John the Baptist is a pretty intense kind of dude. Thin and gangly; wild-haired and unwashed; existing on a diet of locusts and honey, wearing rough animal skins as clothing; wandering the desert to commune with the holy one, Yahweh, and proclaim in no uncertain terms the power, sweeping, irresistible, onward march of the coming judgment of God.
The word that the Gospel writers use to describe how John talk means, basically, to yell. It’s like John is writing in ALL CAPS all he time. He never turns down the volume. He shouts and yells at us across two thousand years. He rants and rages about the axe at the foot of the tree and the winnowing fork and the unquenchable fires of judgment. He proclaims the dawning of a new age of history. He calls the religious people, the most holy people of that day and age, a hypocritical brood of vipers who are about to be cut down and cast into the fires. John practically leaps off the page at us in his ferocity. As one scholar has written: “John the Baptist inaugurates … God’s kingdom like a champagne bottle shattered against the hull of a new ship.”
But for all his ferocity, the people flock to him. John was such a popular preacher that the crowds, including both the normal people as well as religious groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, come out to hear him. In fact, one of the Roman historians of the day, Josephus Flavius, mentions the historical figure of John the Baptist and notes that he so excited and aroused the crowds of Jewish people in the area that King Herod had him beheaded. The Jews haven’t had a prophet like this in generations. His charisma is irresistible. The man is on fire. The people come to him from all over Judea and later from all over Israel. Dropping everything. Leaving their homes and their hillsides and their sheep and their warm dinners to seek out this living prophet who reeks of God.
What was John preaching, that made him so popular? You would think that to attract crowds like that – crowds so thick and so passionate that the king actually thinks you’re starting an uprising – you would have to be preaching a pretty attractive message.
But that’s the curious thing: John wasn’t preaching rainbows and sunshine and full bank accounts. He was preaching a gospel of repentance, baptism, and the remission of sins. He was calling the people to repentance and readiness. John made clear that the coming of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as the Gospel of Matthew calls it, that coming depended on the people turning their hearts back to God. The Messiah was coming near, and to be ready, the people needed to turn their hearts and their lives back to God.
And those who didn’t turn, John made clear, weren’t going to find themselves in a very happy place.
The people were ready for John’s message because they were ready, more than ready, for the coming of their Messiah. For centuries the Jews had been living under one oppressive foreign government after another, waiting for their restoration, for their homecoming. John can see in their eyes how they long to believe that the hour has finally come for the Messiah. And when John promised that the Messiah was coming, so close now that you could practically see his kingdom on the horizon, then by golly, no wonder the people were lining up down the street to get tickets to get in.
You know what? This year, I feel like I get it. I feel too, deep down in my bones, some sense of longing and delayed, deferred, frustrated expectation that the Jews of the first century must have felt. I look around this year at the cultural and political developments here in Europe and around the globe, and I see things that scare me, and things that fill me with sadness. I won’t bother to make a list of these things, because I know that you read the newspaper, too. You know what’s going on.
This week I read and reread the words of the prophet Isaiah, and I wanted to weep, because this year more than ever his vision of blessed, everlasting peace feels like a pipe dream. The promise of peace, of an end to all wars (small wars between colleagues, or between husbands and wives, as well as big wars in places like Syria); the promise of justice for the poor and the meek, the end of rivalry, of smallness, of selfishness, of racism; the end of cancers eating away at our bodies and depressions eating away at our souls; the end of closed borders, of refugees chased from their homes; the end of places like the Jungle in Calais; the end of people dying in boats while other people turn their backs: How long, Lord? How long?
This morning, the voice of John the Baptist and the voice of the prophet Isaiah ring out to us, crystal clear, unchanged across two thousand years of history: clear as the ringing of a bell, sharp as the blade of an axe.
People, get ready, says John: ready to be a part of something bigger than all of us combined. For 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. He’s not kidding around, this John the Baptist guy.
But the reality of the Kingdom depends, always depends on our readiness. And it does seem to me that this year, and in the years to come, God is going to need some Kingdom people who are ready, who are with Him, and who are willing to stand up for the poor, the weak and needy. People who are willing to say, loudly and unequivocally, with their voices, with their lives, and with their ballot slips, that all lives matter.
How will we get ready? How will we become the kind of people strong enough, bold enough, to challenge the current political mood and stand up for open borders and open church doors? How will we ever get ready to be the kinds of people that God needs us to be at this particular hour? How will we prepare for the constant – constantly unexpected, always interrupting – inbreaking of God, our Messiah?
John – with his no-nonsense gospel of repentance, forgiveness, and baptism – shows us the way.
First of all, we will prepare by repenting, literally, by turning, with our whole lives and our whole beings, back in the direction of the coming one. In fact, this is what repentance actually means: turning. A complete, 180 degree turning back from the direction you were walking in, to walk in a different direction. A turning from the way that you were looking, to look in a completely new direction. A reorientation of your whole life and your whole being. Turning away from the world’s refrain of accumulate, accumulate, accumulate towards the kingdom’s refrain of give, give, give. Turning away from the world of me, me, me towards the kingdom of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Turning away from the world of gimme, gimme, gimme towards the kingdom of I lose everything for the sake of the cross.
So first, we repent. And, second, to confirm our forgiveness and our readiness, John calls us to return in spirit to our baptism. To to submit our lives and selves, once again, to the consecration of death and new life.
We call John “the Baptist” because he basically invented baptism. The Jews had always practiced ritual washings before holy days. But the act of being submerged fully, one time, into water and then lifted up again, down into death of self and up into the glorious life of Christ: that starts with John the Baptist. And of course the most famous person that John baptized was Jesus. But as John himself says, his baptism was later replaced, or usurped you could say, by the baptism that Jesus himself offers us. When we were baptized, we stepped into Jesus’ baptism and so, too, into Jesus’ new life as ministers of the kingdom of heaven.
John reminds us this morning that we are called to live our whole lives in the baptism of Jesus. In fact, Martin Luther once wrote, “All of life is baptism.” Let’s face it: in this broken world we are constantly being submerged into darkness and chaos, into the stuff that causes despair. We go down; we feel the cold waters closing in over our heads; we feel like this time, it just might be the end of it all; but then we feel those strong hands grasping us beneath the arms, taking hold of us, and drawing us upwards, into the light, and woooosh, we are raised up again into glorious new life. And that not once, but again and again: out of death, and into new life.
All of life is baptism means that every painful moment that seems like a death is also the beginning of new life, the overflow of Jesus’ baptismal waters, the movement of the Holy Spirit. All of life is baptism means that God is always creating new possibilities out of situations that seem like a dead end. All of life is baptism means that we are always on the verge of being lifted up, up, up, into new life. All of life is baptism means the light is always breaking in.
This morning, John invites us to get ready for the coming of the Messiah and the thundering onward march of the Kingdom of God. People, get ready. Let’s review what John asks of us this morning. First, to repent. To turn away from the world with all of its tinsel and glitter and trinkets and its me! me! me! philosophy, and back towards the simple, humble, hard work of the Kingdom. And second, to submit ourselves to the cleansing, healing, life-giving waters of baptism, freely and willingly going down with Christ into humility and darkness, in order that we might be raised up again with him in his glorious light.
Brothers and sisters, let’s get ready.