Time for our annual John the Baptist sermon.
I hope you don’t get tired of us preachers,
once a year during Advent,
going on and on about this biblical crazy man
who lived in the desert,
ate honey-roasted insects,
wore animal skins for clothes,
preached hellfire and damnation,
and yelled at his congregation, “You brood of vipers!”
Or as Clarence Jordan translated it,
“You s-s-sons of s-s-snakes!”
Now . . . if you are getting tired of John the Baptist,
you’ll also want to give up singing a couple great hymns,
like “On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry”
and “O young and fearless prophet.”
Oh, and you’ll want to plug your ears during
a couple of the more glorious numbers in Handel’s Messiah.
What is our strange fascination with this character?
And he is a character, I grant you.
But I like John the Baptist.
I don’t understand him completely, but I like him.
I always have been intrigued by him, even admired him.
The way I admire other colorful characters.
Probably because I’m not one.
I generally prefer blending in.
So I admire someone with the guts to stand out.
But I think I can honestly say, I like him.
I could make him a cup of coffee, and sit and talk awhile.
We have a lot in common—
except for his miraculous birth,
his insect diet,
his animal wardrobe,
his living in the desert,
and his tendency to yell at people.
Other than that . . .
When I really reflect on the heart of John’s message,
I think it’s pretty much what I try to preach,
a little more softly, and without the name-calling.
John’s preaching, even though it had a specific context,
to prepare the way for Messiah Jesus—
was not just a one-off message,
for that time and place.
His message is not preserved in scripture only as a historical artifact.
It still preaches today.
Consider his community, the one he preached to.
This Jewish people were forgetting their peoplehood.
The covenant that bound them was fading into distant memory.
Cultural pressure was extreme,
and came primarily from the Empire of Rome,
who maintained peace by trying to make everyone Roman,
undermining unique religious and cultural identities.
Many of John’s people didn’t notice, and didn’t care,
how much they were becoming like the Greeks and Romans.
Some Jewish sub-groups tried valiantly
to preserve their own brand of Jewish identity—
Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Nazarites.
They had the same end in mind—to restore Israel as a people.
But they had vastly different methods,
different convictions, different assumptions.
Which created intense conflict between these sub-groups.
Sometimes violent conflict.
Meanwhile, the people of God kept losing ground,
in terms of unity and shared identity.
So if you ponder that context—
a covenant community struggling to survive
in the face of severe fragmentation and polarization,
under intense cultural and political pressure,
with waning influence in society,
forgetting who God called them to be in the world,
it doesn’t take a lot of imagination
to see ourselves in that picture.
Sure, the specific cultural and political dynamics were entirely different.
But the core theological and sociological challenges,
I think were nearly identical to what we face.
So I wonder whether John’s message
bears a more careful listening on our part.
And as we lift this message out of its 1st-century Palestinian context,
and apply it to our context,
take note that John was doing the same thing.
He himself was borrowing a message from another context,
earlier in Israel’s history.
He was quoting Isaiah word-for-word, where, in Isaiah 40,
the prophet called the people back into covenant,
at a time they were floundering in exile.
Isaiah talked about preparing the way for God,
“make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill made low.”
John was in a line of prophets,
whose messages had a lot of similarities.
Including today’s Old Testament reading from prophet Malachi:
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.
But who may abide the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”
(Notice how often, when we read OT Advent texts,
tunes from the Messiah pop into our heads? Funny how that is.)
Anyway . . . over a timespan of two-and-a-half millennia—
across three vastly different cultures,
and entirely different religious and political environments,
the same sermon gets preached.
It goes like this:
“People of God, remember who you are.
Repent. Return to your God, to your covenant.
Return to your mission and identity as a people of God.
God is fully of mercy. God will abundantly pardon.
God wants to move among you,
to form you as a people,
to partner with you, as a people,
to establish God’s reign in the world,
to bring about what is right and just,
to restore what has been broken.”
So repent, my people.
Prepare the way for the Lord to act.”
This is a message of mercy,
to a messed-up people.
We get thrown off by John the Baptist’s
wild and hairy appearance, harsh speech, and strange diet,
and assume, wrongly,
that he was some fringe, off-putting character,
that people went to hear, just for novelty’s sake.
That’s what would happen if someone just like John
showed up in our town.
He might draw a small crowd,
get on the front of the DNR one day,
and we would smile, and go on our merry way, unchanged.
But in that culture,
the lone prophetic figure was a well-established tradition,
and these kind of messengers were not uncommon.
They didn’t go see John because they were attracted to weirdness.
His message struck home.
It rang true.
It spoke to their hopes and dreams as a people.
It seemed like a viable way out of their collective mess.
And they responded, in droves.
I think they knew a call to collective repentance was in order.
Now . . . remember what repentance is not.
It’s not remorse. It’s not individual sorrow for sin.
No, repentance is a change in our way of thinking.
That’s what the word literally means, metanoia—
to think again,
to change our mind about something.
John’s sermon, in plain English, was,
“You . . . people of God, change your old ways of thinking.
Think rightly about who you are, about who God is.
Repent. Think new thoughts
about being God’s people in this world.
Your sins will be forgiven—as a people and as individuals.
The people were lazy in their thinking.
They failed to see what Roman domination
was doing to them as a community of faith.
They were losing their story as God’s covenant people.
They were failing to think of themselves rightly,
in relation to this powerful Roman Empire,
whose pagan culture was taking over the world.
Some of them were getting caught up in the political struggle.
Some were in active conflict with each other
over this or that bit of religious trivia.
But their major failing was that they no longer
thought of themselves as God’s own people.
And it affected how they lived in a pagan culture.
I told you John’s sermon still preaches today.
Repenting, thinking again, thinking rightly,
will change us as a community and as individuals.
Our collective thought patterns,
how we think of ourselves as a church,
shape what we do as a church.
They shape the sort of organizations we construct.
They shape the way we distribute authority and resources,
They shape our process for making decisions.
They shape how we worship.
They shape how we engage in mission.
And they certainly shape how we behave,
and how we react,
in the face of global and national crises,
such as recent acts of violence and terrorism.
There is a certain collective way of thinking
in some parts of the Christian church,
about what it means to be Christian, or be God’s people,
that have shaped the deeply troubling responses
of some Christian leaders this past week,
including the president of Liberty University,
who on Friday spoke to 12,000 students in chapel,
boasting about the handgun he had in his hip pocket,
and urging his students to get guns
and carry them on campus.
Then he said, and I quote,
“Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
Now I have no doubt that as a person,
Jerry Falwell Jr. loves Jesus,
and loves his wife and children,
and may even be a kind and gentle man
in his personal relationships.
But he, and many others, have been deeply shaped
by collective thought patterns—
in their churches,
and even more, I fear,
by the thought patterns of our pagan American culture.
I don’t raise this just to point fingers in another direction.
We Mennonites also have developed
strong collective thought patterns—
some healthy, some not-so-healthy—
that shape our individual responses and choices.
We would also be wise to keep this in mind,
if we listen to President Obama speak from the Oval Office tonight.
We would be wise to be self-aware of thought patterns
that shape how we will hear and respond whatever he says.
May it be the thought patterns
formed by our identity as a people of God,
as followers of Jesus,
rather than our political ideology.
It is wise to examine our collective thought patterns,
and ask if God is calling us to repent, to think new thoughts.
To change our thought patterns
toward those that have their origin in God and God’s mission,
and away from those that have their
origin in the values of a pagan and materialistic culture.
And then we can rightly expect,
that as we repent collectively,
as our collective thought patterns change,
it will shape our responses and decisions as individuals.
Every day, as individuals, we have a multitude of choices to make.
How we choose is shaped by how we think of ourselves
in relationship to the people of God.
What kind of entertainment I consume,
how I engage social media,
the images I allow myself to interact with,
the technology I choose to adopt,
the kind of housing I live in,
the way I transport myself from place to place,
even what I put into my mouth when I’m hungry—
It seems to me that people who think
like members of a community of Jesus followers,
would be less influenced by what our dominant culture
defines as must-see, must-do, must-own,
and more influenced by whether
watching, doing, eating, and owning these things
are consistent with my chosen identity
as part of the people of God.
Thinking again, repenting, as part of the people of God,
aligns us with the purpose God had in mind for us,
when in God’s mercy,
God brought us into being and graced us with life.
Let’s just get rid of the notion that a call to repent,
is a call to somehow demean or diminish ourselves,
or to take on some onerous burden to weigh us down.
No, John the Baptist’s preaching was good news!
If John had not been inviting his people
into a newer, deeper, more meaningful life,
they wouldn’t have been lining up for his baptism.
Despite what we think, because of our cultural blinders,
John’s message was not shrill and repulsive.
It drew people in,
because of the hope and promise John spoke of.
It was an invitation into Isaiah’s grand vision,
of a world at peace,
accessible to all
(valleys exalted and mountains made low).
That’s a positive and hopeful image, rightly understood.
It’s not a violent bulldozing of the earth.
Isaiah didn’t prophesy mountaintop removal coal mining.
No, this was a liberating image,
that the barriers were being removed.
Mountains were not easily traversed in those days.
They formed imposing boundaries between peoples.
Under God’s reign,
the mountains will be made low,
the valleys will be lifted up,
and the crooked be made straight.
There will be nothing hindering the coming King,
no barrier preventing the nations
from coming together under God’s reign.
This is a picture of freedom.
This is a picture of the path of mercy.
If God’s people but glimpse this vision of Isaiah and John,
and repent, change their way of thinking,
they will be freedom bound.
Their chains will be removed.
And salvation will come.
“Every valley shall be filled,
every mountain and hill shall be made low,
the crooked shall be made straight,
the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
What is God’s role in changing this landscape?
And what is our role?
A good question as the political season gets into high gear.
A lot of us are tempted to take all our hopes for the future,
or our fears of the future,
and place those hopes or fears squarely on the outcome
of key political campaigns, like the run for president.
I don’t diminish the importance of who’s in the oval office.
Well, maybe I do.
We do overestimate the power of a president
to completely change our political landscape,
or the course of direction for our country.
I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t be interested or involved
in the political process in our country.
But as a people in covenant with one another,
and in covenant with the God who comes to save,
our hope is in a different kind of political landscape.
Our hope is in a God who intends
to lower the mountains and raise the valleys,
and make straight the crooked—
despite which party is in office.
And our agenda is to live like we’re part of God’s
all-nations, all-peoples, all-races political dreamscape.
Our hope is a new politic,
a new way of living together as human beings.
Our hope is in what God is up to,
our God who is making new heavens and new earth,
and bringing together earth and heaven
in a way that none of us can quite imagine.
If that’s where our hope lies,
that also where our agenda should lie.
We should be about the business of the God who reigns.
We should be attentive to what God is already doing,
and joining right in.
I invite us to look for the light of God,
which has come, and is coming,
and is yet to come.
And then to walk in that light. Together.
—Phil Kniss, December 6, 2015
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