God to proclaim God’s message, in that sense, that is, the clarity and conviction of that calling, had it easy. He could remain focused, for he had been given and had accepted one thing to do. That said, the call was most difficult, for it bore the cost of his life.

    How many of us – no, as I’m wont to say, I’ll put it on myself! – would I take on such a calling if/when I knew the truest sacrifice of my having done so would be my life? (Now, I digress. I can make a case that in any relationship of commitment – marriage or friendship [or, even, as I think anew, involving my vocation, for I have come and gone a number of times, entering the lives of congregations, and then departing, which constitute a kind of death] – I, if I am self-aware, realize there will be a cost of death, for we all die. Still, these sorts of commitments, largely, do not harbor the daily, moment to moment cost of death.)

    Your comment – “There are a lot of Vipers in this world, and I think the hard thing is not following them or giving them too much attention so that we can stay true to God and do all the lessons that John preached about” – stirs again in my awareness that those to whom John uttered that most offensive insult, “Vipers!”, were Pharisees and Sadducees, that is, the religious elite. Given all that we have seen in human history, manifold are the times when those who exhibit the most viperous of character traits are those in power, whether in the echelons of the ecclesial, political, or social realms of influence. As I ponder our state of life today in America, particularly politically, it seems to me that we, as a nation, have replaced personal conviction with party allegiance and all of it over and against our calling to serve the entire people. Perhaps, in this sense (and in some sense, great or small), I wonder, do we, each and all, express an element of viperous instinct?

    I close with this thought, which hadn’t occurred to me until I read your response. I realize now that I closed this sermon with a question, which, if I am honest – and I will be! – truly was a personal, self-imposed inquiry. Do I know and believe to be true that the only way to new/true life is to repent – to face God with all of my life (the good, the bad, the ugly) – so to walk again in God’s Life and Light?

    Love you

    Like

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