john the baptist

These Days, We Need a John the Baptist

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Perhaps here is where we need John the Baptist most. He might turn to us and call us to ordinary acts of grace. He might call us to give what we have. He might call us to stay at our jobs and do them well. He might call us to the radical idea that seemingly ordinary lives can be imbued with the extraordinary spirit of God to transform the world.

During this Christmas season, we expect to enjoy times of family and conviviality and joy. Such expectations have been shattered this year. We could throw our hands up in despair. We could lament over a shattered world. We could grieve those we have lost, the dreams that have been shattered. We could pray fervently for courage and hope. We could worship together and so resist the encroachments of death upon our lives. We could protest and march and demand change. We could call our representatives and demand action.

We should do all these things.

And as we do all these things, we should also live ordinary lives infused by the extraordinary call to love God and love neighbor. 

John the Baptist is an irritant in the midst of Advent.

In the Gospel reading for this week in Luke 3:7-18, he is in the wilderness excoriating the crowds who came seeking baptism and repentance and deliverance.

“Who warned you…?,” John wants to know. Who told you to come out here? What did you think you would find? Who the crowds find is a fiery prophet of God, preaching judgment upon the injustice that permeates this world.

John the Baptist's Revolutionary Message

Photo: Bible, olivier / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Bible, olivier / Shutterstock.com

Every Christmas, my family makes an 8-hour drive to celebrate the holidays with extended family. This year, to fight off sleep half-way through the trek, my sister started reading aloud in the book of Luke. Before you begin to feel remorse about your worldly choices in travel entertainment this past holiday, you should know that we opted for this reading only after finding a disappointing selection at Red Box. While Hollywood failed us, God did not. The Spirit revealed something new in a story I’ve heard over and over.

My sister read aloud. Chapter 1: Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, babies on the way. Chapter 2: Jesus, prophesies. Chapter 3: John the Baptistand wait, what?

Luke 3:7-14 reads: 

When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. ... The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”

Trapped in Your Own Story: Salome, Herod and John the Baptist

"Salome, Second Version" by the German painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)
"Salome, Second Version" by the German painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)

When Harper was born we decorated the nursery in a Noah’s Ark theme…images of Noah and of animals entering a large wooden boat  two-by-two. It’s a common enough decorating scheme for kids' rooms.

I mention it because this week at Bible study we discussed how weird it is that the beheading of John the Baptists isn’t a common decorating scheme for kid’s rooms.

Because this is just too gruesome a tale to show up on rolls of juvenile wall paper.

In case you missed the details, here’s what happened:

So Herod is the ruler of the region, and while vacationing in Rome he gets the hots for his brother’s wife who he then marries. John the Baptist, then suggests that maybe that’s not ok.

Now, Herod likes John, as much as anybody can like a crazy bug-eating prophet who lives outdoors and speaks consistently inconvenient truths. Truths such as it’s not ok to marry your brother’s wife, which, incidentally, is the truth that when spoken, got him arrested to begin with. 

It also got John on the bad side of Herod’s new illegal wife Heroditas. She did not like John. Then when Herod throws himself a big birthday party his daughter-in-law Salome dances for him and all the other half-drunk generals and CEOs and celebrities who were there. 

We don’t know the exact nature of her dance but we do know that it “pleased” Herod enough that he offered to give her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. So, you know, I don’t think it was the Chicken dance.

Have we Christianized Jesus?

The Christianized Jesus -- the turning of a radical into a conservative shadow of his former self -- explains our problem of establishing and celebrating freedom fighters today. It is important that our progressive heroes be given their deserved fame, an accurately reported fame, and this is crucial in ways that impact our own activism.

Jesus of Nazareth was not a Peak Performance Strategist as the prosperity preachers would have it. Nor was he a foreigner-hating patriot as the tea party would argue. Obviously American politicians and their lobbyists pursue so many policies that are against the teachings of Jesus but are supported by mainstream Christian opinion. In fact, Jesus' parables and sayings push the spiritual revolution of gift economies, and of justice through radical forgiveness.

The Importance of Sharing Our Stuff

"And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children." --Matthew 14:13-21

Immediately before the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer's head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the multitude fed on the beach (a detail unique to Matthew's version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John's demise: Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and serves up the plated head to her mother. (That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew's gospel - recall also the women who appear in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one -- is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas's 1990 essay in Theology Today).

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