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Each year at this time the Church concentrates on John the Baptizer. And John is well worth the attention. He was by all accounts a wonderfully winsome figure, courageous to a fault, spiritually generous, loved even by the petty tyrant who killed him to repay a drunken bet.
Recently, the discovery of the ruins of an ancient religious community at Qumran in Israel and the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls nearby have shed new light on this attractive figure. It's quite possible that John the Baptizer was at one point a member of that community. His dress and diet suggest as much. Elements of his teaching suggest that background as well.
The community of people called the Essenes had clustered at that remote location to purify themselves in preparation for the re-entry of God into Israel's life, a re-entry they imagined and probably hoped would be characterized by vengeful violence. The Essenes scoffed at the triviality and corruption of the temple cult in Jerusalem, and they regarded that sacrifices as impertinent to the impending emergency. Only the very pure?themselves really?would be ready and prepared to survive.
Against that background, John's genius?and his generosity?emerge with stark clarity. The first part of his speech sounds like it came straight out of Qumran:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
What's so generous about that? Well, read the rest of the speech:
"Bear fruits worthy of repentance...."
And then he goes on to outline how various of them might do so. That's where John differs from his narrower colleagues: he actually pointed to the fire escape. He even has helpful things to say to tax collectors, those despised traitors to their own people. He has helpful advice to pagan soldiers, hated occupiers and thieving bullies. And all of it occurred in the course of his offering baptism in the Jordan River. We're so used to his baptizing?indeed, that function has become almost part of his name?that we can miss what baptism meant and the genius of it.
The Torah prescribed bathing in water as a solution for personal contamination. The prescription was not just hygienic?impurity was thought to be offensive to God as well. So the washing was both healthy and religiously necessary. It became to be called the miqvah bath.
Alongside other procedures, the miqvah bath restored purity before God and the community. With the passage of centuries and the various dispersions of Jews all over the ancient world, their life under Torah caused them to be conspicuously attractive and, course, resentfully envied by people they lived among.
Occasionally, Gentiles would knock on the synagogue door saying, "I want to become a Jew. I want to be a member of the people of God."
So, what did you do with the person who wasn't born Jewish? You circumcise them if they're men. Course that's the first thing that would occur to us, knowing so little about Judaism. But the actual intake procedure involved an important prior step. You bathed them in water in the miqvah bath. It was presumed that as pagans they had been involved in idolatrous worship and quite possibly in some pretty disgusting activities and rites in their pagan connection. We can imagine the converts welcoming the bath, agreeing with its necessity in their own cases, eager to be cleansed.
That's what John was doing. Only he was offering it to Jews as well as to pagans. In effect, he was saying, "In view of the degree of purity God really requires, it is as though all of us were pagans. All of us need cleansing." And people rushed to him by the thousands. He had hit a nerve.
The purification rituals of the time could fix you if you had, say, touched a corpse or menstruated or something like that. But there was no ready provision to release you from some misdeed you'd deliberately perpetrated. If you had deliberately told a lie or cheated on your taxes or a hit-and-run accident, the purification rituals of Yon Kippur were of little effect. Yon Kippur simply did not cover such offenses.
Consequently, we can imagine the social hemorrhage of unassuaged guilt flowing out to John at the Jordan for relief. For a historical parallel, we'd have to look all the way down to the Protestant Reformation, offering deep assurance of non-cultic forgiveness for real sin offered to people who'd previously had only had masses and sort of one-size-fits-all confessions.
So the people flocked out to John for pardon. And they received it.
They came for advice -- they received it.
They came for cleansing -- they received it.
They asked him for leadership -- and he refused it.
John refused to become their leader because he sensed the approach of One who could do more for them than he himself could, One who could reform the whole of society, who could scour and scourge and purify with holy fire and with the terrifying Wind of God.
Much later, in the course of what was almost an argument between Jesus and John, Jesus says of his friend, "I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Now we can readily understand Jesus' admiration of John. But why that unfavorable comparison with an unnamed multitude of people inside something called the kingdom of God?
To get a clue to the issue and the contrast between Jesus and John, look at the detail of John's speech we just heard and compare it with Jesus' thought on the same topic.
John counsels, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise." That sounds so plausible. But listen to Jesus:
"...from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again."
Uhhh. Horrible! At most points in my life, I prefer John. We could go on with the contrast. Where John prescribes a practical give-and-take, Jesus prescribes an utterly impractical give?not justice or fairness, lavish mercy and generosity. What should we make of that contrast? John emerges as the best that humanity can do on its own. John represents fairness and justice. That's certainly a great improvement over the society of his day or of ours. Jesus, on the other hand, represents an irrational posture towards others, a posture not constrained by practicality, by the economics of limited supply, even by the need to survive the transaction.
What accounts for that difference? I think the difference lies in what John named as being baptized or soaked in the Holy Spirit, a soaking Jesus was able to induce and that John was not. John could soak you in water and you'd come up clean. Jesus, as John predicted, can soak you in the very life, the very breath of God, and you come up transformed. Try to imagine how your life would feel if you got soaked in a vat of God's own substance, like you were a bolt of cloth being dyed God-colored.
How economically poor would you feel? Lord have mercy! You'd come up feeling richer than any amount you could ever spend.
How scared would you feel of other people? When you're filled with the life of God, Clark Kent would be timorous in comparison with you.
How stingy would you want to be? Gracious, you'd feel like you'd burst open unless you could give to other people.
How bitter would you feel at those who harmed you? Come on! The offense would feel ludicrous in the light of God's forgiveness.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he seems not to mean real estate. He's describing the effective rule of God in human life. To test that suggestion, look over the so-called kingdom parables in Matthew's Gospel and substitute the Holy Spirit every place the term kingdom occurs. What might you discover?
You'd learn that the presence of the Holy Spirit inside you is like seed that's so potent you can throw it just about anywhere and get a bumper crop.
You'd learn that the Spirit's presence is like a mustard seed. It starts out not taking up much space inside you, but then grows up enough to shade you at midday.
You'd learn that the Holy Spirit is like yeast in a lump of dough; pretty soon everything in your life is touched by the Spirit?your job, your family life, how you spend your money, everything.
You'd learn that the Holy Sprit is like a huge stash of money buried in a vacant lot. Once you learn the money is there, paying a high price for the acreage feels like a sucker's bargain.
You'd learn that the Spirit's residency in you is worth every other possession combined.
You'd learn that the Holy Spirit can catch the interest of any kind of person, not just real religious people or Pentecostals or Fundamentalists, everybody.
Think about that long enough and you may begin to suspect that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus is able to induce, is not just some sacramental technicality that's implicit in your church membership. It's part of your actual experience, as palpable as when you first fell fully in love.
And as great as John is, the best human specimen we can point to, still all those unnamed people who contain God's life within themselves, are John's superiors. You may even come to wonder if the indwelling of the Spirit in ordinary people isn't really what the whole New Testament is about. I mean, how else can we account for the astounding changes we see in people like Peter and Paul? How to account for all the unnamed people who suddenly discover they have the gift of healing or speaking the very thoughts of God to others? You might suspect that the confrontive teachings of Jesus--the shock of his death, the terror of his resurrection, his ascension which leaves us suddenly, simply with one another--all of these combine to blast space within us, to hold God's very life.
John's most poignant and admirable remark is found in the fourth Gospel. In a wonderfully, self-discerning, transport of humility, John points to Jesus and says, "I came to point him out to you; that's what my life is about." And then the climax: "He must grow greater and I must grow less." Breath-taking. But that attitude is accessible to us. As Jesus grows greater in our lives, as Jesus' Holy Spirit operates within us like yeast, we can afford to grow less. We don't have to spend the time and worry on self-maintenance, on competition with other people, on nurturing resentments to keep ourselves safe from fresh injury. That leaves us room; leaves us time, attention, and energy to experiment constantly with all the implications of God's life inside us. And we will not have got very far into that vast discovery before we're taken into another phase of Eternity itself. Amen.
Let us pray.
Give us grace, O God, to permit our gaze to go where John's finger points, to the One able to baptize with the Spirit and with fire, to receive at Jesus' hand, purgation from all that you didn't create, to receive at Jesus' hands, the infilling of your very life, we ask all this in Jesus' name and for his glory and pleasure. Amen.
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