|Calvary Episcopal Church, Rockdale
December 17, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
Today we continue the story, in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, of one of the great characters of
world literature – and, indeed, of world history – John the Baptist! Last week we heard that he came
proclaiming the message of Isaiah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the
Lord.” Today, he is preaching to the crowds that heard that voice and have come out to be baptized
Such a strange character, John! It’s difficult for us, today, to imagine what John the Baptist must
really have been like. On the one hand, we have a perfectly human tendency to “tame him,” and turn
him into the kind of typically stern preacher we might see on TV, calling the people to repent before
the end – minus, of course, the $2,000 suit and the pompadour. On the other hand, and at the same
time, we have the opposite tendency of being most impressed by his wildness – by the hair and the
clothes and the food – and the ranting!
But John wasn’t just another preacher; nor was he a wild man.
John, we know, grew up in Judea, close by the desert wilderness, and he was comfortable there. And
it’s true that the Gospels tell us he was clothed in animal skins, and his diet consisted of locusts and
honey, and he never cut his hair, from which facts we can easily get an image of John as being almost
some kind of hippy figure – two thousand years ahead of his time – a radical, free-thinking, liberal
wacko kind of dude, rejecting society’s values and norms, and rebelling against them. We could – but
we’d be really wrong if we did.
What John was, in relation to the society he was born into, was a radical, all right – a radical
If John LOOKED like a wild man, and SEEMED to reject the values and norms of his society, it was
because he was about the only one IN the society who took those values and those norms seriously!
– took them, in fact, with quite literally DEADLY seriousness!
The reason John lived in the wilderness, like a wild man, was that it was only in the wilderness that
he found it possible to adhere, strictly, to the values his society CLAIMED to believe in – meaning the
Torah of God, the laws handed down to Moses on the mountain – but didn’t live. It was only in the
wilderness that he could refrain from associating with the sinners and the marginal members of
society the Torah condemned and excluded; only in the wilderness that he could be certain not to
break the dietary laws paid only lip-service by his fellow Jews, restricting his diet to the unappetizing
– but strictly kosher – locusts and wild honey he could find in abundance out there; only in clothing
himself in the skins of wild animals – animals that he, himself, probably killed and skinned – that he
could be certain not to violate the Law of God forbidding the mixing of fabrics; and only in letting his
hair and beard grow wild and free – uncut! – that he could be sure to obey the scriptural prohibition
against “rounding the corners” of his beard!
No. Far from being the hippy liberal of his day, John the Baptist was his age’s radical right winger –
the religious right, no less! He saw, in his world, too much that drew people from the old ways – the
ways of the Torah, the ways of the Lord. This world occupied and ruled by the Roman Empire, with
their Pagan gods and idols; their occupation troops that ran riot, out of control, ripping off the
population, bullying, coercing, causing anger and resentment, setting the worst of examples; their
habit of taxing their conquered populations to make them pay for their own conquering, their own
occupation – and for the upkeep of the imperial city, as well – with their own tax collectors: local
collaborators, enforcing the invaders’ system while living high off the ingrained system of graft and
embezzlement! And slowly but inexorably the conquered people giving in to the conquerors and their
ways, slowly accepting the pagan practices, from the top, down, until the whole society was showing
signs of corruption, and walking farther and farther from the footsteps of the fathers. It was the kind
of milieu that produces religious conservatives, calling the people back, calling them to return –
BUT! But there was something different about John; something that set him apart from the usual,
reactionary preacher. Because John wasn’t calling his people BACK to something – back to “the good
old days,” back to “that old time religion”! John was calling them forward; forward to something new,
something different, something the world had never seen, before.
John knew the Lord was sending something new, and that it was the end of the age.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last 4 or 5 weeks the peculiar type of literature called
“apocalyptic,” that had grown up in the couple of centuries between the close of the Old Testament
writings, and the time of Jesus. Apocalyptic is a literature that comes at the end of an age, to
announce the end, and John the Baptist was the apocalyptic prophet of his age – his end-age. He
called his people, with great urgency, to return to the ways, to the values of the fathers, to return
before it was too late, before the end came – whatever the end might be! He could see the signs
around him; the end was already upon them, and “even now the axe (was) laid to the root of the
trees,” and those trees that bore not good fruit would be cut down.
These were radical times, John saw, and they called for radical measures. “He who has two coats,” he
told them, “let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise.” It’s “all
for one, and one for all,” in the end times, or none of us will make it.
“And if you are one of those who has been part of the problem – a soldier, a tax collector – it’s almost
too late; the time is at hand; … no time left to become other than you are! If you’re a tax collector, go
ahead and collect your taxes – BUT from now on take no more than is necessary, no more than is just,
no more than is appointed. If you’re a soldier, a part of the occupying force, then BE a soldier, BUT
from now on have a care for those in your charge; put aside violence and coercion and robbery – and
be content with what you have! And if you’re a king, beware – for the Law of the Lord applies to you,
as to all people, and your reign must be of the law and under the law.”
“Tax collectors, soldiers, kings, people – have a care, for the Lord is near; his winnowing fork is in his
hand, and he is about to clear his threshing floor.”
An amazing fellow was John – the last in a long and honorable line of prophets. He was the last
because the time of the prophets really was coming to an end. But ending in a way neither John nor
the prophets that had gone before him had anticipated. And the age did pass, but not with winnowing
forks and axes and unquenchable fire.
Rather, it passed with a new message and a new kind of prophet.
A message not of divine rage and anger, but of invincible forgiveness and irresistible love.
A prophet not of the wilderness, but one who proclaimed his message from his place high above the
people, held fast, there, in his place, by iron nails in his hands and in his feet!
A prophet and a message that came together, at last and for all time, when Invincible Love drew the
murdered prophet into new life.
And the new age that John had come to prepare the way for had arrived in a way he could never have
imagined, never have anticipated.
John the Baptist is one of the great characters of world literature – and, indeed, of world history. And
he’s one of the most heroic, as well as one of the saddest; saddest because he spent his life serving
the Lord he knew, and preparing for the Glory of the Lord that he would never know – and he gave
his life, never knowing for what he gave it!
Advent is a short season, this year – as short as it can be. As it draws to a close, this week, and we
approach the Feast of the Incarnation of the Christ, take a moment to think of that crazy, wild, radical,
hyper-conservative John; give a thought to the Baptizer, who spent his life – who GAVE his life --
calling people to prepare for something that was coming that he would never know. Give a thought –
and a prayer of thanksgiving –to the knowledge that, as great, as remarkable, as heroic as he was –
we are immeasurably better off than he, because he didn‘t live to know the presence of the Risen
Lord, while we Live in it!!
Give a thought to the preparation John called for, a preparation that can never be complete, because
the Lord that John knew was coming is STILL coming. And every heart and every soul is still called to
prepare his way, to prepare him room -- in a world that still really takes little note of him; in hearts that
have yet to welcome him.
And give one more thought, in this last week before our celebration, to ask yourselves if, as we’ve
rushed to prepare for the celebration of Christmas, if we’ve taken enough time to prepare, like John,
for the coming of Christ!
In Jesus Christ’s Name. Amen.