Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Outside the Beltway: A Sermon

Outside the Beltway
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 5th, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent


Gospel of Jesus 1:1-15

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 11, 13. Mark 1:4-6, 15; Matthew 3:1-2, 4-10; Luke 3:7-15

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins. And everyone from the Judean countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem streamed out to him and got baptized by him in the Jordan River, admitting their sins. And John wore a mantle made of camel hair and had a leather belt around his waist and lived on locusts and raw honey.

John would call out: “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.”

John would say to the crowds that came out to get baptized by him, “You slimy bastards! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don’t even start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ Let me tell you, God can raise up children Abraham right out of these rocks. Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the trees. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and tossed into the fire.”

The crowds would ask him, “So what should we do?”

And he would tell them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to get baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”

And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”

The people were filled with expectation and everyone was trying to figure out whether John might be the Anointed.

John’s answer was the same to everyone: “Someone more powerful than I will succeed me, whose sandal straps I am not fit to bend down and untie. I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”

What is John doing in the wilderness?

What sort of baptism is he performing?

Is it for personal ritual piety or is he preparing people for a revolt?

Dominic Crossan in his book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography helps us get a handle on John the Baptist and what he was doing. Crossan writes that the
“Wilderness is not just sand and the Jordan is not just water”. P. 46.
Water could be found in many places. John wasn’t simply baptizing with water. He was baptizing with water from the Jordan.

The Wilderness and the Jordan River were powerful symbols for the Jewish people. It was in the wilderness that according to Torah the Israelites spent forty years wandering with Moses. It was a time of preparation, of penitence, of purification, of accounting for sins in order to prepare them for the Promised Land.

After these 40 years, from this Wilderness, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land Joshua marched the Israelites. They circled Jericho with trumpets until the walls came a tumblin’ down.

That is the story. It is fiction, to be sure, but it is their fiction. It is how they defined themselves. In the time of John the Baptist, it isn’t the Canaanites who need to be defeated but the Romans. The Romans with their armies are in the Promised Land. John the Baptist is preparing the crowds. He is creating to use Crossan’s phrase, “ticking apocalyptic time-bombs” to go back into the Promised Land and await God who is to come with fire and apocalyptic judgment separating wheat from chaff, the good from the bad.

John the Baptist is an apocalyptic prophet in the stream of the Hebrew prophets before him, announcing the Empire of God that is closing in. Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote his work in the first century around the same time the New Testament was written, writes about John:
Herod had put him [John, surnamed the Baptist] to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.
That seems pretty mild, doesn’t it? Why would Herod put anyone to death for baptizing people for sins or for exhorting people to live good pious lives? Josephus gives it away as he continues:
When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake….John, because of Herod’s suspicious, was brought in chains to Machaerus, and there put to death. (Crossan, Jesus, pp. 33-4)
Now we have words like “crowds, aroused, sedition, uprising, upheaval”. That doesn’t sound like harmless piety any longer.

But Josephus gives no details or explanations.

The Gospels seem also to want to whitewash John the Baptist.

I think that both John the Baptist and Jesus who was baptized by John, who accepted John’s vision, were both about resisting Empire and preparing people to resist Empire. The writers of the Gospels who told their stories and who told them after the disaster of the Jewish Revolt and massacre at the hands of the Romans had to be careful how they told this story. They concealed as they revealed. They couldn’t be seen as overtly anti-Roman.

They paint John the Baptist as little more than a forerunner to Jesus who then becomes a supernatural figure who dies for our sins, our personal peccadilloes. Once the prophets go mainstream and become tools for Empire, they lose their teeth. They no longer are able to call Empire to task. They are no longer able to prepare people to resist Empire.

We are here now in the second decade of the 21st century. We are the inheritors of Christianity. We are "raking through the ashes of Christendom" (via), looking for symbols, figures, narratives, mythologies, and rituals to help us face the challenges of our time.

John the Baptist, from the wilderness, outside the beltway, off the grid, eating locusts and wild honey, might be a helpful symbol for us. He speaks from a vantage point of critique. He can see from the outside what we on the inside cannot see. He instructs us. He shows us what Empire is doing, the destruction it is causing, the waste it produces, and the death it causes. He baptizes us, redefining us, providing us with a role to play and the spiritual strength to play it. He sends us back in to be leaven, to witness to a different way of living, to speak the truth.

There are many modern day John the Baptists. On my list (and you may have a list of your own) include Matthew Fox, Bill McKibben, Michael Ruppert, David Ray Griffin, Joanna Macy, Dianne Dumanoski, Richard Heinberg, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Walter Wink, all telling us as John the Baptist, did 2000 years ago, “the axe is at the root of the tree.”

Simply put: Empire is unjust. It is unsustainable. It is changing. Be prepared.

John gets specific. He speaks about economic justice.

Crowds ask him,
“What should we do?”
He tells them,
“Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”
The principles of corporatism that have taken hold of our elected leadership have taken what John the Baptist has said and twisted it. They think John the Baptist really meant this:
“Whoever has two shirts should find someone who has one and take it too.”
Those are the folks who want to lower taxes for the wealthy while the two million people whose unemployment benefits are running out right now, this week, at Christmas, can go ahead and starve. What? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

To the toll collectors who made their living by extortion and collaboration with empire:
“Charge nothing above the official rates.”
To the soldiers he said:
“No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”
All of those statements have to do with abuse of power. He wasn’t speaking just to individuals but to an entire system of injustice and inequity embedded in Roman occupation and oppressive taxation of the poorest and most vulnerable.

How do you begin to overcome that?
You baptize individuals.
You wake folks up so they can see what is happening.
You unleash creativity within them so they can resist.
You start conversations.

This past Thursday, Dr. Matthew Johnson of Every Church A Peace Church spoke from this pulpit. He preached a sermon then did question and answer about Every Church a Peace Church. This is Dr. Johnson from the website:
Every Church A Peace Church is committed to the vision of PAXION (peace action) as the method to bring about a just social order, which entails the elimination of militarism (and its pernicious spawn of rabid nationalism masquerading as patriotism) poverty, racism in all its guises, materialism and gender bias. It is our firm conviction that these institutional realities are the structural harbingers of the violence we witness daily in our homes and streets, as well as that perpetrated by our and other governments the world over. This sequela of injustice, greed and hatred has worn the cloak of religious sanctification for centuries. ECAPC is determined to help strip it away by revealing to our local communities, nation and our world the will of God for a humble, just and merciful humanity.

We believe that if you are not actively engaged in overcoming these realities you are in complicity with an oppressive status quo. Jesus of Nazareth was no such conformist. He was a creative non-conformist. Our goal is to help summon the church to its larger call to shake off the apathy grown in the soil of a jaded consumerism, cultivated in a spiritual climate of ignorance and isolationism and take up his cross and follow him. Now is the time for us to respond with head and heart to the challenges before us. The challenges at hand provide the greatest opportunities for a true witness to the living God and her care for a morally depleted and violent world. Join us in our efforts. Become a part of God’s new movement to forge ahead in the realization of the age old vision of a beloved community.
Dr. Matthew Johnson is another to add to the list of John the Baptist types. When he was here he talked about the importance of overcoming our isolation, of connecting with one another, even as we take on particular issues. The work of PFLAG is related to the work of United Religions Initiative is related to the Alternative Giving is related to Appalachia Service Project is related to the Shepherd’s Inn is related to Green Interfaith Network and everything else I haven’t mentioned. We are all in this together.

There is much in the Christian tradition that I don’t mind letting go. As we rake through Christendom's ashes, there is much I don't mind leaving in the ash heap.

But John the Baptist I want to keep. He is the wild man from the wilderness who calls it as he sees it and wakes us up and gives us a job to do.

There is no whining in the Empire of Heaven.
No moping and complaining about how others don’t get it right.
Instead you repent of sin which simply means to me that we admit we are not infallible or as righteous as we think we are.

If we are down on ourselves we repent of thinking that way too.
We aren’t as fallible or as unrighteous as we think we are.
We are human beings in all of its mud and beauty.

We take the plunge in the water of humanity, dry ourselves off and get to work.
No work is too small.
No job is too big.
We do what we find before us to do.

We have no idea what the future will hold.
We need not be afraid.
Just awake.
There is no need to feel guilt and shame for our past nor fear our future.
We are forgiven.
We are loved.


It has been said that some of the best work done for the kingdom of God was done by people who weren’t feeling well that day.

I like that.

We don’t need to wait to have it together to do the work we have the passion to do.

I will give Reinhold Niebuhr (yet another John the Baptist figure) the last word:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

1 comment:

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Thank you John. I love my Unitarian friends, but they just aren't willing to commit, and they are afraid of real evangelism.