Thursday, December 12, 2019

Drawn To A Prophet

In Sunday's gospel lesson, Jesus asks the crowd, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?" Jesus wants them to consider why they went out to see John the Baptist. "Did you go to see a reed blown by the wind? Someone dressed in soft clothes?" Apparently, this wasn't a nature expedition or a red carpet celebrity show. "No," Jesus reminds them, "you went to see a prophet--and more than a prophet!" That Jesus would stop to note that fact suggests that, even in Jesus' day, heading out of the city in search of a prophet didn't make complete sense. It's also a truth that many in mainline churches like my own find hard to accept. Yet, if we look around at popular Christian culture, on what books people spend money, and at which churches there is rapid growth, we might discover that people still defy our expectations and flock to prophets.

Maybe it's because I preached last night on the gospel lesson from Advent 2, but the connection between last week's gospel lesson, in which the people come in droves to hear John and be baptized in the Jordan, and this week's gospel lesson, in which Jesus asks them why they went, seems to need some pondering. In Matthew 3, John is described as one who wore camel's hair and who ate locusts and wild honey. In other words, he wasn't just a city preacher who pitched a tent in a remote location to demonstrate a momentary commitment to counter-cultural preaching. He lived and breathed the wilderness. Then, in Matthew 11, Jesus mentions John's clothing a second time, asking the crowd whether they went out into the wilderness expecting to find someone in soft clothes. They may not have known exactly what they would find, but the point Jesus is making is that surely they didn't go out into the scrappy desert to see someone in fine city clothes. And, as I prepare to preach on this second text, that's the point I want to dig around in for a little bit longer.

In the gospel narrative, the fact that John was an outsider needs to be mentioned twice. Why? In order for the crowd (and us) to get full appreciation of what the initial wilderness encounter with the Baptizer represents, we need to reflect again on the nature of his life and message as that of an outsider. And I think the key for us is to marvel that people wanted to see it. Why?

If you want to see a well-refined religious presentation and hear a seminary-educated preacher who makes pithy insights into ancient biblical texts, you don't go to a tent in the parking lot of the abandoned K-Mart on the edge of town. But that's exactly where all of those people went. They wanted something they couldn't get in the city, in the temple, in the synagogue, in the courthouse, in the marketplace. This isn't a criticism of second-temple Judaism, the religion of Jesus's day. It's a criticism of religion more generally. It's a criticism of the inevitable alliance of earthly power and spiritual seeking that inhibits the coming of the Lord.

Want to find a straighter way? Want to find a clearer path? Want to find a certain route into the reign of God, the transformation of your life and this world? You can't start in the city center. You have to start on the edge of town, where power itself fears to come. That the people were still hanging around--that they were listening to Jesus--means that they weren't done searching yet. They had found something in the wilderness that gave them hope. That's what draws crowds to the fiery tent preachers in our own day--hope. Those of us who inhabit fancy churches and climb into brass-lined or carved-wood pulpits and are perplexed that the crowds are going somewhere else could do a lot worse than heading out to the nearest revival and immersing ourselves in that message of hope.

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