Saturday, December 15, 2012

John the Baptist

Luke 3:2b-3, 7-18

Today’s person of interest is John the Baptist. John is such a familiar figure in our minds, I want to start by asking some of the questions I asked the class on Monday.

First, looking at the text from Luke, what do we know about John the Baptist?
          Lives in the wilderness; baptizes with water; calls for repentance; fire and brimstone preacher

Now, how is he dressed and what does he eat?
The text doesn't say! Only Matthew and Mark tell us. He probably is dressed as Mark & Matthew tell us, but it’s not important to Luke.

Next, who is in the audience, according to the text?
          Crowd; Jews; haves and have-nots; tax collectors (and other sinners, implied); soldiers; NO Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, leaders are listed (only in Matthew)

          What assumptions can we make about the people in the crowd, since there are no religious leaders listed?
          Common folk, not wealthy, lower classes; sinners of all types; people who take advantage of others; curiosity seekers; like John’s preaching; want something different; could include some leaders; Jewish – and know it

Then, what does John recommend?
          Don’t count on your ancestry to make you righteous; live differently, fairly, justly; repent of your old ways; be baptized and forgiven

And, what does John promise?
          Someone is coming; more powerful than John; brings baptism of fire and Spirit; will sort grain from chaff; judgment

Last question: what does John call this? … Good news! Huh?

So, John says that the one who is coming will judge us, sort us out, and punish those who need punishing. How can this possibly be good news? It’s the rest of what John says about Jesus that is the good news. Jesus is more powerful than John. Jesus is coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

People have begun to believe that John is the messiah, but over and over again, he declares that he is not. Even so, for about a century after his death at the hands of Herod, there was a John the Baptizer community. They encouraged people to come and be washed with the water of confession and forgiveness.

In order to be ready for Jesus, the folks should change their ways. They should not count on being of Jewish descent to be right with God. John says God can change stones into Jewish people. For us, this might translate into weekly church attendance. Just because we attend church every week does not mean that the rest of our lives demonstrate our faith in Jesus. We could be doing all sorts of wrong stuff Monday through Saturday!

John gives specific behavior corrections to several of the groups present. Soldiers should not abuse their power. Just because they have weapons does not mean they should attack women and children, and push old people around. They should not force shopkeepers to pay them to not steal their merchandise. And so forth.

Tax collectors should not steal and tell people they owe more than they actually owe. They should demonstrate fairness to all. They should not hang their finger on the scale so it costs more than it should to balance.

Above all, those who have a surplus should give some away so that all have enough. You only need one coat, if someone else has none, for example. John’s message is so powerful and clear, I wonder why we still need to say this today.

John the Baptist came to prepare the people for the coming of the one who is greater than he. He seems to have been expecting a military hero who would conquer the Romans; or someone with supernatural powers who will bring instant judgment on all the unrighteous people.  John is looking for fireworks and swords and thunder and earthquakes. Since Jesus is not doing what John expected him to do, he later sends a message to Jesus asking, “Are you really the one?”

We know, of course, that Jesus has a very different view of what he is supposed to be doing, and he makes it clear in his response to John. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” The good news brought to the poor by Jesus is the same as what John recommends. Those who have should share with those who do not.

We might by extension say, “Those who are not grieving should comfort those who are grieving.” This weekend, as our nation reels in shock with the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School, Jesus would tell us that it was not God’s plan for Adam Lanza, the shooter, nor God’s plan for those who died, including his mother. Jesus would invite us to pray for and with those who grieve, and assure us of the presence of the Holy Spirit with us and with the families of the deceased.

I share this brief story with you. Rabbi Shaul Praver said he had spent time with Veronika Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah, was among the victims. "She said that she didn't know how she was going to go on, and we encouraged her to focus on her other four children that need her and not to try to plan out the rest of her life, just take a deep breath right now," Praver said. [Reuters, online] This is good advice for all of us: just take a deep breath, and focus on the needs of the living.

And now, as we wait once again for the coming of Baby Jesus, we would be wise to listen to John. Let’s examine our lives and consider what thoughts and habits need repentance and forgiveness. In what ways are we unfair to others? In what ways do we not respect the rights of others? In what ways do we not share what we have with those who have less? In what ways do we assume we are right with God?

This week, I hope you will take some time to consider what John might say to you. Then, as you shower or bathe, or even wash your hands, wash off the sins and ask God for forgiveness.

Please pray with me. God of mercy, we forget how imperfect we are. Forgive us. Help us to be the people you call us to be. In Jesus’ name, amen