Isaiah 11:1-10 :: Romans 12:4-13 :: Matthew 3:1-12
As the years go by, I find myself more and more aware of a peculiar dissonance. Before the leftovers of our Thanksgiving Day feasts have even cooled, our culture plunges into a season of marked material excess. Commercial advertisements don the gay apparel of remixed, upbeat holiday jingles. Tinsel and lights adorn city streets and public squares. Numberless holiday sales abound, drawing us into a frenzy of stressful shopping, trailed shortly after by the accompanying waste. All attended by the familiar, portly figure of a jolly Santa Claus.
Please don’t misunderstand me; it is not my attempt here to polemicize the popular festivities of our ambient culture. (Not entirely.) There is nothing wrong with the desire to give gifts to one another, per se. There is nothing wrong with warming the dark, frigid nights of a northern December with song, festivities, fellowship, and lights, per se. These are all good things, to be sure, and doubtless God can speak some word of life to us through it all. Nevertheless, the moment our culture attaches the name of Jesus Christ to this prolonged cultural season of excess, I have to wonder if we are really being adequately prepared for the significance of Christmas. The difference of horizon between a season marked by Santa Claus and one marked (at least in part) by John the Baptist, it is safe to say, is a difference not of quality but of kind.
Advent is by contrast a full-blooded, lean, and demanding season in the life of the church. A season characterized by expectant waiting and honest self-examination. A season that seeks to prepare us for a revolution, but not just any revolution. Today and next Sunday are marked by the unmistakable cry of John the Baptist—the gaunt, desert-dwelling prophet, clad in a camel’s hair mantle and a lone leather belt.
Here is the Lamb of God. I myself did not know him; but I came that he might be revealed.
As a child (and like many children) I lived with a terrible fear of the dark. Dusk brought with it great anxiety, for I knew what was coming, as it always had: the deep, dark, infinite night. If I am completely honest, this is a fear I have never really outgrown. When one summer between sophomore and junior years of high school I found myself drowning in preparatory reading assignments, the night brought new shades of anxiety. I recall spending most of that summer just as unable to face my bed as I had been as a child. Certainly, I became another “Glenn night owl,” but not because I enjoyed the night.
As an adult, I find the early anxieties brought on at dusk have only grown with me, changing shape, size, and magnitude as my experience with the world and myself became fuller, richer, and, at times, much darker.
It is now the darkest part of the year—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It is also a particularly dark season in the world. Yet this is not the only dark season I—or any of us—have known, and scripture invites us to name and own the enduring mystery at the heart of our human experiences of darkness.
There was a time before the web of language was woven
before the rope of words
before symbols, those fine, strong threads, were spun –
it was long, long ago, but you remember.
Arouse your ancient memory and inward beholding,
You Homo Sapiens, You Wise One, to behold:
Before the web of language, the rope of words or the thread of symbols, fine and
strong, there simply was the bare Thingness of the Thing that bears the name “Fire.”
Stoke the embers of recognition, burning deep in our primordial night.
Unforgettably, in our bones, the barest imagination of it
warms fingertips, summons blood, quiets the mind, enfolds the gaze…
or prepares the legs to flee.
But now, You Child of God, search deeper, touch the bedrock of being, and
recollect another Fire:
Before smoke or ash or kindling
Before the first hearth or altar
Before the first offering
Before pure and impure
there was a Fire you cannot see or touch but that you are made to long for.
Before wrath or fear –
Before mercy or love –
Before death or judgment or heaven or hell –
Before the beginning and after the end: there was this Fire,
The Unquenchable Fire in the Heart of God,
a God Who is Love.
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
August 30, 2016 – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his Brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your Brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:17-29
Zechariah and Elizabeth are quite elderly when the angel Gabriel visits and says they will have a child. Zechariah doesn’t believe it. He becomes mute, unable to speak, for nine months until their son’s birth. About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth, an unmarried young woman named Mary. Gabriel tells her she will have a son, the Messiah. Joseph, her fiancé, also receives a startling visit from an angel. Elizabeth does give birth to John, and Mary gives birth six months later to Jesus.
We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in six months on December 25th. So today, June 24th, we celebrate John’s birth. John was born to barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus was born to virgin Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her husband-to-be, Joseph. These are improbable parents, impossible births, and wondrous stories.
“The Son of Man was revealed….” In my prayer on the scriptures appointed for today, this snippet from the 1st letter of John is what jumped off the page at me. “The Son of Man was revealed.” It almost has a game show quality to it doesn’t it? It’s as if we’re watching “The Price is Right” and Bob Barker has just asked Rod Roddy to reveal to us what is behind door number one. What are we going to see? What is going to be revealed? In the gospel lessons yesterday and today, John the Baptist is the equivalent to our Rod Roddy. John is revealing the Messiah, the long hoped for deliverer of Israel, the one spoken about by the prophets. John says “Here is the Lamb of God!”
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 utmost importance to us. The Gospel of Luke, from which we read this evening, spends more time describing the annunciation and birth of John the Baptist than it does describing the annunciation and birth of Jesus himself: John gets 24 verses; Jesus gets 21. So what’s so important about John? Why does he warrant this kind of attention? And what do we have to learn from him and his story?
Whether it was his unusual appearance (Mark tells us he “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey”- Mk 1:6) or whether it was his extraordinary boldness and audacity (“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”- Lk 3:7), John the Baptist was an effective messenger. We read that “crowds” of people flocked to hear him (cf. Mk 1:5). Convicted by his words, they asked what they could do to be saved.