Reflection October 28, 2018
"John, the First Baptist" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
In our Bible Study class, we recently explored that mysterious man who hangs out in the wilderness and eats locusts and wild honey. We know him as John the Baptist. Both of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, came from the priestly line of Aaron. So in the combination of Jesus and John we have both the priestly line and the kingly line of David represented.
John points the way to Jesus. What does this mean to us today? We have ample understanding of where Jesus can be found. And yet John still serves his ordained purpose. John is the forerunner to Jesus. Among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, John is not known as John the Baptist but as John the Forerunner. He runs ahead of Jesus, shouting the name of Jesus, telling people to prepare for the One coming after him.
And how are we to prepare for Jesus? According to John, we prepare through repentance. We prepare by admitting that we’ve failed – that we’ve sinned – that we‘ve missed the mark in ways, great and small. And who among us is in need of repentance? If John is to be trusted – then we all stand in need of repentance. And our repentance must be continual, on-going, as long as we walk this wounded world.
Is it not clear that the greatest argument against the existence of God are those people who claim to believe in God yet act in ways that are truly ungodly? How is it possible to believe in God – to believe that we will all stand before God – and yet act so cruelly towards each other?
Here is an indictment from the former Franciscan priest, Brennan Manning: “The single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”
John the Baptist warned the people of his time that repentance was needed lest everything fall apart. But John’s warning continues to echo throughout time. Isn’t this what happens when we abandon God? Doesn’t everything fall apart?
Without God there is no life. Without God there is no love. Without God there is no hope. John the Baptist knew this. John the Baptist preached this. And his message is still being preached to us.
As the theologian John Shea wrote about the Baptist: “Try no tricks on John. Parade no pedigree. Who you are will not help you. If the children of Abraham and stones have equal standing in his eyes, you will not impress him with anything you pull from your wallet. Also do not ready your brain for debate. He is not much for talk. He has washed his mind with sand. Injunctions are his game.
“If you have two coats or two loaves of bread, share them. Do not bully, do not exploit, do not falsely accuse. Do not object that these actions are economically naïve, culturally inappropriate, insufficiently religious. Just do them.”
Does John still challenge us? Do his words continue to strike at every heart that has become accustomed to injustice, acclimated to indifference, accepting of personal and social sin? “Do not bully, do not exploit, do not falsely accuse.” We must admit that we’ve failed – that we’ve sinned. And we would well remember what the spiritual writer Richard Rohr notes in Falling Upward: “Jesus is never upset with sinners; he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners.”
What this means for us is that we must never get trapped in the isolation of our own sinfulness. There are many ways to sin – but I believe most sin boils down to one flawed human propensity – the propensity to isolate oneself – to become self-contained – to become solipsistic and narcissistic – to mistakenly believe the world revolves around me – to live a life primarily focused on me.
This is not how a Christian is called to live. A Christian is called to live with a primary focus on serving others. As the theologian John Sachs makes clear in The Christian Vision of Humanity: “Life… involves a constant process of dying to sin, a change of heart from self-centeredness, which is the root of sin, to an attitude of self-surrendering love and service for others.” Would this were the case in our political realm!
Again some wise words about the Baptist from Shea: “There is a pointer of the way, a map of a man, who when you try to read him, reads you. Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion, a roar that once overrode Judea. You may not heed but you will hear his insistent, intruding, unsoothing voice.
“Some say this thunder is because his father stumbled mute from the Holy of Holies, tongue tied by an angel who was peeved by the old man’s stubborn allegiance to biological laws. The priest was silenced in the temple because he thought flesh could stop God.”
Flesh cannot stop God! This is a message and a warning that echoes throughout time from John, the First Baptist! May we who carry the name “Baptist” heed what John taught us through his thunderous voice!
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643