I don’t like John the Baptist.
I’ve been trying all week to preach this sermon without letting John the Baptist get out of control on me. I’ve been trying to clean him up, get him a shave, put some fresh clothes on him, and teach him to tell his salad fork from this dinner fork.
You see, he’s dangerous and wild. He’s out of control. He doesn’t live by the rules of polite society, and as a preacher, I’d rather not have to deal with him. I’d rather be able to tell you charming and slightly amusing stories about myself. I’d like to wrap the gospel up in a bow and offer it as a tasteful and interesting gift to you all.
But every time I tried to do that this week, John the Baptist kept messing everything up. He just won’t fit in the box of safe, predictable, comfortable religion. He insists that God is up to God-sized things.
We meet John the Baptist at the beginning of each of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In each of them, he is an advance man for Jesus. He comes into the territory and gets people ready to hear what Jesus is going to preach. He’s the warm up act. He’s wild and hairy and badly dressed. He wanders out in the wilderness eating bugs and honey. He comes to deliver a simple message.
He’s saying God is about to do something big.
And he does not want us to be facing the wrong way when it happens.
You see, that is what all the talk about repentance in the gospel text is about this week. It’s about which direction we are facing. It’s about where we are going.
Christianity is all about being on the move. We are a people on the move. When you read the Bible, it is amazing how many times God’s instructions to people are to get up and get moving.
Abraham is having a big time in Ur when God comes to him and tells him to pack up his family and move out.
Moses is hiding out in Midian when that burning bush sends him into Egypt to confront Pharoah.
One of my favorites, Elijah is hiding out in a cave because the evil queen has the whole army after him. God shows up, listens to Elijah complain about the subpar working conditions when you are a prophet of God, and tells Elijah to get out of the cave and back to work.
Jesus begins his ministry by inviting two fishermen to follow him. At the resurrection he appears to two other men walking to Emmaus and travels with them.
On the road to Damascus, he appears in blinding light before the Jew Saul and sends him off as perhaps the most important travelling preacher in the history of the church. We know him as Paul.
Our faith is a moving faith, a travelling faith, an on the road faith. In the early days, it was actually known simply as “the Way.”
And so, when John the Baptist shows up shouting at us to repent, he is telling us to head in a new direction.
In both the Old and the New Testament, the word for “repent” means to change direction, most literally to go back the way you came – to return to something you left.
For all his screaming and wild appearance, John the Baptist is telling us the most basic message in all of Christianity – Return to God.
Return to God, because God was not lying.
In the reading from Isaiah today, we get both the beautiful and the scary.
We are told of the kingdom of God where the wolf and the lamb lie down together. We are told of the kingdom where children are not abused or neglected or killed. We are told of a kingdom – and I love this line – where the knowledge of God fills the earth as the waters cover the sea.
But we are told as well of the righteous judge who will bring this kingdom. “A shoot” from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father. He will strike the earth “with the rod of his mouth.” Now, I have to confess I have no idea what that means, but it sounds cool. But this I understand: “with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.”
Here’s the guy John the Baptist was out in the deserts preaching about. To all who gathered, he said, “Look, God was not lying about coming to judge. You know all the places in the Scriptures where the rabbis read about justice and righteousness and the wicked getting what is due to them. God meant it. He does not ignore the wicked and evil people. He does not ignore those who turn their back on him.
“He’s coming. He’s going to burn up all you wicked people like straw and the husks of wheat. You better get on the right road now.”
You see why I don’t like John the Baptist. Here we are surrounded by Christmas decorations and happy carols and commercials on TV about the joy and bliss of buying just the perfect gift for someone, and John the Baptist comes yelling at us about repentance and winnowing forks and fire.
It is easy to ignore messages like this. It is easy to discount them as the ravings of a mad man in the wilderness.
It is even easier to assume that the real target of the message is someone else. We don’t have to try too hard to look around and see someone who is more out of step with God’s kingdom than we are. If we put our mind to it, we can think of people who could use a little holy fire. It is easy and tempting to say John the Baptist came preaching for those people.
It would be easy to do that if John the Baptist would just shut up.
You see, he didn’t say, “I’m just there for the big sinners. I’m just here for the Hollywood drug addicts, the Wall Street thieves, the inner city gang bangers, and Osama bin Laden.”
He did come to them. He did tell them to repent, confess, and get baptized.
But then the good people showed up.
The gospel says the Sadducees and Pharisees came out to see what all the commotion was about. And they found John the Baptist. He took one look at these people, and let them have it.
This is not what they were expecting.
The Sadducees and Pharisees were the religious elite of Jerusalem. They were the serious church people. They did what God said. They never skipped worship. They prayed beautiful and heartfelt prayers. They were from families who had been important Jews all the way back to Abraham.
John the Baptist took one look and called them all a bunch of snakes.
He knew that all their outward religiosity could not hide the parts of their lives where they pushed God out or ignored what they knew God desired. He knew what the Old and New Testaments say over an over. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all sin.
Now, like us, the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ sins were not big and dramatic and out in the open for everyone to see. But here’s the trick. When you are moving, when you are going along a way, when you are constantly in motion, just a few small deviations can take you far off track.
We start going right down the path with God. We follow Jesus for a time. But then we take just one step off the path. “Look, I know I shouldn’t do this,” we say, “but this one thing is no big deal.”
And a bit farther down, we take another step. And then another. And another. With each step we find ourselves moving farther and farther away from the way, the path, the road to God.
Before we know it, we are over here and Jesus – who we started out following – is way over there. Before we know it, we’ve lost sight of God’s way entirely. We might still go through the motions, but the power of God’s spirit is all but gone.
John the Baptist came to meet the world in these places – in the wild and barren places – telling us, “Repent.” Go back. Get on the road with God again.
Today, we gather around the communion table, and we are each offered an opportunity to repent. We are offered the chance to turn back from those thoughts and habits and actions that take us out of step with God. We are invited to move back again in harmony with God’s vision for us and for our world as we remember at the communion table the savior who died for our sins and rose again and will come again.
Let us come to this holy meal – during this season of great expectation – seeking to find again the one who first called us to follow him and the one who still walks beside us along the road to God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.