Saturday, December 7, 2013

John the Baptist: Worst PR Guy Ever? or Best?

MATTHEW 3:1-12

John the Baptist is either the worst or the best public relations rep in history.  As part of the Jesus Christ advance messaging team, he seems pretty far off base at first glance. He’s hanging out in the wilderness of Judea carrying on about repentance, crying out for people to prepare the way and straighten out paths.

He’s a Lady GaGa worthy spectacle in his camel hair clothes and weird diet of locusts and wild honey (Lose that Belly Fat!?). And like today’s superstars and their odd behavior, he’s attracting attention. People from all of Judea are heading to the Jordan River to see him. They want to hear what he was saying. They want to be baptized by this fiery prophet. John the Baptist would be a great cover story for People magazine if he were here today.

But John the Baptist seems so out of place to us. Now that we’re past the Black Friday frenzy, all of his shouting and passion is out of place in our warm, fuzzy Advent bliss. He’s so UN-Jesus-like. 

He’s the raucous party before the Silent Night. 

He’s the shouting prophet who precedes the singing angels. 

He’s a foul-mouthed accuser not a bearer of love and forgiveness.

When the Temple leaders head out to see what he’s doing, he unleashes a stream of invective and insults. Calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers in his time was like using profanity in our time.  Not a good way to win friends and influence people. Our friend John needs a few lessons in both subtlety and hospitality. Eventually his outspokenness costs him his head. He ends up offending the wrong people with his hard-line approach. And yet, people are coming to him. Crowds travel into the wilderness to hear him and find out what he is offering.

Can you imagine if John the Baptist were doing his thing today? What if he set up camp along the banks of the Youghiogheny River and people started streaming to him. What if you and I and a few of our church-going friends went to check out his revival? Would he look over at us and spit out: You Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …Do not presume to say to yourselves we have John Calvin or John Wesley or the Pope or any of your other big church names. For I tell you God can raise up Christians from the stones along the river!  Would we be the ones John is calling names?

Used with permission from the blog Southern Visions the photos of Earl Carter.

When we look at this story in the book of Matthew we see two sets of people—the crowd and the religious elite. The crowds who came to John the Baptist were not only being baptized, but were also confessing their sin.

There’s no mention of the Pharisees and Sadducees confessing. Perhaps it was their smug assurance that started John on his rant. Perhaps they were too confident in their own righteousness. Perhaps they thought that because of their heritage and their position that they were somehow favored by God and didn’t need to confess. And so, John feels the need to put them in their place.

Now John is no slouch when it comes to following the religious rules and teachings himself. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, John is in the wilderness scrounging for food and depending on God to provide. His camel hair clothes made his followers think he might be the return of the prophet Elijah. And he knows his scriptures backwards and forwards—he’s quoting the prophet Isaiah to people and he’s also using the same words that Jesus does when he kicks of his ministry: Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. When it comes to being religiously righteous, John can probably hold his own against the Pharisees and Sadducees.

But John isn’t relying on his own history or practices. He tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that as biblical and influential as he is, there is someone else coming who is more powerful—more righteous.  He tells them that when Jesus finally comes his own watery baptisms will seem tame. The one who comes—Jesus—will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

John is not about John. John is about Jesus.

What John the Baptist is doing on the riverbank is creating a break in history.  He’s telling us not to rely on the things of the past, but to change in order to be ready for the future. The Pharisees and Sadducees likely came to the river for baptism, but were they ready to repent?  Could they change? Did they have too much invested in staying the same?

Today, as we think about the coming of Christ, are we ready to repent? Remember repentance is change—it means to turn or turn around. It doesn’t have to be about feeling morose and guilty-- although sometimes those feelings come with it. 

Repentance can be decision to bear good fruit—to do the right thing more of the time.  We confess what has been hurting us  or what we've not been doing and change it. Repentance can be a commitment to live a life more like Christ—a life of light, love, healing and forgiveness. Confession and repentance is a shedding of darkness whether that darkness is our own action or circumstances that have hurt us and prevent us from bearing that good fruit.

Living a life of confession and repentance means that hope can become reality—that a better future can begin to take root in the not-so-perfect present—that a small candle can transform a dark room. John’s call for confession and repentance means we can break from our own past and move into a new future. It’s a radical act that can redefine who we are.

That’s what the people who flocked to John the Baptist realized. They may not be righteous like the religious elite, but they were willing to confess their darkness in order to get rid of it—have it washed away. Confession and repentance can free us to change our way and straighten out our path. 

But when we refuse to confess or repent, when we insist on letting our reputation or heritage define us, we become so invested in our selves that we can’t truly love our neighbors. When we are like the people that the Pharisees and Sadducees represent, when we end up caught up in maintaining our good social position and reputation, we don’t risk ourselves for the sake of others. We may have good fruit, but it rots in the pile because we are afraid to share it. 

Or, on the flip side, if we define ourselves only by a dark past--a childhood trauma or marital abuse or that one big mistake that haunts us—if we can’t break with that past, we end working so hard at protecting our fragile self that we can’t bear fruit for others. We are afraid that our bruised fruit may not meet other people’s standards and so we hide it.

The people who came to John on the banks of the Jordan must have realized that confession and repentance can change that. Why else would he be so popular? Despite his poor people skills, John is offering hope for a better future.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that confession and repentance is actually a radical declaration of hope. She puts it this way:

"Those of us who have committed ourselves to a life of repentance and return will not give up on ourselves, no matter how many times we have to repeat the process. We will keep telling the truth and turning around, every day if need be. We will never say never (I'll never recover, I'll never get it, I'll never learn). Why? 

We believe in God's goodness more than we believe in our own badness."[1]

Even those of us who think our lives are pretty good need to do some serious examination. Are we willing to live a life of confession and repentance so that we can risk ourselves for others.  Why should we do this?

We believe in God’s goodness is more important than our reputation or social standing.

I know, I know. It’s easier to live a life without change. It’s easier to keep our heads down and do the same thing day after day. But easy is not what the Christian life is about—Just ask John. Or Jesus. Sometimes we need someone who seems little bit crazy to shake us up a little bit. Sometimes we need a prophet who is going to shout at us and wake us from our stupor. We need someone to remind us to prepare.

With his insults and camel hair clothes and wilderness baptisms, John is very different from Jesus. But, the two of them share the same ministry goals. They are calling us to expect a different future. They are telling us that good news, God’s kingdom, is here for us. They are daring us to heal and change and leave the past in the past. They are telling us to prepare for a new future in our hearts, in our minds and in our lives. They inviting us to hope. Jesus is coming. John is shouting and pointing so that we don't miss it. He sees it coming. Can we?

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” Journal for Preachers, 21, no 1 (1997): 16-18.

1 comment:

  1. I tried to comment from my ipad but I don't think it worked. Anyway, I said something about appreciating the reminder to consider what our reaction would be if some of these folks behaving in their peculiar ways showed up in our own contexts. Have a great morning!