Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of HolmeswoodBaptistChurch in Kansas City, Mo., on December 6, 2009.
While it doesn’t happen all that often, it’s interesting how a person can be linked to a place almost as if we can’t think of person and place apart from one another. Think of Neil Armstrong leaving behind the first footprints on the surface of the moon or Ernest Hemmingway and his tropical ties with the Florida Keys. Think of Calcutta and most of us remember a humble little nun known as Mother Teresa ministering on the desperate streets of a place our minds can barely imagine. Or in movies, how about Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of a West Texas county sheriff in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men? His weathered face alone looked like a map of that hardscrabble country and his voice drawled authentically in the style of the old-timers of that harsh land. Think of Marilyn Monroe and our minds wander to an iconoclastic scene of her standing over a subway grate in New York City … or at least its honest to admit our minds do wander.
So when it comes to John the Baptizer, no doubt we have to think of the Judean wilderness and the fiery personality of someone so wild and untamed, living in a place so stark one is hard pressed to label it sustainable. Most of us in this season are ambling along peacefully toward the manger scene when on the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptizer jumps out and scares the bejeebers out of us.
John’s only occasion in Scripture to reside in the city is in a prison cell where he gets his head cut off and presented on a platter for saying to the king what no one else would the king’s wrath to say. Raised in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Temple, John left to save his soul and lived as an outsider. Yet the people of the cities sought him out on his turf – away from the bright lights and the carnality of city-life. John preached out in the wilderness where it was harsh and arid. It was a place where his message made sense.
Poet-storyteller John Shea described John the Baptizer this way:
There is another pointer of the way, a map of a man,
who when you try to read him, reads you.
Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion,
A roar that once overrode Judea.
You may not heed but you will hear, his insistent, intruding, unsoothing voice.
Some say this thunder is because his father stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies,
Tongue tied by an angel who was peeved by the old man’s allegiance to biological laws.
The priest was silenced by the temple because he thought flesh could stop God.
The son of the priest shouted in the wilderness because he feared God would stop flesh.
His open mouth was an open warning.
Jesus and John were the sun and moon to one another. One paved the way; the other came as promised from ancient days. “Behold, the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!” John announced boldly (John 1:29, KJV) when he saw Jesus approaching. They argued on the river’s edge over who should baptize whom and Jesus pressed John with Hebrew prophecy of centuries before. They were the oddest of couples, this sun and this moon in orbit together.
Shea describes the two as linked in the holy story:
Opposite of the sought-after child in every way.
The child is round, this one has edges;
The child nurses on virgin’s milk, this one crunches on locusts;
The child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, this one is rubbed raw by camel hair.
Yet they know one another, even exchange smiles.
They share a mystery, this hairy man and smooth child.
Jesus came out of John as surely as he came out of Mary.
John was the desert soil in which the flower of Jesus grew.
John was the voice in the wilderness who taught Jesus to hear the voice from the sky.
John would push sinners beneath the water and Jesus would resurrect them on the waves.
John was the fast who prepared for Jesus the feast.
The man John was formed and haunted by the Judean wilderness east and south of Jerusalem. The wilderness spoken of in the Bible was a desert. Not a desert like the sands of the Sahara in Northern Africa but a desert more like of the southern border of the United States … a wilderness marked by arid and rocky terrain. In the wilderness, the voice of God came and spoke to many of the Bible’s main characters. It was the place where God had been creatively at work through the silence and the waiting. Will Willimon described the desert as, “the place where Israel lost its way; lost its way and bowed before alien gods … (The) wilderness is not a place … it’s a state of mind … a metaphor to describe a terrifying situation where wild beasts lurk. There are no clear paths, and chaos, temptation and bewilderment reign.”
John encountered the God of his fathers out in the wide and silent desert. Out there, the calling of God for his life became clear. The wildness of the desert became for him a place of revelation. It was a place of conversion and a place of transformation. And like all revelations, it was a disturbing event because it demanded a response from him. In a sense, it was disturbing because if called for an inner revolution. It involved being “made over,” in being made new, in being “born again,” if you don’t mind me using that kind of language.
For John, the transformation had to go down into his bones, into the marrow of how his life was being lived in order for him to fulfill his calling as a messenger. John had to be the message in order to deliver the message. The message of the desert is that all of us must submit to the revolution and submit to the transformation God has in store for us.
To make sense of this, Richard Swanson reminds us of an ancient and deep truth about the world … something John’s tough message carries … the world is upside down and needs righting. What God is up to in our time, John claims, is that One is coming who will establish a new world where the wrongs of the world will be turned around. Did you hear John’s prophetic warning? “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Swanson rightly points out that this is a central and insistent perception of Jewish faith, namely, that the world is upside down. Richard Wilson reminds us, “Peace is not about maintaining the status quo. Peace is about striving to be empowered and transformed by the presence of God in our midst. To speak in favor of peace always is to find a dissenting voice, a voice that articulates what could be – what should be – for followers of Jesus.”
On the promise side of John’s preaching, we can recall the history of the ancient Jews who had received God’s promises long before John came along, the people “who sang the song” as they held onto those promises. So John began his career by singing the old song again, by holding out the old hopes, even six hundred after those words were first delivered by prophets of another era.
Our work today, is to sing another verse of that ancient promise clinging to the possibility that God is still at work laboring to make the promise come true. Jesus came to us with a purpose and during Christmas, our temptation overcomes us every time we live as though there’s another purpose.
Once more, poet John Shea helps us …
the cave of Christmas where the child of light burns in the darkness
is hidden in the center of the earth.
Access is not easy.
You cannot just amble to a mantle, note the craft of the crib child,
and return to the party for more eggnog.
You may see a figurine this way, but you will not find the child of light.
The center of the earth is not the surface.
You must journey and, wayfarer, you need a guide.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).