notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
A letter from John The Baptiser
Good Shepherd 5/12/2004 (Advent 2 Holy Communion)
Romans 15.4-13, Matthew 3.1-12
My name is John the Baptiser. And this is an open letter from me to all the people of God at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
I wanted to write to clear up a few misunderstandings about me that seem to have built up over the years. I want to do this, not because I'm proud or arrogant but because I want to make sure that Jesus Christ gets the glory. Because we were close, and had so much in common during our time on earth, what people think about me reflects back onto what people think about Jesus. I think if people understood a little more about me they'd appreciate more about the Son of God as well, whose sandals I'm not fit to carry.
I'm just a bit worried that people have written me off as a bit of a freak. The wild man who came in from the desert ranting and raging.
Most of the artists who have painted me over the centuries have shown me out in the desert, surrounded by wild beasts, a hairy bloke, dressed for the wild outdoors. Lots of painters picture me with long, scraggy hair, sticking up in a way that makes me look like Bridget Jones after her ride in a sports car, windswept and out of control.
Mind you, I'm impressed with Caravaggio's paintings. He's got my age about right - I was a young man when I was out in the desert, and he's made me young, strong and supple, and if I may say so, quite attractive looking. In one picture I'm fighting off wild animals barehanded. But while the other artists give me bad hair to make me seem wild, Caravaggio's given me a look on my face which suggests I'm going through some sort of deep inner torment. It's like my mind is alive with massive, monstrous ideas, and that I'm struggling to come to terms with them out there alone in the wilderness. And, to be honest, that's close to the truth.
Because, as the 20th century writer Daniel Berrigan says, the desert is a place of combat and rebirth. I didn't go there to escape. I went there to wrestle with my faith, to give myself totally and completely over to God in thought and prayer, to discover who God wanted me to be.
Now this is something important I'd like to get across: in all of this, I had my family behind me. My father was a priest and both my parents were devout religious people, always in the house of God in prayer. They were fond of saying that my birth was miraculous, and so it seemed because they were very elderly when I came along, and through dreams and visions they knew for sure that it was God's doing; that's why old Zechariah, my dad, insisted on calling me John - which means 'God's gift', rather than naming me after himself like everyone expected he would. All the people in the district expected that I'd turn out to do something significant for God, and soon after my birth my father spoke some words about me which Christians still say often today:
You, child, will be called the prophet of the most high,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
Those words were really my commission. Or my calling. I carried them with me through childhood and when I grew a bit older and my elderly parents had passed on, I had to work out what this commission meant. You yourselves know, as people of God, that if you feel you're being called you have to do a lot of thinking, a lot of praying, a lot of listening to God, to work out what your next moves should be. So I went into the desert to do this.
I suppose in some respects that does make me seem like a wild man; because especially in the 21st century people are encouraged to be individualistic but they're not encouraged to be different. And especially if they decide to follow the way of faith in God - that's too different; that's freaky; that's wild behaviour.
But it didn't seem that way to me at the time. We shouldn't presume that our ways are the best ways, that our normal behaviour is the only sort of behaviour.
I was the child of a priestly family following my own call into ministry. And there were plenty of other people out there in the desert, practising their own particular ways of serving God. I got to know some of the people who called themselves the Essenes, who lived in small communities and devoted themselves to studying the scriptures. Repentance meant everything to them and they had what they called 'purification baths' in which they made themselves clean.
I didn't become a member of their community but seeing what they did helped me decide that my ministry should involve offering people a baptism of repentance; I took that idea back out of the desert into the country places around the river Jordan.
And the other thing that became clear to me out there in that place where I encountered God, was that the words of the prophet Isaiah, 700 years old, somehow applied to me. It was my task to open my mouth and to be the 'voice of one calling:'
In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
In other words, as well as calling people to repentance, I had to tell people to look out for the coming of God, in all his glory. And so the shape of my ministry became clear.
Some people have portrayed my message as harsh and sombre. All this stuff about axes and winnowing-forks and unquenchable fire. I think calling people to repent of their sins is bound to sound harsh; but when they do repent it brings them a glorious new beginning in their lives. As for my message about the coming of God, there's wonder and joy in that which I think some of your Anglican hymn writers have captured really well:
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake, and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.
My call was to wake people up to something wonderful, something that should make them sing. Because as Isaiah puts it, people are like grass, tossed around by every breeze that life blows at them, liable to wither and fade away, and the good news of the coming of God into the world is that they don't have to be like that any more. People who are prisoners to themselves or their circumstances can find release. They can turn to him and bear fruit.
Jesus preached about healing for the broken hearted, good news for the poor - and demonstrated all that in his life. Jesus preached that his good news was for everyone; now, coming to Jesus, anyone could be one of Abraham's children. It was my honour to announce that in advance. I like to feel that I helped to prepare the people for Jesus and I helped to prepare Jesus for the people.
Like me, Jesus went into the wilderness to work out his calling. And he heard what I was saying about him, he knew I was getting people ready for this man who would bring in God's new way of doing things. He let me baptise him - though I didn't want him to because I didn't think he needed it - and that connected us together; it made sense of my ministry and it started off Jesus' ministry. After that, he knew what he should do. He took on the role the prophets of old had announced, and brought up-to-date in the message I proclaimed.
Some people through the centuries have called me the last of the Old Testament prophets. That's a grand title. I'm content to be remembered as the man who prepared people for Jesus; a sort-of divine warm-up act; the one who came onstage first to set the scene, to get the audience in the mood for the main performance. Like all warm-up acts my talent is tiny compared to the one to follow; but I hope this letter has helped you understand that what I offered wasn't freakish or crazy, not in God's terms. I hope I was faithful to the reverence my parents showed almighty God, and true to the story that God continued telling through Jesus. Whose sandals I'm not fit to carry. To him be all the glory.
John the Baptiser
This sermon is based on an 2001 talk at Holy Trinity Wavertree where the texts were Isaiah 40 and Luke 1. There I illustrated the talk with various pictures of John the Baptist - icons, Hieronymous Bosch, Caravaggio.