As I don’t doubt you’ve been reminded a dozen times, each Advent the Church takes up anew her centuries-old task of telling the story of her Savior in her life of prayer, the year-long sequence of feast and fast between Advent I each year and Christ the King the next. I’ve heard it said that the first great feast of that cycle is Christmas, and sure enough the church’s canons say Episcopalians must celebrate the birth of Jesus or lose their “good standing” status. The canons don’t give us much advice on checking that all out, of course, but in any case Christmas is the first big milestone on the path of liturgical prayer each year.
Let’s not, however, forget Advent and its messages, something really easy to do when you live where people put up Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving and plunge like lemmings into the annual orgy of belligerent acquisition that has become the way far too much of the world takes notice of the birth of that Jesus fellow. Advent reminds of the world without Jesus, before Jesus, no Jesus. Percolate that thought a little while. And in that realm we run into the figure who straddles the abyss between life without a savior and life with one: John the Baptist. Used to be, the Prayer Book gave us John the Baptist on Advent II and the Blessed Virgin on Advent III. But since They Changed Everything, we get the crusty, pungent fellow to deal with not just one Sunday but two. In a row. The Virgin can wait her turn!
Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice
If we can believe Luke, Jesus and John were cousins, close cousins though whether first or second or third-down-from-the-longest-and-strongest double half cousins twice removed can’t be established. John’s the babe that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her youthful—and pregnant—kinswoman Mary came to visit her in the hill country—cooler, you see? John’s birth was not quite the bash Jesus’ turned out to be, but his Old Pap Zechariah did brast forth with a hymn of thanksgiving for the boy’s birth that enriches our prayer life today as the beloved canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus (Luke 1:68-79).
By the time we run onto John again, he’s about thirty and making a world of trouble, gone into the freelance propheting business—Israel’s always worked alive with them—running around just outside the city limits, gathering crowds, and telling them: “Hey! HEY!! Looka here! Thissaway! Turn around. Repent. Come be baptized to show your sins are forgiven. And look out, because the Kingdom of God is just blowin’ in all over the place!” Well, that’s what he said. Look it up. And he was not socially acceptable. I mean, he ate bugs and wore animal skins. My friend Owanah and I were looking at paintings of him, and about one she asked, “What’s that little critter he’s feeding?” I had to say, “He ain’t feedin’ it. He’s wearin’ it.” That’s the fellow who gets to be the first one to show Jesus to the rest of the world. God’s thoughts are not ours.
A couple of things before we go any farther. The way we use the word repent it means feeling very sorry for something you just got caught doing. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but that’s only a minor subset of what the word actually means. The Aramaic word shuv that John used means turn smooth around and go the other way. Look the other way. The other way. Another way. John was asking people to forget all the superstructure of their religion, all the gesture and rite, all the sin counting, all the hope that God would soon ride in on a tall, mean horse and vindicate them. “Forget all about that,” he said. “Shuv! Turn around. Look the other way. Look this way!”
Second, some folks think John’s the one who invented baptism, which is not even nearly so. The Greek word we get baptism from just means washing, and the Jews were big on washing up before they went to church. Remember: ours is a desert born religion, and they don’t have lotsa water in the desert. The act of washing, part of the old holiness code, was in its origins very expensive, using up some of the rarest and most precious stuff they had, a real sacrifice. By the time John comes along, of course, the Jerusalem religious establishment has all the water it needs, but they were still big on washing, baptism. Solomon had a vast basin of water, a kind of Holy Cistern, installed in the temple precincts to get the smelly masses scrubbed up. John didn’t invent baptism, but he did use baptism as a sign of the forgiveness of sins. That was new.
Now, we customarily say John was the last of the Jewish prophets, though our Jewish and Muslim confreres don’t agree. Today you heard readings from two other Old Testament prophets, one from Baruch, another from Isaiah quoted by John, and both those messages were about return and restoration, the children of Israel coming home from somewhere, coming back to Jerusalem, and so magnificent is that homecoming that the hills fall down flat so God’s Israel can just stroll home on level ground. No rough places. Smooth sailing all the way. Now, the fact is that both Baruch and Isaiah were talking about something quite specific: after decades of captivity in Babylon, the descendants of the first captives were coming back to Jerusalem. The King of Persia was paying their way home on first class tickets, and when they got there they had permission to rebuild their temple and go right back to the religion his royal predecessors had tried to blot from the face of the earth. And so the prophets at the time, watching and waiting and wondering, burst forth in exultant hymns of rejoicing and triumph. We’re going home! And when we get home, we’re going to rebuild the church house and start praying, and then everything will be just hunky dory. Since they were, in their opinion, the only people on the planet God cared about, they’d soon show the world How These Things Are Done!
Of course, that didn’t happen. Things went from bad to worse. First this, then that, then the next invader conquered Palestine—Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans. Take a number. By the time John shows up four centuries later, their religion has descended into a murky guilt management system which promised them that wunna these days, by golly, God’s gonna take a hand and kick out all our oppressors and then we’ll show ‘em How These Things Are Done. No progress.
Now, if things were so bad off when John gets the preaching bug, what on earth was he talking about? What specific incident prompted him to stand up and say, “Looka here! Your sins are forgiven. The Kingdom of Heaven is bustin’ out all over!” His predecessor prophets had the Persian king’s amnesty to fuel their hope, but what on earth was John looking at? What drove him nutty, so nutty he risked his life with a bunch of foolishness about the Kingdom of God? It’s for sure nothing was happening in history that could have encouraged him. The only conclusion I can draw is he was looking at the same thing you and I have been looking at for some time now: Jesus. I mean, the minute he got people looking his way and splashing in the Jordan and hoping for the Kingdom, the first thing he did was point away from himself and point at Jesus: “There he is. He’s the one. That’s the lamb of God. Listen to him.” For the life of me, I can’t imagine anything else that prompted him but Jesus—and I mean Jesus first-hand.
When I try to figure out John’s motivation, I can’t help recalling the cousins story. I mean, John had to know Jesus, had to know everything you and I know about Jesus and just a whole lot more. He had to know that Jesus was really really different, really really onto something that would change history, would surely change the way people think and pray and live about and with God. All the sweetness and meekness and kindness and irresistible love, to say nothing of the Stand Up Guy Jesus who took on the most powerful people in his world without hesitation, John had to know about, had been drawn to, had talked and prayed and argued with. That’s what young people do, especially earnest young people working out the way they live with God. And years of such spiritual ‘rassling with Jesus had convinced John that . . . well . . . what he said: “There he is. Jesus. He’s the one. Listen to him.”
So, what do you guess it was John saw in Jesus that turned him around. What do you see in Jesus that keeps you turned around? A lot the same things, I figure, though I also figure that Jesus has shown each of you things about himself he hasn’t shown anybody else. I mean, that’s the way God counts, isn’t it? One. One. One. One. Each of us has seen things in Jesus that turned us around, keep us turned around, and those things must be pretty special. What do you suppose?
It’s not as if the world knew nothing about God before Jesus or as if God somehow pupated into something new that Jesus came to announce. It’s not God that needed changing. The Jews knew a lot about God, in fact. Among other things they knew God is the source of life, powerful beyond conceiving, righteous—which means, in the struggle between what we call good and evil (a far more complicated matter than right and wrong, since those change) God’s on the side of good—and that God’s on the prowl, immanent, busy among us, cares about us. The Jews knew all that. And that’s a lot. What did Jesus add to that for John? For you?
I think Jesus sorta kinda re-draws the picture of God and does that just by being himself, who he is. We believe Jesus is God incarnate, that God loves us so much that he became one of us—which is scandalous to many—and that when we look at Jesus we see God whole, all of God. And who, what is God? God is love. That’s a word that’ll slip out from under ya if you’re not careful, but let’s specify at least one critical aspect of God’s being that Jesus announced, lived, was: self-sacrificing love, self-denying love, self-abnegating love. You first love. Me last love. The kind that even the Baptist embodied when he said of his cuz, “That’s the one. I’m nobody. I will vanish. He’s first. I’m not worth taking his dirty shoes out to clean.” The kind of love that in simple terms says “You first” in a busy store and says, “Here, y’all kill me and leave them alone” in more challenging moments. Now, that was new. Isaiah talked of the Suffering Servant; Jesus was that love. That’s one.
Another, I reckon, was the revelation that the way God wants us to serve him is not chopping up livestock on an altar but rather going to the little, the lonely, the lost, the least of “these my brethren,” and giving them the shirts off our backs. Literally. That’s new. Amos warned about mistreating the helpless; Jesus was one of them, lived with them, sought their company.
And another. With the baptism John preached, Jesus shows us that God is not mad at us, indeed that God loves us so much that he’s somehow overcome, forgiven, all the weakness and foolishness and wickedness and sloth we slosh around in most of the time. John’s baptism was not a trick, not something to do so God would do something else. Baptism, Christian baptism, is not the way we elicit a Pavlovian response from God: “Okay, God? Watchin? We’ve got one, right here, about to dunk him. You watchin? Gonna wipe away them sins?” We don’t baptize to get God to do something; we baptize because God has already done something. And that was new. Even more amazing was Jesus’ promise that when we live baptized, forgiven lives and clothe ourselves in that self-sacrificing love that feeds hungry people and loves people who aren’t worth shooting, why, when we do that Jesus binds us to himself and promises that where he is we will be. With him. Forever. Jesus is a walking RSVP invitation to life in the Kingdom of God. Mercy. Is it any surprise John had to tell somebody?
So this Advent, let’s ponder the Baptist a little, and let’s give thanks for his knowledge of Jesus, for the love that made him say, “Not me. That one.” And let’s thank God for the forerunners who showed Jesus to us. Your walk with the Lord may have started at your grandmother’s knee; it may have started in a brawl in a saloon; it happens all over the place, all the time, right this red hot minute. There is a world not forty yards from where you’re sitting that knows very little about Jesus, lives in a boiling kettle of anger and fear and frustration and violence, and does that world ever need somebody to point it to Jesus.
This Advent ask St. John to fill you with his excitement, fill you so full you can’t keep quiet about it. Hope for the day when you can be the smelly ol’ hide-clad, bug eating weirdo who shows Jesus to someone worse off than you are. Maybe you’ve already had that blessed chance. If you have, do it again. And if you haven’t, as the Advent prayers teach us, be alert, be aware, keep your eyes open. Some day, somewhere, you’ll be the one whose turn it is to shout, “Hey! Looka here! You’ve got options. Forget all you’ve heard about how bad you are. Your sins are forgiven. And look at that one, Jesus, the Lamb of God. He’s the one. Listen to him!”