I have never much cared for John the Baptist. Everything that we read about John the Baptist in the Christian Scriptures makes me think of him as Jesus’ red-necked cousin. You know the kind of family member I mean. We all have one or two in our families. Some of you may have had the pleasure of being visited by one of your fanatical red-necked family members over the holidays. We’ve all been there. Stuck around a dinner table, trying to steer the conversation clear away from anything remotely political; fearing that at any moment our red-necked relative will go on a rant about immigrants coming into this country and threatening our culture, or the government wasting millions on foreign aid, or women with their feminist agenda’s wanting it all, and those lazy poor people who need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop expecting handouts, or heaven forbid, the relative whose neck so flaming red that they, at the drop of a hat, will sing the praises of the likes the orange fellow who lives in the White House, who they think is on to something because he refuses to be politically correct and tells it like it is. You know that relative of yours who keeps reminding you of the good old days and the need to return to them because if we spare the rod, we will spoil the child.
Take a moment and sit back and remember that relative, friend, or co-worker, and if you are blessed enough not to have such a person in your life, think about the folks who we see every day in every sort of media, the folks are calling for a return to the values you no longer share. Do you have a clear picture in your mind of someone whose constant wrangling makes you so uncomfortable that they embarrass you? Hold that image in your mind and listen as I do my best to imitate John the Baptist as he rants on:
“Pay attention people! You think my raving on and on about repentance is annoying? You think my baptism is demanding? There is somebody coming who makes me look like a wimp. There is somebody coming who has real fire in his belly. Somebody who will take your tools out of your hands, and wipe the floor with you, and toss the lot of you into the fiery pits of hell! You brood of vipers!!! You just wait! Be afraid. Be very afraid!!! You’re all going to get yours!
Repent. Turn from your modern, pinko, new age, progressive, radical ways!!! Return to the good old days!!! Days when men were men and women kept a civil tongue in their heads and kids were seen and not heard. The days when this was a God-fearing country and we rode with our neighbours to the south, to keep the world safe for the likes of us. It’s time to toughen up people and start demanding a little respect from those people, you know the ones I mean, the ones who are different than us.”
I don’t know about you but these days I tend to give rednecks like John the Baptist a wide birth. If I do happen to stumble into a situation where I can’t avoid fanatics like John the Baptist, I tend to just let them ramble on, until they wear themselves out and then I take my leave, shake the dust from my feet and I move on. But the holidays, oh the holidays, it’s difficult to avoid red-necks during the holidays, especially if we are related to them. Well John the Baptist comes around every Advent ranting and raving, shouting at us to Repent, to Prepare, you brood of vipers! No wonder, we are all very quick to move on to Christmas when we can ignore John and gaze adoringly at the baby Jesus, whose beauty makes us forget that Herod is looming in the background. But no sooner is the baby born, then in the wink of an eye Jesus is a grown man, and his dear cousin John is at it again, going on and on, threatening us by suggesting that Jesus is going to rain down on us bringing the Holy Spirit to baptize us with fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. And the way that John tells it, it sounds pretty much like we are the chaff and not the wheat, and so, we are doomed to burn in that unquenchable fire, if we don’t do what John tells us to do. Repent! Repent! Repent I say! Repent! Be afraid! Be very afraid! The Lord is coming! Fire burns!!! Hell is on the horizon!!! Turn back! Turn back!!!
I seriously considered avoiding the Baptism of Jesus altogether this year. Why bother with this old fart John the Baptist? What can we possibly learn from this old duffer’s story that is of any value to us, here and now, in this place and time? Well I was this close to avoiding John the Baptist and then I remembered my old friend Dan Simundson who was a professor of Old Testament studies. I learned a great deal from Dan about reading the bible, especially about the way we read the bible in church. Over and over again Dan would warn us about the way scripture versus are read on Sunday mornings.
Do me a favour, take a look at your bulletins. Turn to the Gospel reading and take a look at the verses that were read. Luke chapter 3 verses 15 to 17, and verses 21 to 22. The powers that be, who select the verses that are commonly read in church on a Sunday morning, selected for the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus, Luke chapter 3 verses 15 to 17, and verses 21 to 22. What about verses 18 to 20? Why didn’t we read these verses? What’s in these verses that caused the folks who decided what we should read in church this morning should not include those versus?
Well if you consult the lectionary commentaries, they will tell you that these verses are left out so as not to confuse the people in the pews. Those verses are left out to protect you. The so-called “experts” believe that if these verses are read you might become confused and your common memory of this story might be challenged.
Let me read the Gospel account for you in its entirety: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Now, listen carefully to the missing verses: “But Herod the ruler, whom John rebuked because of his wickedness, including his relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias—committed another crime by throwing John into prison.”
Those are the two missing verses. The two verses that the experts decided should not be read this morning lest they confuse you. Herod throws John the Baptist into prison, but we leave that out and without a buy your leave, we read on.
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my OWN, the Beloved; with you I AM well pleased.”
So, I ask you, tell me, if John was thrown into prison when Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized, who baptized Jesus?
Now you could say, as many interpreters have said, that the order is not significant and that the writer of the Gospel of Luke didn’t really mean to say that John was already in prison when Jesus was baptized. But if that is true, then the writer of the Gospel couldn’t have been paying attention to his own story.
Hummm…as Martin Luther would say, “What does this mean?” As Marcus Borg would say, “Why did the author tell the story the way they told it? What is the author trying to say to us?”
The truth is that we will never know what the anonymous gospel-story-teller that we call Luke intended. We can only guess.
I can’t help wondering if the anonymous gospel story-teller might feel about Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist the way we feel about our annoying relatives. Is the anonymous gospel story-teller trying to distance Jesus from the teachings of John? John proclaimed that the Messiah will baptize with fire. According to John’s ranting, the Messiah will carry a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
As soon as we hear that, we can’t help but wonder if we are the wheat or the chaff and fear looms large as we begin to feel the unquenchable fire nipping our heels. But according to the anonymous gospel storyteller Herod tosses John into prison and we don’t hear from him again until just before his head is lopped off and served up on a silver platter and John sends his disciples to inquire as to whether or not Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah. With John in prison according to the anonymous gospel storyteller, tells us that Jesus goes down to the Jordan for a different kind of baptism. Not a baptism for the repentance of sin, but a baptism in which God claims Jesus as his beloved son, in whom God is well pleased. Can this be the same God that John the Baptist was shouting about? Or is the gospel storyteller painting a picture of Jesus new way of understanding the Creator of all that is, was, and ever more shall be?
This new revelation about the nature of God is quite an epiphany. What if John the Baptist was wrong? What if the image portrayed in this story opens us to a new way of understanding divinity? What if the ONE who created us longs to embrace us with arms wide open.
“That’s my kid! My own beautiful child! Just look at that one!!! Aren’t you marvelous!!! I get such a kick out of you. I could watch you all for hours! I’m so very pleased with you! You are MYSTERY’s creation, Divinity’s beautiful child!”
To John the Baptist and I dare say to most of our red-necked friends and relations, this image of Divinity is far to wishy washy, too much of a spare the rod and spoil the child kind of parent. Let’s face it, we humans do what we humans do. When we encounter something that is beyond our ability to name, beyond our ability to even imagine, we tend to anthropomorphize that thing that is beyond words. So, for generations we have been anthropomorphizing the MYSTERY responsible for our creation. We imagine the reality that lies beyond our words, who is the source of our being as one of us; a supernatural human if you will. To anthropomorphize is to personify, to give that which you are trying to comprehend human qualities so that we can find ways to relate to that thing we cannot possibly hope to comprehend.
For generations our ancestors personified MYSTERY in ways that our wild and wooly friend John the Baptist would have recognized as a “good father.” A “good father” for the likes of John would never dream of sparing the rod and spoiling the child. A “good father” would be stern, strict, quick to punish, demanding, judgmental and fairly unapproachable.
So, why did the anonymous gospel story-teller that we call Luke tell the story of Jesus’ baptism the way in which he told it? Could it be that the storyteller is trying to warn us that Jesus is about to reveal a whole different image of the MYSTERY that was called “Father”? Could it be that the storyteller is preparing us for Jesus’ revelation of his Abba a whole different way of personifying the MYSTERY that will challenge all the images that have gone before? Jesus life and teachings open us to a new way of being in the world just as surely as they have the power to open us to a new way of talking about the ONE who is the source of our being.
So, how do we tell the story? How do we embody this ONE who lies at the very heart of all that IS; the ONE who IS Being itself? We can’t simply lop the heads of our unpleasant relatives; although it might be nice to toss them in prison for a while. Is there a way of telling our stories that will move the John the Baptists in our lives toward a new way of being in the world?
Later the anonymous gospel storyteller that we call Luke will tell a story of John the Baptist sending his followers to Jesus to ask him if he is really the ONE they’ve all been waiting for. In the ark of the story-teller’s portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and his cousin, we will see movement on the part of John the Baptist. Jesus life, his teaching together with his actions, moved even a hardliner like John. Can our lives, our teaching together with our actions, move our wild and wooly friends, neighbours and relatives toward a new way of being in the world? The stories of our lives are yet to be told. So, let us live our lives so that the LOVE we share will live on and on in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. For each and every one of us are the beloved humans, the creations of a MYSTERY we cannot even begin to capture in words or images.
Unable to name or define the MYSTERY that allures us, we resort to metaphors to carry us beyond words. Baptism is a ritual expression; a metaphor of what is. Ordinary water is extra-ordinary. We were knit together in the water of our mother’s womb, our very being contains water, without water we cannot exist. Water nourishes us, refreshes us, enlivens us. Water is the stuff of life! Baptism doesn’t bring anything special, but rather, opens us to what is. The waters of baptism open us to that which is beyond us, to the more than; to the sacred. When we bring babies to the waters of baptism, we don’t make them special or holy, or sacred, we ritually recognize that they are special, that they are holy, that they are sacred. In baptism we are reminded of our sacredness. Baptism is a beautiful welcoming moment in which the full potential of LOVE is glimpsed. All that hope all that potential, I can’t help but well up with joy at the very possibility that all the challenges that Jesus lived his life to teach us about, all the challenges to the way we are, come to us in the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we see beyond the drops of water to the very stuff that nourishes, grounds and sustains us in this life, and we also see the possibilities of what life might become if we love one another. When the waters of baptism touch the head of a child, they are anointed with possibility, the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of joy, and yes, the possibility of pain. And all that possibility comes to them in the context of a community that is both renewed by such beautiful potential and refreshed by the challenges of living into that baptism. For the Body into which we are born in the waters of baptism is the body of Christ, an incomplete body of imperfect people who are doing their best to follow a path toward a world in which everyone is loved; everyone has enough, and everyone can live in peace.
As the words of the MYSTERY that is LOVE, echo through the generations and descend like a dove upon you: Know that you are beloved. With you the great MYSTERY is well pleased. The the MYSTERY that is LOVE, embraces you with a LOVE beyond words. Let the waters of LOVE flow in, with, through, and beyond you. Now and forever. Amen.