Thursday, December 7, 2017

John the Religious Nut

During the season of Advent, John the Baptist always features prominently. This Sunday in Mark 1, we'll meet him at the banks of the River Jordan and hear him proclaim a baptism for the repentance of sins. Next Sunday, we'll hear him direct his disciples to follow Jesus, the Lamb of God. Sometimes we forget that John the Baptist had his own disciples, people who were attracted to his wild ways and crazy message. What he did with those disciples is pretty remarkable.

Mark tells us that John ate locusts and wild honey and that he dressed himself with a camel's skin and a leather belt. I'd bet that he had a pretty liberal approach to hygiene and that he figured, like a parent who has taken his kids to the swimming pool, that after dipping in the River Jordan he didn't need to shower all that much. I like to picture him as an intimidating yet charismatic figure who drew large crowds.

Why did they come to see him? He was an outsider who preached a message that God works from the outside in. God would meet his people in the wilderness. God would honor those who left the religious institutions and political palaces of the capital city and, instead, found refuge on the unprotected riverbanks. The means for forgiveness that he offered came through baptism--rejuvenation, replenishment, cleansing--and not through the sacrifices that took place in the temple.

People then and now like an outsider--not everyone, of course, but many. Some like it when their preacher has visible tattoos and piercings. Some like it when their preacher wears faded blue jeans and tells slightly off-color jokes. They like it when their preacher represents God's work from the outside--a real, fresh, unadulterated dose of the Spirit's work. The danger, of course, is that sometimes those outsiders who make a career preaching about how their way is the real way often lead people away from God and toward themselves.

Think of Jim Jones. Think of David Koresh. Think of Marshall Applewhite. Think of the people who were attracted to their outside-in mentality. Jim Jones was a champion of the people. He was a Methodist pastor who preached a fiery message against racial segregation and the exploitation of the poor. Those are good and godly things, but, when the leader takes the place of God, it all falls apart. In the case of Jim Jones, it ended tragically--horrifically--with the deaths of over 900 people. People are captivated by a prophet who invites them to embrace God's power working from outside dominant social institutions like organized religion. Sometime the church needs to hear them, but sometimes the church needs to be careful of them.

John the Baptist, however, was different. "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals." That is the central proclamation of John: there is one more powerful than I who is coming; we are preparing not for me but for him. What does it take to channel all of that charisma and Spirit-given power away from one's self and toward God? It takes faith.

John invites us to join him in believing that there is one more powerful than we. John invites us to be washed of our belief that we can do this on our own, that our success and power come from ourselves. John invites us to embrace the one whom God has sent to bring life to the world--to baptize us with the fire of the Holy Ghost. As we follow Jesus, we discover that, again, that power comes by yielding, by surrendering, by giving up one's self in the service of love. That's a gospel and a savior worth embracing.

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