The Light of the World - Week Three: "The Light & The Herald"

When I was a kid, one of the characters in the Bible that intrigued me more than most was John the Baptist.  I remember reading the description of this wild man from the desert, who preached that the Messiah was coming and baptized people in a river, and my imagination was sparked.  John the Baptist looked, dressed and acted like a lunatic.

It was said that he wore camel hair clothes---not the cool, hipster sort of camel hair, but real, gross, wiry camel hair that smelled like camels.  And he had a leather belt tied around his waist to hold the smelly camel hair in place.  I always imagined this belt was big and wide---the sort of belt that a pirate would wear to stuff his pistols and sword into while he swashbuckled.

Then came the kicker:  John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey.  This freaked me out as a kid. Heck, it freaks me out as an adult.  I ate a chocolate covered grasshopper once.  It was crunchy and tasted like chocolate, but the fact that I was eating a grasshopper made it a fairly unpleasant experience.  The only other bugs I've ever eaten have been the occasional gnat that flew down my throat when my mouth was open.  The Baptist ate locusts---which are basically just really big, extra crunchy grasshoppers, sans chocolate, of course,  Maybe he washed them down with the honey.  Or used the honey to dip them in first.

Either way that sounds pretty nasty.

So what was up with John the Baptist?  Why did he dress thusly, and why did he choose to preach in the desert?  And why did he enjoy honey-dipped locusts?  And if he was in the desert, how did he baptize people in a river?

You have a lot of questions.

To begin, John the Baptist was Jesus' cousin.  This doesn't mean that they hung out when they were children, or really even knew each other all that well.  John's parents were related to Jesus' mother Mary, but its believed that they both died before John was an adult.  Elizabeth and Zechariah (John's parents) were old people who were given the chance to miraculously have a son in their old age.   If you recall my last sermon, there was a prophecy that surrounded John's miraculous birth, namely that he would be the forerunner, the messenger for the Messiah, who would bring salvation to God's people.

Some scholars believe that John was either adopted or found his way into a group of zealous, monastic Jews who retreated to the desert to live in intentional community and to await the end of the world, which they believed was about to happen.  These people, known as the Essenes, where the ones who created the many scrolls that were found in their settlement near Q'mran---known more famously as the "Dead Sea Scrolls."

None of these things can be known for certain, however.  John just sort of shows up in the desert, preaching repentance followed by the sign of baptism, which he accomplishes in the Jordan River---a river that runs through the desert east of Jerusalem.

There.  I just answered your question about baptizing in the desert.
You're welcome.

If you were a Jewish person living in first century Israel and you heard that there was some cat preaching in the wilderness, who was telling everyone to repent and be baptized AND he was wearing smelly camel clothes held up by a leather belt AND he was eating locusts and honey, you would have picked up on the cultural clues that were imbedded within those images.

For those of us living in the 21st century, we would see such a person as a nut job.  And we would be right, of course.

But John was trying to tell people something about who he was, and what his purpose in life was all about.  The clothes that he wore were a costume of sorts, if I might be so bold.  They indicated that he was preaching and teaching in the tradition of the great prophet Elijah.  Elijah, it was believed, would return to earth to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.  For those church-y people in the audience, you might recall that Elijah never actually died.  He was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot, which is just flat out awesome.  Kind of like Ghost Rider, only cooler.

So there's John in his Elijah costume preaching repentance and baptism, and he's also eating locusts and wild honey, which would have been a sign that he was protesting the excess and compromise of the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Locusts and wild honey were "clean" or kosher foods, even though they were nasty.  John was basically saying, "Want to know how much I love God and am serious about my faith?"  **Munch, munch, munch**

That was the sound of John the Baptist chowing down on locusts dipped in honey.  Bet you're hungry.

So John delivers a serious message to the people who are gathered to hear him.  Check it out:

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” 15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. - Luke 3:7-18 
Here's something fascinating about what happens after John delivers his sermon.  There are all kinds of people gathered to hear him.  Some of the texts indicate that there are religious types a plenty: religious conservatives, religious liberals, religious bureaucrats, priestly sorts, you name it.

And then there's everyone else.

It's the "everyone else" that you see responding to the preaching and teaching, though.  His message elicited a response from "the crowd," "tax collectors," and "soldiers."  Who was missing?  Yup.  The religious types.

How would you have responded to John's message?
How do you respond to it now?

It's hard to hear the Baptist's sermon, isn't it?

The fact that it is one of the lectionary texts for the season of Advent is a real bummer for preachers, let me tell you.  So why study this passage right now?  It's not very Christmas-y is it?

Listen.  There's no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness call us to repentance.

It all comes down to a Greek word, which is often the case in life.
If you're me.  Or if you're Greek.

It's all about the METANOIA baby.  Metanoia is a word that means repentance, but more than just repentance really.  It literally means "U-turn."  So what John the Baptist was declaring to anyone who would listen was that they needed to make a U-turn in their lives, repent, be baptized and get their hearts ready for the coming of the Messiah, the one who would save all of creation from itself.

Which leads me to a John the Baptist inspired question:  "What sort of U-turn do you need to make in your life right now to prepare your heart for Jesus?"

For the most part the audience who will take this sermon in next Sunday will be church-y type people of all kinds of stripes and patterns.  They've heard this message.  They know the drill.  And just like in John's day they are often the people who hang back, hesitate to jump in the water, and just keep going in the same direction they've been heading.

Tertullian, one of the ancient church fathers once wrote that "Repentance is more competent to heathens than to Christians."  I'll warrant that's not the most flattering sort of thing to say when referring to nonChristians, but give the guy a break, he was writing in the first century.

Still, the words ring true for us church-y people even today.  We're a tough sell.  We think that repentance is for other people.  You know... those people, the ones who don't go to church, and who don't vote, think, look, act, believe like we do.

The people who do want to know more about John's message are the wrong people.  "Others," not religious folks, "tax collectors," who were the worst of the worst, and "soldiers," who may or may not have been in the employ of the Roman army.  Not exactly the best people.

But what John was doing was enacting a time-honored prophetic tradition called a "parakalon," which was sort of like "preaching to the choir."

"You know what you should be doing," he tells them.  His hearers, after all, had the law and the prophets of their Holy Scriptures to guide them.  "You know who you are, really," he also intimates.  They were the chosen people of God, a priestly race of people who were called to point the entire world to the Most High God.  Then he tells them, "Your deepest values and traditions speak to you."  This was important because their deepest values and traditions spoke to them of a time such as the one John was currently preaching within---a time when repentance and baptism would precede the arrival of the One who would save them.

And imbedded in this parakalon was an invitation:  Come, repent, make that U-turn, turn your life around, prepare your heart---something amazing is about to happen.

Lots of people think that showing up is enough when it comes to their faith commitment.  "I made it to church.  Yay me."

Don't confuse sitting on the limb with either being the tree or it's fruit---to use some of the imagery from John's message.  Don't confuse sitting in church with being a Jesus-follower.

So by now you are probably about to ask the very question that those "others," "tax collectors," and "soldiers" asked John.

"What should we do?"  This question was actually asked of John three times in this passage.  "What should we do?'

Metanoia... that was John's answer.  "U-turn."

First John preaches that those of us who would follow the Messiah need to have a Metanoia moment with our stuff.  We need to learn to make unselfish choices with our money, our possessions and even with our very lives.  We need to practice good stewardship of what we've been given.

Did you know that if every Christian who went to church simply tithed----there would be enough money to not only exceed the needs of every church, but enough to essentially end poverty in many communities?  Sobering.  But then again, we know better what to do with our stuff than God knows what to do with our stuff.

That was sarcasm.

Hey Jesus-followers.  We are called to live differently.  We are called to live with the coming kingdom of God in the forefront of our plans for the way we conduct ourselves.  Not the other way.  The other way leads to Nowhere.  Our God isn't the god of Nowhere.  Our God is the God of Now Here.

Liked that, didn't you?

Second, John preached that Messiah people need to experience a Metanoia with their lives.  We need to reorder our personal hierarchy.  Hear me on this one, my friends.  You. Are. Not. In. Charge.  If you are in charge of your life, your little universe and everything---you are in serious trouble.  You see when it comes to possessing foreknowledge of things that are up around the bend, when it comes to understanding how all of the pieces of life, the universe and everything all fit together.  You suck.

I hated to use that last word because of the kiddies, but it's true.  Even God would admit that you suck if you think you're in charge.  I have yet to get this completely through my thick skull on most days.  When it comes to running my own life, I am not good at it.  God, on the other hand, is pretty good at running things.  He's had experience with a little thing I like to call the Cosmos.

So reorder your personal hierarchy and make sure that God is sitting firmly at the top of your org chart.

Another way to experience some Metanoia with your life is by making your inside match your outside.  I have said this before, but it bears repeating.  No matter what you say about yourself, what you do indicates who you are.  You may believe all sorts of things about yourself and what sort of person you happen to be, but if you live the exact opposite of what you believe then you are not what you think you are.

U-turn, my friend.

I know, I know... this is tough to hear, and you're probably thinking "Man, Leon. That's some strong stuff.  I'm losing my Christmas spirit, bro."

Which is why I want you to hear the intense and fiery hope that is so much a part of John's sermon.  He tells his hearers that there is One who will come that will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire---a symbol that they will be transformed, refined, renewed and redeemed in ways that they could not possibly understand.  Their baptism marks them for this transformation.  It declares that they are ready for the Messiah, and his kingdom.  They have been claimed.

This is who you are.  Claimed and called by Christ.  You know that you don't have to live in fear any more.  You know what is right and just.  You have been taught what grace and mercy look like and how to show them.

And now it's time to step into the water, so to speak.  Now is the time to make a U-turn with your stuff, with your life.  Some of you may be sitting in church each week and you know that you are a fraud.  You may look like the rest of the people around you, but you know different.  Maybe you even received the sacrament of Baptism when you were a child.  You don't remember it, though.  And you don't really know why you show up and occupy space in that pew every Sunday.

I want you to admit something.

You belong to God, you always have and you always will, and the mark of Christ is upon you.   Say that.  "I belong to God, I always have and I always will, and the mark of Christ is upon me."

Make a U-turn.  Prepare your heart.

The Messiah is coming.

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