Reference: Luke 3:1-6
There are quite a number of parishes with St. John the Baptist as their patron. My curiosity is aroused as to why people would choose to name their church after him. It started the thought of what it would be like if the followers of the Baptist had their own denomination. After all, his disciples did organize a movement which kept going after John the Baptist’s death, for an indeterminate period.
John’s message was one of repentance. He convicted people of their sins, of living materialistic, mindless lives full of luxuries and godless schemes and political intrigues. He offered a baptism symbolizing their repentance of that lifestyle, cleansing them so they could practice a more righteous Judaism. The approach which he used was classic “fire and brimstone,” verbally roasting the gathered crowds. “You brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7,i.e. you bunch of rattlesnakes) gets right to the point.
It is always a risky business to confront people with their shortcomings. Oscar Wilde commented, “If you are going to tell people the truth, be sure to make them laugh, or they will kill you.” It is not accidental in history that the court jester was often the only one who could introduce truth to the king, because he knew how to do it while the king was laughing. More than a few prophets over the centuries have met an untimely end by forgetting to first make the ruler laugh.
John seemed unaware of this rule, and it could well have been a factor in his early demise. To the people who came out into the desert to encounter him, however, the straight truth about themselves sunk home, remarkably. They were people who lived a long time ago, yet the days of the Roman Empire in many ways resemble our times more than any period of history before or since. They were in the most powerful nation in the world, with a living standard better than any previous generation, one that would, after its collapse some centuries later, not be equaled again for more than a millennium. It was a diverse empire, with pluralistic cultures and religions, bound together by patriotism and good economics. Life was comfortable, if you didn’t rock the boat too seriously.
How counter-intuitive that these folks were not satisfied with their lives and felt so strongly that something was missing, they were willing to accept the severe criticism poured on them by John. Somewhere in the comfortable life there was obviously a nagging awareness that they were not being faithful to God. The religions around them handled their gods easily, some tithe offerings from time to time to keep the gods in tune with the general prosperity was all they saw as necessary. But the God of Israel was not content with simply sharing the prosperity. The idolatry of the neighbors was odious in the eyes of the one true God, and, at least to some people, the message was in the soul at some level. It took only John’s verbal scourging to bring it to the surface.
Many a preacher discovers that “hellfire and brimstone” is a popular theme among numerous congregants. “You told them, Father,” is the comment of more than a few of the faithful on their way out the door. Many even accept the remarks as appropriate for themselves and seem to appreciate the scourging. Perhaps among us, in a time so similar to the Roman era, there is an understanding that “there is no health in us,” to quote the Prayerbook. But there are, of course, others who when confronted with the ugly truth of their sins and shortcomings, go into denial or attack mode. The message is not not heard by “those without ears to hear,” or the messenger is attacked or the blame is placed elsewhere. In order to hear John the Baptist, you had to make a difficult trip out into the desert. His audience was a skewed sample of the population to start with, those already facing the fact that something was seriously enough wrong with their life that they made the arduous journey to hear the message.
Among the latter group, when convicted of their sin, they asked, “What can we do?” John’s suggestions in reply were quite specific, but all fit into the category of, “Don’t be selfish, but help others, especially those who are needy.” As John’s disciples, they tried to do that and began to spread the message themselves. Their baptism was one of cleansing after repentance.
There are many today for whom this is religion. Most are not in parishes commemorating John the Baptist, but nevertheless, they are in churches which denounce the sins of the society around them and even the personal sins of those within the fold. Not infrequently, they try to help others around them and to live lives of integrity. What they have found is a vital truth. But it is not the whole truth.
Because it is a necessary step. John himself, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says the mountains must be leveled, the crooked roads made straight, the bumpy ones made smooth (Luke 3:5). The rough edges, steeped in selfishness and all manner of dysfunction, need to be fixed. And before you can fix something, you must diagnose the problem. Before you can construct the straight highway, you have to survey the course to identify and remove the obstacles. John the Baptist and his disciples, ancient and modern, do a good job on this.
But don’t forget Step Two. A robust understanding of my shortcomings, dysfunctions, sins, lack of perfection, all the terminology necessary to identify the human condition, is absolutely essential. It is a major impediment to progress of all kinds that too often, too many people, from Herod and those around him to contemporary leaders and a myriad of just plain folks besides, cannot abide looking into the mirror of the soul to see the ugliness therein. Broods of vipers have unfairly been associated with this by John. It is not their problem, it is ours. When the reality hits, it is profoundly depressing and discouraging. Those who arrive at this point and don’t move on can become very twisted, because it is a hellish place to be.
That is where Step Two happens. There is only one road out of this valley of despair. It is the level highway constructed. If the message of John is the conclusion of the story it is a nightmare. But John as the stepping stone to Step Two is a necessary piece of the pilgrimage. Step Two is, as John himself identifies, the Messiah, or more basically, the love of God which does not leave us in the valley of death. Without Step One, our repentance, the Christ event is a more or less sweet but meaningless fairy tale. If you don’t think you have the disease, you won’t be interested in the cure.
This is why the road to God must go straight through, not around, both Advent and Good Friday. And it is why it is a road traveled mostly by God to us, not the other way around. Both Step One, the mirror of repentance, and Step Two, the action of God to fix the problem, are both absolutely essential. One is featured in Advent, the other at Christmas, although both are really constant companions all year long. To mire oneself in perpetual Advent and Lent, and attempt to fix it ourselves through good deeds, is to deny the life-giving grace of God, to our detriment. To overwhelm Advent with Christmas from November on, is to deny my own hopeless situation, my alarming need for the life-giving grace of God.
I would not want to be in a denomination of St. John the Baptist, in a perpetual agony of repentance and scourging. Nor would I want to be in a denomination of St. Polyanna, in a perpetual denial of the problem known as me. This is a good time, “now in the time of this mortal life” (Collect Prayer for Advent), to do Step One, a thorough review and inventory. Then let Step Two hit you in full force, with choirs of angels and general jubilation, that the solution has been completely applied, mission accomplished.