It’s odd to say, “Thanks be to God,” in response to words like that. You may find it a bit strange that the focus of today’s worship service is about the death of John the Baptist. Maybe it’s odd because in worship we’re used to uplifting messages, soul-inspiring music, and affirming words of faith. God has created, redeemed, and sustained us. Isn’t worship supposed to be a never-ending exercise of praise and warm fuzzies?
Well, we get another perspective today. We gather in this place to worship God and the stench of death is in the air. There’s very little to feel warm and fuzzy about in today’s reading. John the Baptizer is dead. He’s been a pawn in an evil web of manipulation and he’s opened his mouth one time too many. He’s been killed. Not just killed – he’s been beheaded. And we’re left being told that his disciples simply took his body and placed it in a grave. There’s no fanfare. No national day of mourning. Flags will not fly at half-staff. There’s just a tragic death and a quiet burial.
It could be easy to miss the fact that John dies in the Gospels. We’re so quick to want to move forward with the ministry of Jesus that we forget there was one who came before him preaching a message of repentance and healing. In fact, some of John’s disciples would go on to become Jesus’ disciples. Yet we might miss this fact because one of the main points of John’s ministry was to decrease in fame so that Christ might increase. I suppose that’s the way it goes with true prophets.
Mother Teresa was the prophet who served Calcutta – a woman devoted to ministering to the lepers and those forgotten by modern society. Her life was a living testimony to a God who refuses to forget those whom the world might forget about. She died on September 5, 1997. But I’m willing to bet many of you may not remember that because Princess Diana died 6 days earlier. And just like that, the death of this prophetic woman from Calcutta went to the B-section of the newspapers. I’m sure Mother Teresa would have preferred it that way. But that’s just the way it goes for prophets I suppose.
So here we are – gathered to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of John the Baptist. In the midst of death, we gather to celebrate the life and witness of our brother, John.
Maybe you didn’t know John that well? This is common in the church. It’s easy to know someone by reputation. Their story is a part of the greater story of the community. Yet they’re somehow distant from us personally. We know about them but we really don’t know them in an intimate way.
Who was this odd man who lived in the wilderness and preached for crowds on the outskirts of town?
Mark cuts right to the chase and tells us John appeared in the wilderness preaching about baptism, repentance, and the forgiveness of sins. Crowds from the whole Judean countryside came to hear this fiery preacher and to be baptized. His liturgical wear was a bit unorthodox for any respectable preacher. He didn’t wear a stately black robe and stole. Instead he wore camel’s hair tied on with a leather belt around his waist. He wasn’t nourished by covered dish suppers. Instead he chose to stay in the wilderness and eat locusts and honey. But he was an amazing preacher – surely a sight to both hear and see.
Matthew tells us John appeared in the wilderness and began to preach a convicting message:
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”
Luke gives us a little more background on John. He tells us about John’s family of origin. His mother was Elizabeth and his father was Zechariah. You may remember how John’s father was struck mute before John was born. When it came time to name John the family wanted to call him Zechariah. After some discussion the muted father wrote on a tablet – “his name is John.” At that very moment his tongue was loosened and he was able to speak again. The family knew John was something special. Upon being able to speak again, Zechariah began to prophecy about his baby boy:
“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of sins.”
By all accounts, we can agree John was a prophet – a messenger sent by God to proclaim a message. His mission was to come and give a basic sermon to all who would have ears to hear.
John’s message wasn’t unique. That’s the thing with prophets – they have a way of using the work of prophets who came before them. All 3 of the synoptic gospels report that John’s sermon largely consisted of words from the prophet Isaiah:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
You’ve probably heard something like that before? These words make up a big part of the first scene in Handel’s Messiah. But they’re also the words that helped frame the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. used the prophetic words of John and Isaiah to proclaim a message of justice for all peoples. The words of the prophet are passed from generation to generation – wherever there’s a need for a prophetic word to be spoken. And these words are etched into the collective memory of the people who hear them.
What is it that makes the poetic words of a prophet so timeless? Theologian Walter Brueggemann refers to this phenomenon as the prophetic imagination. The prophetic imagination is an act of seeing the world as it is now but daring to put words on the world as God would have it.
It’s seeing a world where lepers in Calcutta are impoverished and forgotten by society? But the prophet dares to imagine a world where the love of God is made available to even them.
Or it’s seeing a world where race creates division seemingly impossible to get over. But prophet dares to imagine a world where folks are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Or maybe it’s even more basic than these grand examples?
I was in Columbus a couple weeks ago visiting family. I stopped in to McDonald’s to pick up some breakfast for family members. I know that McDonald’s well and have eaten at it many times over the years. This particular morning was no different than any other morning for that busy place. It was slammed as usual.
However it didn’t take long for me to notice this wasn’t your typical busy McDonald’s morning. The line was long but it wasn’t moving. Orders were getting backed up and the folks behind the counter seemed stressed out. I noticed the manager at the register – she was wearing a blue uniform to set her apart from the others in white. She was carefully instructing what looked like a new employee on how to take orders and run the register. I placed my order and casually sat in a booth nearby to wait.
Not long after I placed my order, a well dressed man dressed like he was heading to a high-level meeting came and placed his order. He seemed in a hurry and stood waiting close to the counter. As the line continued to move slowly and orders continued to be backed up, the man began asking how much longer it would take. He grew more and more aggravated as he stood there. Soon he took a call on his iPhone and began explaining to someone I assume was in his office:
“It’s gonna be awhile. These idiots at McDonald’s can’t seem to get their acts together this morning.”
Now mind you he was standing just 3 feet from the counter where the workers were standing. After he hung up the phone he began telling people new to the order line:
“I hope you’re not in a hurry this morning. They can’t seem to get it together back there.”
He grew louder and more rude with each passing minute. Soon my order number was called and I left hot and bothered after witnessing such rudeness. Who did this guy think he was? Did his red power tie go to his head? Was he that self-important that he didn’t have time to treat workers at McDonald’s with an ounce of respect?
I decided to do what any decent person might do after seeing such an injustice – I fired off an angry status update on Facebook.
As I left, I remember seeing a homeless man sitting on the curb near my car. I had this sermon on John the Baptist in mind and I even thought, “You know, I needed that guy to be my John the Baptist – he needed to come in with his wild clothes ranting and raving about repenting of your sins because the kingdom of God is at hand.”
You know it’s easier sometimes to admire prophets from afar. Their work is so amazing it’s just too much to think we could get close to it. So we admire prophets like Mother Teresa through magazine articles and news coverage. We revere prophets like Martin Luther King through the books of history. And we remember great prophets like John the Baptist around the 2nd Sunday of Advent every year.
But the truth is, the prophetic imagination can be a simple as moving outside of your own comfort zone and speaking up when you see someone in a position of service being abused. I didn’t need a John the Baptist at McDonald’s that morning – I should have been the prophet that morning. My own personal comforts and insecurities drove me to silence when I should have spoken a prophetic word. I didn’t do it because I didn’t have the courage to move out of my own life of comfort and witness to the fact that by the power of the Risen Christ, a different world is actually possible.
John’s words 2000 years ago can ring true for us even today. But we need to be bothered in our places of comfort for this to happen. John was preparing a way for the Christ who empowers us to see the world for what it is right now and dare to say it could be different. We can, by the power of God, imagine a world where valleys are exalted and mountains are made low; a world where rough places are made smooth; where lepers in Calcutta are loved with the very love of Christ and where race no longer has the power to make us hate each other; and yes, a world where powerful people have their hearts filled with compassion and where McDonald’s workers are treated with kindness and respect because they’re children of God too.
Here lies our brother, John the Baptizer – A wild preacher from the wilderness of Judea; A man of little means, but whose words continue to inspire all of us to see the world through the very eyes of God. Thank you, Brother John, may we strive to live by your example. Amen.