John the Baptist is sort of like the New Testament equivalent of Gritty, the new Flyers mascot. He is sort of terrifying/horrifying, sort of cute in his own way, and shows up everywhere, or at least, in the case of John, at the beginning of all the Gospels—right before Christmas. Right when we least want something scary or unsettling showing up. When all we want is make a beeline for the manger, pick up a sweet, innocent baby, and start to sing a few verses of Joy to the World. And instead we have John calling us a brood of vipers, scaring the bejeebers out of us with talk of being cut down by an ax or thrown into a fire, and then deepening our panic by telling us to give our stuff away.
So what is he doing here, ruining the run up to Christmas? As great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor imagines, John is sort of God’s guard dog—making sure no one wanders into the Holy Stable unaware. Anyone who gets freaked out and scared off by John is unlikely to be able to handle the One who comes after him. So we are being given fair warning. And, though John and Jesus turn out to be quite different from each other, with quite different ideas of what God is all about, it is actually a good thing that we trip over John before getting to the manger, because John’s judgment precedes Jesus’ grace. They go together because those who know nothing of judgment need nothing of grace.
John seems to have primarily been in the business of repentance, of turning around and going in a different direction. He talks of it endlessly, and specifies that the baptism he offers is all about repentance. John was not about baptizing people to make them Christians—he was not doing what we think of as baptism. And John had followers of his own who would actually become fierce critics of Jesus’ disciples. No, when John went into the river with whoever showed up to be baptized, he was clear that he was in the business of cleaning people up—making them presentable for their audience with God. And John thought that was urgent business because God was going to show up any day now. So his ministry was time sensitive—and if scaring the heck out of people was what was needed to get them to repent and clean up their act, so be it. John saw his task as waking people up—helping them see how much they had wandered off God’s path and how covered they were with the muck of sin.
His offer was to get in the water with them and scrub them clean. If they could say what was wrong, he would wash it off them. Forever. Well, God would. All they had to do was consent, repent, and return to the Lord. And before they were even towelled dry they were off on a new beginning. Whatever they had done in the past was over and done, it no longer had power over them. What they had said, what had happened to them would no longer run their lives. The voice in their head telling them how worthless they were, nagging at them to be perfect, was silenced. And they would begin to hear God’s voice calling them beloved.
So, despite being the Gritty of Palestine, John actually had a lot to offer. People flocked to him. Lines of people went from the Jordan River way off into the desert. And some of them even hung around after they had been baptized just to watch him do the same thing for others, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We might hear that as something of a threat, but to his hearers it sounded a lot more like a promise. We might hear guilt, but they seemed to hear pardon. Which makes me wonder if a big part of the problem with how we hear John is our resistance to the whole idea of repentance.
It sounds very, biblical. Super judgy. Something we know will hurt. We think it means we will have to acknowledge that we are rotten. That we will have to say out loud how selfish, petty, sinful, and deeply defective we are—how disappointed God is in us—and how really, really, really sorry we are. It definitely means getting rid of all our pride—because everyone knows pride is the root of a good deal of evil.
Only, what if, what if, it is not? What if it is not pride that is the problem but rather despair? Our despair that things will never change for us, that we can never change, that we are stuck in the mess we have made of life and there is no hope for us, no chance for a turning around and a new beginning.
My guess is we all know people who are pretty much dead from despair, it may even be the one we see when we look in the mirror. And there is no one way to die from despair. Could be we recently lost our job and after several months of trying and not succeeding in finding a new one, end up just sitting on the sofa with a six pack of beer watching tv all day. Or maybe we were abused as a child and, even though we are now well into middle age, have never let anyone close, have definitely kept the years old promise that we would never, ever be hurt like that again.
I suspect that, for most of us, despair might be a much more pervasive problem than pride. And it’s not just me, the Church too, has noticed. One of our baptismal vows is a sort of “John the Baptist vow”—“Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord”? The answer, of course, is “I will with God’s help”. I love this vow. It acknowledges that we all sin, but that is not the focus of the vow and that is not where we should fix our gaze. The vow is about keeping our eye on despair and not letting it get the better of us. About knowing that there is always the chance, the offer, to turn back to God.
Those of us who have taken these vows, or had them taken on our behalf, have committed to a life of repentance and return have vowed not to give up on ourselves. Whether we have to return once or once an hour, we have said we will not give up on ourselves. We have committed to telling the truth and turning around. We have committed to never saying never—I will never get it, I’ll never learn, I’ll never change. Because we believe in God’s goodness more than our our own propensity to screw up.
The kind of repentance we think of first, the loud wailing of how sinful I am and how deeply sorry I am, is actually quite self-focused. It is all about me, the miserable sinner. No wonder on some deep level it repels us. The healing kind of repentance is the one God is most interested in. It spends very little time looking in the mirror and a lot of time looking at God’s kingdom. It has a lot more faith in God’s power to make new than in our power to make a mess.
It is what John offered, a wake up call, a fresh start, an antidote to despair. John was offering not an end but a beginning. He know that someone was coming after him who had something much more potent to offer. He didn’t really know who that was or what that was, but he knew it was on the way, that God was up to something. And in the meantime, he was happy to be the guard dog—herding people in the right direction and nipping at their heels to make sure they were alert when whoever it was showed up.
I am guessing that there was no one more surprised than John when one day he looked up at the river bank and saw not a wild eyed, ax wielding, flame throwing Messiah but rather One who came preaching love, who was gentle as a child, and who even gentled John.