a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016
Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.
About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.
Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.
He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!
It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land. But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!
Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”
In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then 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 never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!
I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.
Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.
Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?
John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.
Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because 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, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.
John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.
John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.
Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)
The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)
St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot
 2 Kings 1.8
 Malachi 4.5
 Isaiah 40.3