John the Baptist – Wild in the Wilderness

Advent 1 – November 29 – Luke 3:1-20, Matthew 3:1-10

Do you ever feel like you’ve been sent to the principal’s office when you go for a checkup with your doctor or dentist? We often hear hard words – and true words – about our weight, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, or the state of our gums. They aren’t meant to hurt us, but to help us change our behaviors and live longer and healthier lives.

Or have you ever had to wait a few weeks to get a medical diagnosis? Life is tentative and you’re on pins and needles waiting for a word. Sometimes even hearing bad news – and recognizing we have a long road ahead of us – can enable us to change our ways, make better choices, and experience healing. When you know what’s going on, you can begin to marshal your resources for a cure.

John the Baptist was a physician of the soul, who looked into the human heart, found a diagnosis, and gave a prescription for recovery.

John was a Wildman, a hippie-type, long hair, living in the wilderness, wearing simple clothes, and eating wild honey and locusts.   His appearance accented his message: this is one wild dude with something serious to say. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.

The son of a temple priest, John left institutional religion and studied at one of the monastic communities on the near the Dead Sea. He was tired of folks talking the talk, but not walking the walk. He was infuriated by the Jerusalem Temple priests who lined their purses with widow’s paychecks and cozied up to the Roman oppressors to stay in power.

Perhaps he studied with the Essenes – a highly disciplined community that believed we must purify ourselves to prepare for the coming Messiah who would save Israel.

John comes to the River Jordan came with harsh words. He came with a message of real tough love. “Hey you vipers, listen up! You’re in danger of losing everything. The fires are lit; if you don’t turn, you’re liable to burn. If you don’t wake up, you’ll miss the kingdom of heaven. It’s right around the corner, drop everything, and get ready.”

The proper people – the wealthy 1% and the religious leaders – got angry. “How can he get away with calling us vipers? Doesn’t he know that our wealth supports the Temple and that our children are going to the best schools just as we did?” But, the ones who struggled with guilt about working for the Romans, or being forced into immoral professions or cheating on their taxes and spouses, or feeling overwhelmed by past mistakes – they got him, and they flocked to the Jordan to be baptized, and claim a new beginning. They knew they needed help and only God, not their status or good works, could save them.

Like the Baptist revival preachers I grew up hearing, John began his message with the bad news. But, beyond the bad news there was hope for healing: Yes, there’s something seriously wrong with our lives and the world in which we live, but we can still change. You can repent, and become God’s companion in the coming kingdom of God: yes, there’s bad news and spiritual surgery is recommended. The tree has to be pruned and the disease eliminated, but as a Maryland apple farmer once told me, “we prune, so the light can come in.”

The key word here is “repent.” It means turn around. Take a U-turn from what’s hurting you and others and begin again, on a new route, God’s route of healing and salvation.

John was a way maker. He saw himself as the advance man for the Messiah, and when Jesus came to be baptized, he knew his work was bearing fruit. This was the One, his second cousin, who would bring good news to all people.

John was a prophet, and definitely a wild man. He showed people an alternative way to live, and we need that. In Romans, the apostle Paul says “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as Eugene Peterson says in his biblical paraphrase, the Message:

Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

         John reminds us to look hard at the status quo. It’s easy to become so adjusted to what we see on the news that we don’t ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with us, our country, or the world that we accept what’s happening as normal?” John says, “Look hard at the world and look hard at yourselves and make some changes?”

In this time of waiting for Jesus’ birth, we need to feel a bit agitated – hundreds of school children are homeless or have no permanent residence in Barnstable, Veterans are homeless on the Cape, refugees pour into Europe and we’re agonizing about what to do, and the humility of Jesus’ birth is lost in the quest for the perfect gift.

It has been said that the prophet’s task is to agitate the comfortable and comfort the agitated. John was an agitator and sometimes a killjoy, but for those who knew they needed God’s grace and wisdom to get by, his words brought comfort.

Today, let us be agitated with discontent at the way things are, and let us give comfort to the lonely, mourning, lost, and hurting….let us prepare the way for Jesus this Advent-Christmas season.