Going Out to See John

Subtitle: New Life

The text of the sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022.

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Today, I invite you, with your powers of imagination, to come back with me nearly two thousand years.

Around the year 30 of the Common Era…

I remember when I first heard about John. One day, passing through Jerusalem’s market square, the air buzzed with talk of a man who had come up out of the southern wilderness.

Curious, I joined the crowds from the city and surrounding Judea to gather along the banks of River Jordan to see him.

He was short. Skinny, but sinewy. Dark and bearded. His hair, long and tangled. He wore camel’s hair with a leather belt. He looked like Elijah.

Elijah, who had been gone nearly a thousand years, is described in our sacred history as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Around four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah would return proclaiming the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes into human history, setting things right.

I was intrigued. Not only how John looked, but what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Nearly six hundred years ago, that’s what the prophet Isaiah said declaring the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and their return to the Promised Land.[3] And we were being held captive by the Roman Empire in the Promised Land! Hearing John speak like Isaiah stirred my hope!

Pharisees, the righteous keepers of God’s Law, and Sadducees, the aristocratic priests, were in the crowd. When John saw them, all hell broke loose! “Vipers!”, he screamed. (Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since the Garden of Eden!) John, pointing a bony finger at these most respectable members of our community, shouted, “Ancestral entitlement and outward propriety aren’t enough without inward integrity and fidelity to God! Vipers!”

I thought John was crazy!

In the past, others had come from the wilderness professing to be prophets. John didn’t claim to be a prophet. He acted like one. And he preached baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling Essenes. And only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, God’s agent of redemption; whose shoes he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never pointed to himself. Always beyond himself. What humility!

Spellbound, I waded in the water. “Baptize me!” John held me under for a long time. Finally, he let me go. Gasping for air, I wasn’t sure my life had changed (although I saw it pass before me!), but I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

But nothing happened. John was imprisoned and executed by King Herod. Just before that a man from Nazareth came to John. His name was Jesus. People called him “Messiah.” Amazing stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, even raising the dead. Many followed him expecting God’s kingdom to come. But he was crucified by the Romans.

Promises, promises. All came to naught. To this day, I wonder why did I bother to go out to see John?

Back to today, December 4, 2022…

John burst onto the stage of first century Palestine. With fiery temperament and tongue, he suffered not the slightest hypocrisy or the simplest social nicety or courtesy.

So, why would anyone go out to see John? Maybe because people knew they were broken and in need of healing and John, in the directness of his words and deeds, was as light dispelling darkness. The light of new life through repentance; turning around to face God and ourselves…

New life that comes by living all of it. Leaping for joy even when we fear joy won’t last and embracing sorrow even when we fear sorrow will last. New life that comes in welcoming our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears, which, always, dwell both outside of us and within us: love and hatred, trust and betrayal, connection and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death.

For to face and embrace all of life is to find the peace that surpasses human understanding,[4] for it beyond our capacity either to conceive or to create. The peace of our ineffable awareness that come what may we are held up, held together by something greater; God who created all of life.

John embodied this truth in his life. Not happy-ever-after fantasy, but non-fictional gritty reality. He was imprisoned and beheaded. Nevertheless, he prepared the way for the Messiah…

A Messiah who proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom and who, not denying death, was crucified…

A crucifixion that led to resurrection…

A resurrection that is the foundation of a community of life-giving love…

A community through which people have sought to live and move and have their being for two thousand years…

A community in which we gather today praying our “growth in understanding and willingness to be (Christ’s) Body in this world.”[5]

Now, that we have seen John, let us go forth that others may see!

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: St. John the Baptist Preaching (ca. 1665), Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Preti portrays John with a robe of red (the color of the blood of martyrdom) draped over his camel’s hair garment. And John bears a staff with the Latin phrase, “Ecce Agnus Dei”, “Behold, the Lamb of God”; meaning the Messiah who would die a sacrificial death for God’s people.

#repentance #newlife #JohntheBaptist #thecomingoftheMessiah


[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3

[4] Philippians 4.7

[5] From the Prayer for Spiritual Growth (full text): Gracious Father, we ask spiritual growth for ourselves, our families and friends, and especially for our family St. Matthew’s. Grant us growth in understanding and willingness to be your body in this world. Empower us to live the mission of Christ: to preach, teach, heal, and make disciples. In joyful thanksgiving for the blessing of your presence in our lives, compel us to share you with everyone we meet. May our numbers increase, our commitment deepen, our lives be joyfully yours. Make us a God-centered people. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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