Heirs of John the Baptist – June 24, 2018
In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.
Today marks the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. We have made it a solemn feast, the highest category of feast days in the Church’s year, suggesting that this day and its focus is of great importance to us. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John came from a priestly family, that he was conceived in his parents’ later years, and that in a vision his father Zechariah received, he would become a prophet in the spirit and line of Elijah, that he would call people to right relationship with God and each other. Today’s Gospel reading is Zechariah’s enthusiastic song of praise to God at his son’s naming and circumcision ceremony. It is a hymn of the early church we know as the Benedictus promising salvation and the protection of God for all.
What is a prophet? One who calls out inequities, wrongs, evil, one who tries to speak God’s words of justice and righteousness and love to the world. One who challenges religious and civil authority in the name of truth and integrity. One able to live with physical threats. As you might imagine, it’s not been a very popular job. Throughout human history there have never many applicants for the roles, though, I believe there always have been many openings. In every generation prophets are opposed by the entrenched power system. Jeremiah was sent into exile, Amos clashed with the religious leadership, Micah inveighed against economic and social injustices. None of them received the “Person of the Year” award from their communities.
This is the tradition John the Baptist entered into. He burst onto the scene in first century Palestine wearing a garment woven out of camel’s hair, living on a diet mostly of bugs and wild honey,
calling for repentance and challenging his hearers to prepare for the coming Messiah. According to Mark’s Gospel, the ordinary people flocked to hear this message, getting themselves baptized with a baptism of repentance. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out, calling soldiers and tax collectors not to abuse their offices, calling the religious leadership – scribes and Pharisees – a “brood of vipers,” for a false piety, and calling out King Herod for marrying Herodias, his ex-sister-in-law, a relationship proscribed by the Torah. John the Baptist was put in prison for that, and Herodias saw to it that John was beheaded.
John was a brave and valiant soul. More than once, he spoke truth to power, calling out both the religious leaders and the king. No doubt he struggled with his calling, as any do. The Biblical texts make it look easy, but I would guess it was not, for John was an ordinary human with all the frailties and questions and doubts that all the rest of us have. Yes, he doubted his calling, and wasn’t sure that what he was doing was what God wanted.
Matthew tells us that while John was in prison he sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was real, if he was the One, if he was the Messiah. John, as he was facing death, was wondering whether he’d wasted his life. In other words, prophets don’t necessarily know they’re prophets, that they’re doing God’s work. They just do it because they know/feel it’s the right thing to do. John’s disciples tell Jesus that “John the Baptist” had sent them. And ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
And Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
John was a man full of insight, who could see, and seeing could proclaim, and proclaiming could point. John could see and proclaim and point to the very being and work of God in his midst, “Here is the Lamb of God” says John on one occasion. Here is the one “who takes away the sin of the world” John sometimes was so clear sighted that he could see God in Christ, and in seeing proclaimed him and pointed him out to others.
All these years later John the Baptist and his heirs call to us. The 20th and 21st century prophets invite to us to join them and stand up and speak God’s words of truth and justice and fairness in our own time and place. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, to us, a line of prophetic voices calls to us to raise our own voices and speak out against the injustices of our own day. In 2018.
And they are pretty obvious. Children being wrenched from their parents, immigrants and refugees being arrested and imprisoned at the borders, internment camps being built around the country, black children being shot and killed by police, hate speech being normalized, the gun lobby preventing the enactment of sensible gun laws, and these just for starters. And Scripture being used to justify many of these actions.
Let us remember that God, Jesus, the Scriptures are all biased toward the people on the fringes of the society. The Bible repeatedly and invariably legitimizes the people on the bottom, and not the people holding power and privilege. Jesus’ ministry was to announce the joy of God’s reign to the poor, the sorrowful, the hungry, the marginalized, the hurting, the left out. And his definition of doing God’s will is feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked.
I want to remind you that Christ – who redeemed all of creation, without exception – shines in the hearts of people who may look different than us, who worship in other ways, who speak other languages. That is a profound theological truth, sometimes awkward and challenging. We are not the only people that God loves! God loves every person of every race and nation. And that is good news: we can find sisters and brothers, members of other beloved communities right up the road, just across the border. We can see beautiful glimmers of holy light when regular people work to cross the great racial and political divides we have constructed for ourselves.
In the words of Richard Rohr, “We… have a tremendous responsibility to work together, to speak truth to power, to peacefully advocate for the rights of all beings… This requires maturity and… empathy for the “other,” and courage to stand with those who are suffering. It is not a popular or easy path…”
In the tradition of John the Baptist, we are called to raise our voices and efforts to speak out for the voiceless, for the left out, the marginalized and the discounted of our society. As the German pastor Martin Niemöller said 80 years ago,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.