Rev. Danielle K Bartz December 4, 2022
John 3:1-12 “Into the Wilderness”
In my opinion, John the Baptist doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the role he played in sharing the Gospel message. At best he is remembered as the one who baptized Jesus. At worst he is remembered as simply an itinerant preacher in the wilderness – remembered more for his camel hair coat and diet of locusts and honey. Jesus, another itinerant preacher from a backwater town, looked positively mainstream compared to John.
And sometimes all people seem to remember about John is that he was beheaded. There is a story I heard recently about another church in town, a few years ago, who had a youth minister who would deliver the children’s message every week. The youth minister usually ran their plans by the senior minister, but one week that conversation was missed. It was Advent, likely even the 2nd Sunday in Advent when most churches recount the words of John, though I don’t know that for sure. The senior minister sat down as the youth minister was calling the children forward, and the youth minister had a box next to him that clearly had a prop for his retelling of the story, a common occurrence. The senior minister was surprised as the youth minister of John and was moving beyond the Advent scriptures going through his entire life. The story got to the point when Herod, after being requested to, orders John to be executed by beheading and have his head presented on a platter to his wife. And the senior minister watched in stunned horror when the youth minister, while telling about this gruesome episode in the Gospel, reaches into the box and pulls out a silver platter with a roundish object on top, covered by a cloth. It was one of those moments in ministry when time stands still – do you intervene and stop what is happening because it has gotten…too weird? Or do you just sit there and let it unfold, accepting the reality that you will have to deal with the consequences later? If you are curious, the senior minister just let it happen.
Reducing John to a couple of public acts which are interpreted as being directly tied to Jesus or his violent end, reduces the incredibly important role he played in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of John in devout terms. From later in the Matthew, Jesus says to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet…Truly a tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus proclaims John to be the return of the prophet Elijah – which makes John a tremendously significant part of the story of the Good News.
For those who don’t know, Elijah was a prophet during a turbulent time in Israel. He spoke out against the growing worship of Baal, a Canaanite deity over the worship of God. He performed incredible miracles, including resurrection, and led a school of people who became prophets. He was an incredibly significant prophet in ancient Israel, and was prophesied to return before the ‘coming of the Lord,’ meaning he was a harbinger of the Messiah, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Today our Jewish siblings continue to set a place for Elijah at their Passover Sedar tables and leave the door open to welcome him in. And our Muslim siblings revere him as a prophet who led our common ancestors away from idolatry. Jesus claimed John was the second coming of Elijah, therefore he is not just some wild-eyed man in the wilderness that too much of mainstream Christianity has reduced him to.
As the story of John is told, it is clear that for the people of the time, he was a significant figure. He had disciples and large crowds gathered around him to hear his teachings. His significance in the region reached the ears of Herod, who had him arrested, and of course executed. And while the Gospels record that John was arrested because he spoke out against Herod’s divorce and remarrying, Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian who recorded history during the time of Jesus, wrote that John was executed because the “great influence John had over the people.” And when word reached Jesus about John’s death, he openly grieved. So, the people of the time understood the significance of John. Jesus declared him to be Elijah, and it seems many of the people agreed.
Because, against all common sense, the people streamed away from the Temple in Jerusalem to venture out to the wilderness to hear John preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan. Our Gospel lesson this morning recounts that people from ‘all Judea were going to him, and all the region along the Jordon.” The people were leaving the center of their religious lives, walking away from the Pharisees and Sadducees and the leaders of the Temple, and instead turning their attention to John. And it was not because John was offering kind, reassuring words. Indeed, his preaching left little doubt about his low opinion of the people. He believed they had turned away from true worship of God and were once again falling into the traps of idolatry. They may not have been worshipping idols, but John accuses them of something equally bad. He accuses them of serving or even worshipping an institution.
John says, “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.” Put another way, he is saying, ‘Just because you claim yourselves as members of this ancient institution does not make you special or privileged. God makes everything special, not just you.’ John is calling the people out for resting on their laurels, for assuming that because they belong to the institutionalized religion then they have done all that God requires of them. But John tells them that is not enough. He tells them they must ‘bear good fruit worthy of repentance,’ they must do good in this world in service to God and to God alone. John told them they were in danger of not finding welcome in the coming Kingdom of God, and that they had to get ready, because the Messiah was coming, and the Messiah would judge them. ‘This is your warning to get right with God,’ John says, ‘because time is running out.’
It is intriguing to me that the people flocked to hear this message. Most people prefer not to be told that doing the bare minimum is not enough. It is intriguing to me, but not surprising because I believe that most people crave substance. They crave a connection to something deeper, bigger, and more complicated than what any human can do on their own. And, evidenced by the people streaming away from Jerusalem and into the wilderness, it is clear to me they were not getting that substance from the religious authority and practices of the day. They wanted more, they needed more. The institutionalized religion wasn’t given them what they wanted so they began to look elsewhere.
It is not lost on me that I say these words to you as a leader in an institutionalized religion, from a pulpit found in very traditional church. Suggesting that people found God outside the walls the Temple can be considered a risk, like I am suggesting you would be better able to find God outside the walls of this sanctuary. And the truth is I am saying that – God does not exist exclusively inside the walls of the Church. God cannot only be found in the singing of hymns and the practicing of the sacraments. God cannot and will not be boxed in like that. But that does not mean God is absent from these rituals – these rituals that give us grounding and stability in an ever-changing world. The trick is to use the Church, the rituals, the traditions, the ministry and mission, not to serve the institution, but to serve God. The question we must always ask ourselves comes directly from John – ‘are we bearing good fruit?’ Are we bearing fruit that is worthy of God? Have we set a place at our tables and opened our doors to welcome in the messenger who will proclaim the coming of the Kingdom and are we prepared to fully welcome that message and all the disruption it contains?
The people flocked to hear John because he was offering them something more than trite answers and shallow assurances. He was offering them an opportunity to become more than they realized and to do true good in the world. He turned their focus away from institutions and instead pointed them to God. As the descendants of those early people, we are called to make sure our focus remains on God, and that all we do is in service to God. We will never do this perfectly and we may rarely do it well, but we are called on to try. Because this effort makes space in our lives for the great hope and promise of our faith, that the Kingdom of God is real and amongst us, if we can only allow ourselves to see it. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – you have sent us messengers who call our attention away from whatever idols we are focusing on and instead turn our attention back to you. For this gift of constantly reaching out to us, we give you thanks. And it is in a spirit of gratitude that we turn to you now in prayer.
There is much, too much, in this world that distracts us from you. This busy season of our lives is filled with so much that it can be hard to remember why we are celebrating in the first place. But, you are in the midst of all of it, beckoning for our attention and our devotion. So we pray today that we will create room for you in our lives and in our spirits so that we can rest in the comforting embrace of your presence.
As we pray this for ourselves, we also offer to you the prayers we have for our neighbors and strangers, the people in this world for whom the greatest comfort we can provide comes in our prayers to you. We offer you these prayers from the silence of our hearts, knowing that you hear and respond…
Loving God, your hope for us is not a mystery. You communicate that hope in all sorts of extraordinary ways and through all sorts of unlikely voices. The gift of Jesus Christ and his teachings is the hope upon which all hopes are built. We pray all of this and so much more in his name. And, using the words he taught, we raise our voices together…Our Father…