When we began posting sermons on our website we decided to give them titles. Today’s title has a kind of self-helpy ring to it. It’s: “Releasing Your Inner ‘Locusts and Wild Honey Eater.’”
Luke puts John the Baptist into a political context, noting who was emperor, who was governor, who the local rulers were, and—significantly—who the high priests were. The temple priests in Jerusalem were in cahoots with the secular powers, which, of course led to corruption. Later in the story we see Jesus driving money changers out of the temple to protest the corruption of the political-religious power structure.
John’s protest comes in a different form. His father, Zecharia, was a temple priest and priesthood was a hereditary privilege. John would likely have seen the corruption from inside the system. He opted out of the family business, preferring the wilderness to collusion with corrupt powers. John is the forerunner of Jesus in this political sense—Jesus did much the same thing by dissociating himself from official structures. It is outside these structures that the word of God comes to both John and Jesus. “…the word of God came to John, son of Zecharia in the wilderness.” Not in the temple, not in the halls of power, but in the wilderness.
The personalities we meet in Scripture tell a story, of course, and some are rooted in historical fact. But many of these figures have become archetypes or prototypes for our own life narratives. John the Baptist, for example, is the archetypal “voice of one crying out in the wilderness”. We see the type in many contexts, not just religious. A political activist, for example, may be referred to as the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness”—with no religious implications at all.
Sooner or later we’re all called upon to be this voice crying out from the margins. It may not be our primary sense of identity, but John the Baptist as a type is part of our story. There’s a locust and wild honey eater in all of us. (It’s in Mark and Matthew’s stories of John, by the way, that we read he ate locusts and wild honey and wore garments of camel hair.) We all live and move and have our being in communities—most of us inhabit multiple communities. Communities need cohesiveness, coherence, consensus. But they also need outliers: people at the margins who can offer an alternative voice, a minority opinion, a critique or even rebuke.
Why? Because energies of cohesiveness, coherence, consensus can become corrupt. The gravitational pull toward cohesiveness and the convenience of conformity can blind the majority to truth. We call this “group think”. “Group think” can be deadly. There is survival value in communities in having marginal voices, prophetic voices, minority opinions. You don’t have to literally eat wild locusts and honey, but you need people in this role. Whether it’s a committee or a club or a political party or a family or some other organization.
How does this get played out in our lives? Most of us don’t think of ourselves as primarily a voice crying out in the wilderness. (Although some poor souls may suffer a pathological grandiosity known in psychiatry as the Jerusalem syndrome; these people actually believe they are the Virgin Mary or Jesus or John the Baptist.) Most of us, most of the time are probably part of the majority, consensus building, cohesive types in our communities. We naturally prefer this–there’s always the risk that your head will end up on a platter. But the “locust and wild honey eater” is a role we may be called upon to play sooner or later.
John’s wilderness that he cried out in was actually right next to a major thoroughfare. The Jordan Valley is one of the main routes from north to south in the Holy Land and was well-settled and well-traveled in John’s day. Jericho, an oasis near the Jordan, was a major stopping off place on the way to other places and had been continuously inhabited for about 10,000 years by the first century. The wilderness is right there, you can see it. From Jericho to the wilderness is about a 10 minute walk. However, John didn’t go there to be a hermit, but to speak truth to the power structures of his time. John’s witness is one of engagement, not separation.
Our contexts are probably going to be more humble than John’s. And, as I said, often we may be part of the majority, forming the consensus and cohesion a group needs. But at other times we may find ourselves at the margin—which a group also needs. On the parish worship committee we may find ourselves part of the core consensus builders. On the social outreach committee we may find ourselves needing to move to the margin to challenge the status quo.
We may find ourselves coating our words with honey, challenging the status quo in sweet, non-threatening words. Or we may find ourselves speaking with the menacing rasp of a swarm of locusts, saying things like, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come! One of John the Baptist’s best lines, which we will hear in the next episode.
Honey coated words usually work best, of course. But we may find ourselves needing to be a bit of a pill. Knowing which is more effective in the moment is a fine art. And sometimes whether we’re actually right or wrong doesn’t make that much difference: the important thing is for basic assumptions to be reviewed and questioned—even if it takes an ornery cuss to do it. Sometimes crackpots have a truth to convey; sometimes crackpots are just crackpots. But they can serve an organization well if they keep it’s processes from ossifying, if they keep the questions flowing. This is especially important if leadership is highly charismatic or prone to an autocratic way of doing things, or if group dynamics are passive.
Effective group process and leadership cultivates both energies: the cohesion of the group and consensus on the one hand; and on the other hand the challenge from the margins that keeps groups on their toes.
There’s probably a wilderness in your life to cry out in. It could be some great cause. It could be the weekly staff meeting. But the Spirit is calling: Come! Eat a few locusts and some wild honey. Gird your loins with camel hair and nevermind about your head on a platter. Speak up! Speak out! Sleepers, wake! If there is truth to speak, it must be spoken. You have scriptural warrant to do so.
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