I know I just posted up a “sermon” a few days ago and here I am, putting up another one.
What can I say, it’s just what I’ve been doing in grad school lately.
This sermon was written for my homiletics (preaching) class.
One of the things we’ve been learning in the class is the importance of context. Not so much the biblical or historical context of the text one is preaching on (that’s been covered in other classes), but the context of the congregation. The sermon, if it is to be effective, must take into context the people to whom it is delivered.
The sermons we write for this class are written for our classmates.
I make a point of saying that because it really does shape where I go in the sermon and might help you make sense of some of the places I go in the message. (It also helps make sense of the odd paragraph breaks and the sentence fragments – they’re written in such a way to help me deliver the message. It’s hard to explain. When I write something that’s going to be read, I write one way. When I write something that I’m going to read, I write another way. This is an example of the latter.)
Our teacher tells us that sermons are for a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. Because of this, she frowns on reusing sermons. A part of me wonders what she’d think of me posting up this sermon – something written for grad students, in a classroom, a few days ago; rather than for a somewhat anonymous audience, on the internet, for whenever you happen to click on it – but here’s the thing. I’m posting this up because I want to reference it in another post I’m working on.
…and to be completely transparent with you all, I’m posting it because I really like it.
(4)John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (5)And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (6)Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (7)He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. (8)I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
(9) In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (10)And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (11)And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Can we get this right out in the open, right at the beginning, and say that this is a strange text? For one thing, in Mark’s Gospel, John just appears out of nowhere. Poof! Preaching repentance and baptizing people out in the wilderness.
What’s going on here? I mean, if he’s out there in the wilderness, how did people find out about him? And why were they drawn to a message of repentance?
And it’d be one thing if there were just a few people out there, checking out this space oddity, but Mark tells us that people were coming from all over – “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”
Can you picture the scene? A throng of people, the hot sun, a hot wind stirring up the dusty air? And at the center of it all, a man with an ugly, brown, camel hair tunic – bits of grasshopper and honey still clinging to his beard.
And what’s he saying?
“Repent! Be baptized! Be washed, be cleansed of your sins!”
And that’s striking enough because sins aren’t forgiven out in the desert, they’re forgiven in the temple. But in a way, it’s not so surprising because there have been eccentric teachers like this before preaching other wild and wooly messages.
No, it’s the next thing he says that really catches their attention.
He says, “Don’t look at me, there’s someone else, someone greater. I’m just getting you ready for him.”
Now this is really new. Previous wilderness “messiahs” have always pointed to themselves as the solution. But this guy? He’s pointing them towards something else, someONE else, something coming but not yet here.
Still, I’ll admit, I had a really hard time getting my head around this story, especially when it came to preaching on it – where’s the good news? I mean, Jesus hasn’t even begun his ministry yet, what is there to preach on? What on earth does it have to do with us today?
And then it came to me.
In a way, John was heading up the first Occupy movement – the Occupy Judaism movement.
Because what is the contemporary Occupy movement about? A bunch of people who see systemic injustice being done and want to do something about it. And so they take to the wilderness of the unsheltered urban streets – a wilderness starkly different than that of the Judean desert, but perhaps no less dangerous or uncomfortable.
And John didn’t actually come out of nowhere. Mark tells us that he came preaching, right out of the pages of prophecy – Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And what does that mean, to make straight paths? I think the larger context of the Isaiah text makes this clear.
“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
A level playing field – the very message of the Occupy movement.
Because I wonder if a landscape strewn with valleys (people living lower than others) and mountains (people living high above) is a land that blocks out the light for far too many?
Is it inequality that Isaiah is concerned with here? Is this the message that John was bringing, the message that so many were attracted to?
John is out there in the wilderness, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he’s calling forth a society where access to the grace of forgiveness is no longer controlled by the powerful few but available to all.
Back then, the only people who could forgive sins were the religious elite, those of the priestly clan. This was a system that was supposed to create community but somehow it had gotten corrupted. It became about power and prestige rather than holiness and blessing. And the people knew it and that’s, I suppose, one reason why they were drawn out in the wilderness to John – for free access to forgiveness.
And not just forgiveness.
Again, the oddity of John was not just his clothes and his diet. No, he was offering something even stranger: a hope – a hope not based in himself and not even in a distant, abstract, holy God, but in another person. And that seems obvious to us now, but imagine their surprise back then. Imagine the strange, hopeful mystery that John was inviting them into – to look and to wait for someone else.
Because it’s one thing to say, “I am the answer, I am the one to put your hopes in.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “I’m just the messenger telling you to buckle up because someone else is coming who’s going to take this world in an entirely different direction. And repentance? That’s getting you turned in the right direction so you don’t get whiplash when the change does come!”
Anyway, I suppose that’s one way to look at John the Baptist. But how does that speak to us today? What’s the message for us?
When I started working on this message, I complained a lot. I thought it was unfair to be given a text which, really, is prologue. Jesus’ formal ministry doesn’t begin until another four verses after my pericope. How do I preach on that?
And then it hit me. Maybe I have the easiest passage of them all. Because the parallel between then and now, that story and ours?
Divinity students at The Seattle School, most of us envisioning ourselves going into some sort of ministry informed by the Gospel of Jesus – we are John the Baptist.
We point to hope in a world desperate for some hope to cling to. More than that, we point to an embodied hope, a physical hope, a storied hope.
And in this increasingly secularized world, a world where we can hold a computer, disguised as a phone, in our hands. A world that can harness the atom to power (or to destroy) our cities. A world with flight and medicine and the internet which can simultaneously topple regimes and deliver pictures of cats with silly captions to make us laugh.
In a world like this, I wonder if we might look like John the Baptist. No, we might not dress in uncomfortable clothes or eat bugs, but the message we believe, the message we bring? Isn’t that just as odd if not more so?
For those of us in the Theories of Culture class, we are learning that lasting world change never happens in a vacuum. It requires a whole host of disparate elements to come together unpredictably, uncontrollably.
I don’t know, is it too grandiose to say that we’re living in just such a time today – a time when the world is pregnant with new possibilities, a time when change is in the air, a time when more and more people are becoming aware of the injustice of inequality – and, more importantly, are willing to do something about it?
A time when the air all around us is rich with the gospel message of hope and love and freedom.
John tapped into the change that was already in the air in his time – that’s what drew people to him. People were desperate for change, for hope, and for someone powerful who could get them out of the mess they were in. And there was John, getting them ready for and pointing them towards Jesus.
And that’s what we get to do.
But I don’t want to sugar coat our task. Yes, ours is a good, hopeful work in a world and time ripe for change, but we would do well to remember that ours will also be a difficult, messy, maybe even dangerous work. I mean, John got himself jailed and then beheaded.
But we also do well to remember that out on the banks of the Jordan River with John’s voice crying out in the wilderness – Jesus showed up for John.