John the Baptist:Flash Mobs and Fans

A Sermon preached at Southminster

December 5, 2010

 

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matt 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This is our season of preparation for God’s Kingdom, breaking into our world.  But as we spend time in the season of Advent, preparing for the birth of a baby in Bethlehem with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we first have to encounter John the Baptizer.

We would rather be doing about anything other than this, of course. If we could skip the wilderness, with its wild beasts, its loneliness, and its grouchy prophets, we would.
But we can’t.

We all have wilderness in our lives. Broken relationships, economic uncertainties, depression, grief, despair, and loss all can leave us feeling as if we are all alone in an inhospitable landscape.

And so before we can go to the “fa la la la la’s” and the joys of a baby born in Bethlehem, it is right to detour out to John in the wilderness, acknowledging that life is complex. Acknowledging that for all of the Good News in our life, there is also difficulty and wilderness.

According to the non-christian historical record of the day, John the Baptizer was a better known figure than Jesus. There were plenty of people at the time who thought Jesus would become a historical footnote and John would be the one we’d be talking about years down the road.
Because John had followers.
Lots of them in his lifetime.

All of the people of Jerusalem, the text tells us, were leaving the city and heading to the river bank to be baptized by him.

By all accounts, he was charismatic. He was troublesome. He was, eventually, martyred.
And while each of the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus in their own way, ALL of them connect Jesus with John the Baptist.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in each gospel account, John is there. Coming before Jesus and preparing the way, making paths straight and preaching a baptism of repentance.

John is such an interesting character. He dresses just like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) the Old Testament Prophet. He quotes directly from the Prophet Isaiah. There is to be no doubt for us that he is the heir of the tradition. But prophets weren’t popular. They were usually run out of town, imprisoned, or ignored—because neither kings nor people wanted to hear the Truth they were telling.  Eventually, the same will happen for John.

But John is drawing these huge crowds. He doesn’t preach in the Temple, in the center of Israeli power and culture. He preaches in the Judean wilderness. He leaves Main Street and heads out to the wilderness, and the crowds follow him.

He has fans.

He is not proclaiming a “feel good” message of therapeutic moralism. How different would the story be if it went like this:

When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “hello! So glad you’re here. I know you’re busy with work and soccer carpoolsl, but if you could just spend a few minutes a week praying to God, then that would be swell! Really, I don’t want to impose, but God loves you and wants you to love yourself. Okay? Great! Let’s hug.

That is decidedly NOT what John says.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

and

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

He couldn’t be more clear about what is expected of the people. We are to be good fruit. Because the bad fruit faces wrath and will be thrown into the fire.
And a Merry Christmas to you all!

But the crowds still follow him.

Why do you think that is?

I wonder if it is because we have enough people in our lives already who tell us what they think we want to hear. I think there are times we need truth tellers, even if it isn’t comfortable. Even if it requires something from us. Even if we have to journey out to the Wilderness to meet the truth.

Because an inconvenient and difficult truth is still better than platitudes. We seek something that is real. We yearn for authenticity. And while the plastic Santa Claus and animatronic reindeer in our yards have their own way of helping us prepare for Christmas, I hope we’ll continue to hear John the Baptist’s cry of truth from the wilderness to help us prepare too.

What is the truth, exactly, that John offered to the crowds in the wilderness, as they flocked to him for baptism? What is the truth he offers us today, located in our personal wildernesses?

How about this—our God is an equal opportunity God. The baptism of water was offered to all who repented. John could put up with his “fans” because he knew that the kingdom of God that was breaking into the world in Jesus was a new thing, and was for all the people and for creation itself. No longer was God’s family limited to the children of Abraham. “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham”, he told the crowd.

But we are all supposed to be good fruit too. We are supposed to live our lives as if it means something for us to be God’s sons and daughters. As one of my favorite seminary professors said, “John, and the Jesus he announces, arrive with the most astonishing combination of acceptance and admonition. We all discover this Advent, not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do.”(David Bartlett in Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1, page 46)

How does the saying go? God loves me for who I am but loves me too much to let me stay that way?

John’s message to the crowds and to us is that simple, and that hard. We are called to repentance—to acknowledging that we haven’t lived as we have been called to live. But this isn’t about guilt or wanting people to feel unworthy. This repentance is actually an act of Hope. By repenting, we—as individuals and as a community—come before God and acknowledge that we believe in God’s kingdom. We believe that there is a better and more just way of being, of treating each other, and of living together than we can make happen on our own.

And we, as Christians, believe that the Advent, or the arrival, of Jesus of Nazareth into the world showed us God’s radical love and grace in a way the world had never seen before.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. I baptize you with water for repentance, said John, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.

But even though the world had never seen anything like Jesus before, many of the people recognized him when they saw him. Because Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets had prepared the way too.

But let’s remember that Isaiah didn’t know anything about Jesus of Nazareth. He wasn’t a fortune teller who was predicting the future in a magical way. He was a prophet of God, a person called by God to proclaim news of God’s judgment, God’s promise, and God’s hope for a future that is better than we can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And the people who met Jesus, who heard him speak, who saw him heal, who watched him stand up and speak truth to power, and who heard him preach a message of repentance and of God’s grace, all of these people heard Jesus and thought of Isaiah.  Jesus embodied for them the message of hope they heard in Isaiah’s writings.

I’m sure some of you are wondering if we just read a passage from Isaiah that I preached on in November. Lions, lambs, wolves, and oxen were in that passage too, but I promise you that this is a different prophecy from Isaiah. Here’s what we heard in October:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!

It is worth noting that Isaiah is using similar imagery to what he used in chapter 65 to describe God’s Kingdom.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

The imagery has expanded in this prophecy. The animals are led by a little child.  And while Jesus is the first child who comes to mind when I hear that passage, it shouldn’t be the only way we read that text. The little child leading the wolf and the leopard should remind us that the leadership in God’s kingdom is not as the world leads. It isn’t a big strong man with lots of weapons leading them.

Listen again to Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, of the person who was to rise up and lead the people:
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

I know this vision from Isaiah isn’t the world we see around us right now. But we flock to the wilderness, following after the crazy guy eating locusts and wearing a camel pelt, because we have God’s own hope that the truth about the world is bigger and better than we can imagine.

This hope calls us to repentance and to go out and love and serve the world, seeking justice, and bearing good fruit.

I want to end this morning with a video that some of you may have seen. Have you heard of flash mobs? This is a phenomenon of the “everything can be video taped” age in which we live. People will plant themselves in public areas—train stations, shopping malls, etc—and then sing or dance or something.

This particular flash mob reminded me of Isaiah. As you watch it, consider the similarities.

Isaiah speaks of something happening that is completely unexpected, that breaks in to our world, bringing God’s love and glory to the mundane details of our lives. “On that day,” says Isaiah, “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him and his dwelling shall be glorious.”
May it be so.

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