Here in the church it’s been the new year for six weeks now – but out there it’s still just a week into the New Year. It’s a season when many people spend a little time in self-examination and reflection, and set some goals or intentions – wise or foolish – for how they want to live and who they want to be in the world. As Christians, of course, we often take our cues from Jesus. From his actions and teaching, made known to us in the Gospels. We claim him both as a Rabbi, a Teacher, who has shown us a life-giving Way; and as a Savior who has called us out of bondage to the world as it is, and into the hopeful mystery of the world as it could be. But let’s be honest: sometimes trying to follow Jesus feels like a tall order. He could heal people with a touch. He could bring a dead child back to life, and give her back to her parents. He shared a heart with God the Creator, Source of all things. When I think about all of that, it becomes abundantly clear to me that, however committed I am to following him, I am not and never will be Jesus.
You know who else wasn’t Jesus? John the Baptist. He said so, in the Gospel of John: (1:20) “He did not deny it but confessed it freely: I AM NOT THE MESSIAH.” I’m overdue to give John a little attention. He’s always present in our Advent readings, hanging out by the Jordan River and hollering about repentance and preparation. And this year the liturgical calendars we order for people to take home feature John’s story: … John is a significant figure in the Gospels; putting together the pieces from all four books, we actually know a lot about him – his teaching, his followers, his practice of baptism. From Luke, we know his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth; that his birth and prophetic calling were foretold by an angel; and that he was Jesus’ cousin. From Mark we have the story of his untimely, senseless death – imprisoned by an insecure king, murdered as an act of vengeance by the will of someone fearful of his truth-telling.
Today’s Gospel brings us Matthew’s account of John baptizing Jesus. This is John’s big moment, as far as the Gospels are concerned – when Jesus chooses to begin his public ministry by receiving this rite of cleansing and renewal from John’s hands. An event that becomes the foundation of the church’s practice of baptism as our rite of full belonging. What cues can we take from John the Baptist, for our life as people of faith and conscience and courage? In this season of setting intentions for the year ahead?
The first thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is his sense of perspective. His sense of his role in the story. I’d call it humility but we tend to think of humility as timid, quiet, and John was not timid or quiet. He had something to say: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Change your hearts. Change your lives. John raised his voice. He shared his message, loudly and assertively. But he also knew that it wasn’t about him. I’m not the Messiah, John says. I’m nobody’s savior. He tells Jesus, YOU should be baptizing ME. He tells his followers, Somebody greater than me is coming soon. He must increase, and I must decrease.
In modern jargon we might talk about John as an example of decentering. The concept of decentering originally comes from developmental psychology: it refers to the capacity, developed in late childhood or young adulthood, to conceptualize multiple perspectives at once. To understand that one’s own view isn’t the only view, or the truth. Today the word “decentering” is often used in the broad movement for racial equity: white folks like me are asked to decenter our opinions, our needs, our priorities, to make space for people of color to take the lead and set the agenda. Decentering involves accepting that this is not about me. That there’s something big going on here, and sometimes I may be called to a supporting role.
John the Baptist willingly de-centers himself. He has a clear vision of what’s broken in society, and some ideas about how to begin to fix it. But he keeps the focus on the message, not on himself; and when another leader, a new message come along, he points people towards Jesus. He says, This is bigger than me; go learn from that guy. May we be blessed by John’s wisdom as we use our voices and pursue the work that calls us in today’s world.
The second thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is his integrity. He was the real deal. He didn’t just tell people to turn their backs on the corrupt systems of the status quo; he did it himself, and proved it was possible. By living in the wilderness, wearing a camel-hide tunic instead of proper woven clothing, and living on grasshoppers and honey and whatever else he could find to eat in the rocky waste outside Jerusalem. Traditional icons of John show him with wild hair, to emphasize his uncivilized, unbound way of life. John was off the grid.
In the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus talks about John the Baptist. He says, What did you all go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind, fragile, momentary, meaningless? Someone dressed in fine clothes? Nope, that’s not John’s style, he didn’t go into the crazy preacher business to get rich quick. What then did you go to see? A prophet, and more than a prophet. One who speaks God’s truth, regardless of how it will be received. In John’s case, it eventually got him killed. It happens, with prophets.
Whatever you think of the camel-hide outfit, you can’t claim John didn’t practice what he preached. May we, like John, live what we believe, and what we hope. May we strive to be the change – or in some cases, the stability – that we want to see in the world. We don’t have to have it all figured out. But we need to try.
The third thing I appreciate about John the Baptist is that he kept it real. (Maybe this is only relevant to me as a preacher!…) He had a big overarching message: Repent. Terrible times are coming. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree. Turn your hearts and your lives towards righteousness, towards God. NOW. Pretty scary stuff!
But in Luke’s Gospel there’s more – the people ask him, what do we do? And he said, Well, if you have two coats, give one of them to somebody who has none. And if you have extra food, share it with the hungry. If you handle other people’s money, do so fairly. If you have authority over other people, don’t use your power to take from them, and be satisfied with what you have. He gives people seeking guidance some real, concrete, achievable things they can do, NOW, to start turning their daily lives towards justice and mercy.
I get the sense that despite his big fierce words – Repent! Brood of Vipers! Unquenchable Fire! – despite all that, by Luke’s account at least, John was a pragmatist, not a purist. He wouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s telling people, Look, just start somewhere. Look around your house, think about the things you do every day, and find a way to help somebody.
May we, like John, stay grounded. May we live gracefully in the tension between the big picture and the small action, the epochal and the everyday, knowing that it’s by the small and the everyday that the great and epochal are formed. Whatever calls, challenges, or confronts us in the year ahead, whether in our career or vocation, in our personal life or our civic sphere, may we see our way clear to a place to simply begin.