On the second and third Sundays in Advent, our lectionary, or cycle of Bible readings, always gives us a good dose of John the Baptist. John appears in all four of our Gospels, proclaiming Jesus’ mission and baptizing Jesus at the beginning of his years of ministry and teaching, as told in those books. Matthew and Luke both begin their gospels with stories about Jesus’ parents and birth; Mark and John both begin with John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.
It’s interesting to pause and reflect why our Advent lessons give us so much of John the Baptist.Two Sundays out of four, every Advent! I, personally, always resist it a little. I’d rather be in those first chapters of Matthew and Luke, working our way towards the stable, the star, the holy birth. I think the lectionary brings us John and his words because of the traditional understanding of Advent as a penitential season – a season to prepare our hearts and lives for God’s coming. The collect for the second Sunday of Advent says in part, “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” John stands in that lineage of Old Testament prophets, and with his predecessors, calls us across the ages to renewal of life.
I think, too, that we get so much John in the lectionary to help us avoid the temptation
of a sentimental over-focus on the sweet baby in the manger. The beauty and wonder of the Nativity story draws our eyes and our hearts. John the Baptist says to us, ‘Yes, yes, cute baby, great story; but do you realize who that child is going to grow up to be? The strange, beautiful, challenging truths he’s going to speak? Are you ready to face his violent death; are you ready to see him rise from the grave; are you ready to follow where he may lead you? The baby is only the beginning.’
But John has his own birth story, in the Gospel of Luke. You can read it here; it’s a wonderful story!
Luke, perhaps the most literary of the four Gospel writers, knows the Old Testament very well. His story of John’s conception and birth – recorded only in his gospel – may be based on stories and memories that were passed on to him, and became part of his “orderly account.” Luke’s story of John’s birth is quite *clearly* based, in part, on stories of wondrous births from the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham and Sarah bearing a son in old age; Manoah questioning the angel; Hannah’s prayers and her triumphant song. Luke skillfully weaves together the themes and poetry of those older holy stories, and creates something new, and delightful.
In looking at the story of John this year, in its fulness – from Zechariah in the sanctuary
to his death in Herod’s prison – something dawned on me that I’d never considered before. John… is a PK. A PK – a preacher’s kid, or priest’s kid.
I don’t know how widespread the PK stereotypes are, but I certainly grew up with them.
Here’s the basic gist: PKs tend to be overly serious, and precociously churchy, as children. They’re at church all the time, because their mom or dad is at church all the time. And as kids they actually like it: acolyting, reading, helping out in the sacristy, all that stuff. As teens and young adults, they either stick with that, become youth group leaders, go to seminary right out of college, that sort of thing. OR they go the other direction, throw off their straightlaced youth and get as far away from church as possible; and undertake any number of lifestyle experiments, sometimes reckless, even self-destructive.
I love realizing that John the Baptist was a PK because it fits. It fits so well. Imagine little John shadowing his daddy Zechariah as he performed his duties as a priest. Helping with the incense, the oil, the bread, learning the prayers and gestures, memorizing the Scriptures and the songs. Maybe he even snuck into the sanctuary, the holy of holies, once or twice; surely, surely he peeped in, driven by a child’s curiosity and a PK’s piety. I bet he was one of those kids who played “temple” at home,with sticks and stones and simple clay figures. He grew up steeped in the language and symbols, the formalized holiness, of the Great Temple, the heart of first-century Judaism. John could have become a priest himself. He came from a priestly family. I’m sure he had the skills, and he clearly had a heart that was open to God.
But… John swung the other way. He rejected the Temple, the symbol and center of his parents’ and his people’s faith. Perhaps, as Jesus did, he saw that the faith of the Temple wasn’t moving hearts from despair to hope, wasn’t moving the world from oppression to justice.
And John didn’t just, you know, quit going to church and become a carpenter or an accountant or something. He set himself up as a prophet of a different kind of faith. He drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures, which he no doubt knew backwards and forwards, and he cast himself as a latter-day prophet. Living in the wilderness, wearing rags and animal hides, eating whatever he could find, thoroughly rejecting his parents’ middle-class respectability and establishment piety. John preached faith without a temple,
without costly offerings of livestock or a priest to pronounce purity. He said: Change your heart. Change your life. Be fair and just and kind. That’s harder than it sounds, but DO IT. Let your life bear witness that your heart has been transformed. Then you’ll be ready for what God is about to do. You don’t need a huge ornate building; you don’t need priests in fancy clothes; you don’t need particular prayers or songs or gestures. You just need to look unflinchingly at your own daily life, hold it up against God’s call to live with justice and compassion, and do what you need to do.
All of that, I think, makes John an interesting icon for the Episcopal Church in the 21st century. We are a church of formal worship, not entirely unlike the great Temple. We have our songs and prayers, incense and holy vessels and priests in fancy robes, and oh, do we have our traditions. We have been steeped in the rituals of holiness; we have experienced the ancient grace of those patterns and ways of worship. I hope we won’t walk away from them; I believe they have power and purpose.
And yet: the wilderness of our times, the yearnings and struggles of our society, call us, I think, to be like John: grounded in those traditions, but ready, eager, hungry for something new, for the breaking-in of holiness in our time and place.
Can we find inspiration in John the Baptist, the Wild Man, the Prophet? Are we willing to leave the temple to walk the wilderness, sustaining ourselves however we can, while we seek God’s word and God’s call? Are we open to a faith that goes deeper than words and gestures, that sinks into hearts, touches lives, and fuels the transformation of the world?
Come, Lord Jesus!