A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For December 4 2016, The Second Sunday of Advent
Based on Matthew 3:1-12
This passage tells us about John the Baptizer. Matthew portrays John erupting in the wilderness, “… the messenger preparing the road for God’s act to turn the world right-side-up, and we celebrate this eruption by hoping for the best shopping season of the decade.” John is made to look like one of the prophets calling us to live according to God’s justice, and his words can make us uncomfortable.
He came out of nowhere. We really didn’t expect he would stick around this long. After all, he seems to have so few allies, and those are people on the lunatic fringe. The way he speaks is offensive, insulting some people, mocking them, working with caricatures of rich and poor. He’s appealing to a religious minority who feel powerless, and when asked for the details to carry out his social vision he responds with emotional half-answers. I can’t tell if he likes the faithful and is disappointed in them for accepting less than what they can be, or if he just doesn’t like them at all. What I mean is when you love someone, you don’t always go around telling them that they’re doing things the wrong way.
I just really don’t understand this guy John.
When you think about it, John is kind of antisocial. Let’s begin with the way he dresses: “camel hair” is a generous way to describe his clothing. It’s camel skin that is just barely a step above raw hide with the hair left on. Camel hair is coarse, it smells bad, and raw hide is never in fashion. I don’t care if he did make it himself: he wears it like a big sack. It’s not like he even tried to tailor it to himself. His tunic is nothing more than a big bag that he’s pulled over his head and down his body and then he wraps his belt around his waist – boom! he’s dressed for the day. If you ask me, he’s more than a fashion statement, he’s a fashion question.
Now I don’t care if he got that wool or skin that he wears from a camel or a sheep or even a goat, but it stinks – especially when it gets wet. I mean, he’s there by the water, dunking people into the river all day long, preaching about being cleansed from sin – why doesn’t he take the time to take a bath while he’s at it? You know, he should practice what he preaches.
And have you ever seen him eat? Locusts and honey – that’s food for the scavengers when there’s nothing else to be had! It’s almost as if he’s taken a fraternity prank to it’s extreme. I’ll admit, I’ve eaten some strange things: haggis and head cheese, a few bugs, liver and stomach and even pieces of intestines – I mean, you’ve had good home-made sausage, right? What do you think is in there? I’ve even a variety of sushi. But let’s get this straight: it’s not like I make this stuff my regular meal plan. I mean, John’s menu alone is a good reason to have a “previous engagement” if he invites you to dinner. You’d think he’d at least have some bread, maybe a fish or two, but no – he insists on eating only what he can find in the wilderness. People are claiming it has something to do with God providing him with all the food he needs. Well, God seems to provide me enough food at the grocery store, thank you very much.
Don’t you think he could do better for himself? I mean, I’m all for nonconformity, I even like eccentrics – my best friends are eccentric – but isn’t John taking all this a little too far? He certainly knows how to get a response from the crowd. I’m not sure I’d call him a good preacher, though. He says the same thing in every sermon: “Repent” or “Do Penance” or “Reform” or “Change” or “Transform” or “Metamorphize.” John is always telling us that we’re not doing good enough to uphold God’s ways.
I get it: we all could do better at following God’s commandments, at loving our neighbors and taking care of the poor, but does it always have to be shoved down our throats? We’ll accept change easier if it comes slow and easy, not forced on us.
And he uses only one scripture passage:
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
He sure uses that passage a lot. It seems he hardly ever preaches from anything else. I’d really like to hear him preach on some other bible stories once in a while. What would John have to say about Adam and Eve? Noah’s Ark? about David and Goliath? about David and Bathsheba? How would John interpret the weird prophecies of Ezekiel? But John seems to always go back to the Isaiah passage.
I guess it has some sort of personal significance for him. I bet it’s wrapped up in the way he sees his place before God. But preaching should be more than that. Proclaiming the word of God must be more than someone trying to figure out their place in all of this. I mean, if that’s all it is, it seems kind of self-centered.
But I have to give John this: the crowds sure love him. They’re flocking to go hear him. I’m surprised he hasn’t caught on to just how popular he and his show are and started to charge an entrance fee – you know, sell tickets at the door and such. I bet if you set up a popcorn stand here, you could really take in a pretty penny! Or maybe John would insist that you sell honey and locusts instead of popcorn. But even still, with the size of this crowd, I bet you could sell them anything to eat.
Yes, those crowds sure do seem to love him. It’s like he’s able to really convince some of them of some deeper meaning to their lives, and gets them to devote themselves to his vision. Just look at how committed they are to him. I mean, have you actually looked at the water in the Jordan river? It’s pretty cold, and there’s a lot of pollution floating in it. If he’s able to convince others to actually get in that water and put their heads under the surface … well, he could probably convince them to do just about anything!
And I’m not just talking about the crazy kids who are thrilled to be out camping for the weekend, either. I mean he’s got all kinds of people down there – young and old, rich and poor, people from the north and south, even some from other countries show up to hear him preach. So why doesn’t he go into the cities and work for some big religious community? Why is he living out in the desert?
Maybe he’s out in the wilderness because he’s just not sure he could make it in the big time. OK, sure, the Jordan River is easy enough to find, and even though it is a little inconvenient for the people from Jerusalem and the nearby cities to get there, it is still close enough to the major shopping areas to be an interesting day trip. And I’m not just talking about the Jerusalem area either: if you’re on the west side, or if you’re coming down from say Damascus or up from Sinai or even Egypt, well, then the Jordan River is a great location for such a diverse crowd.
Sure, he’s drawing big crowds out in the wilderness but don’t you think that if he took himself seriously he’d shave his beard, trim his hair, buy a decent set of clothes? Don’t you think that if he were confident his message could make a difference in the world that he would move to one of the cities where he could make a difference in the way things are really done? I mean, imagine if John had access to the merchants of Ephesus or the senators of Rome, you know, the movers and shakers of the world, the ones who really get things done … well, then John might just be able to change the world.
Maybe you’re right: if he was in the cities he’d have to learn to be a bit more careful about what he says or he’d end up with a law suit for libel or slander, or he’d end up in jail or maybe worse. Don’t get me wrong: I mostly agree with what John has to say. I think the world has strayed pretty far away from the way God would have things done. But is his plan realistic? If he had any sense, he’d show us how to do it a little bit at a time – you know, ease us into it rather than this drastic change he’s proposing.
Maybe, despite his bombastic personality, despite his bold words and the way he challenges authority, maybe John in insecure. After all, he keeps promising that one greater than he will is coming after him; doesn’t John trust himself enough to claim his own authority? Doesn’t he trust himself enough to be our leader?
Maybe John does have an inferiority complex. Look at the way he compares himself to this idealized leader he promises: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Come on John, that’s the stuff our servants do for us. Surely, a persuasive man like yourself can find work that’s better than being a common servant?
I’m just not sure of who John thinks he is. How does John think of himself in the larger scheme of things? Just what is John’s vision for the kingdom of God? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what he does next to get a better sense of what he’s been talking about …
 Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, 68.