Barbara Brown Taylor and John the Baptist

At this point, my fascination with John the Baptist is no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. Perhaps that is why I want to feature Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon “Wherever the Way May Lead.” If you desire to read the sermon in its entirety, I recommend you purchase Home By Another Way, it is the second sermon of thirty nine that she includes in her book. What I would like to do here is to highlight portions that demonstrate some of her strengths of storytelling and ability to put words together in ways that not only keep our attention but open us up for truth.

She wants to tell about the good news of Jesus. And she starts like this “Mark’s Gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear. There are no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, no wise men from the east following a star, no big-eyed animals standing around a straw-stuffed manger…“ For Mark, “the good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness of Judea with an old-timey prophet named John.”

Brown Taylor tells us that from what she knows about John she would have gone out of her way not to see him. He reminds her too much of “those street evangelists who wave their bibles at you and tell you that you are going straight to hell if you do not repent right now.” Yet, she does point out a big difference between them and John. While a street evangelist is likely to get in your face and dare you to ignore them, John set up shop in the middle of nowhere and people had to go to a lot of trouble to hear what he had to say.

This is especially interesting for those who are from Jerusalem. Why not just stay, attend extra services at the temple, or make an appointment with a priest. To go out of the way to hear John meant people were looking for something that temple was not supplying for them. She spells it out like this “The Holy Spirit had gotten all but covered up in Jerusalem, with pretend piety and temple taxes and priestly hocus pocus. The flame was all but snuffed out under the weight of all that foppery, so God moved it – out into the wilderness, where the air was sharp and clean, out under the stars where it was fanned by the most socially unacceptable character anyone could imagine.”

John was announcing an arrival. “Someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready, to prepare the way, so that when he came he could walk a straight path right to their doors.”

John was the messenger. “And the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness. People were drawn to him, apparently, not only because of who he was and what he said but also because of what he offered them – a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again.”

By “setting up shop in the wilderness, he proclaimed his freedom from so-called civilization, with all its rules and requirements. He called people to wake up, to turn around, so that they would not miss the new thing God was doing right before their eyes.

“The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering in Mary’s ear or a parent telling a child a story or a skinny prophet standing knee-deep in a river.” She goes on to say “The good news is always beginning somewhere in the world, for those with ears to hear and hearts to go wherever the way may lead.”


An Advent Sermon

“An Unorthodox Christmas Announcement.” Mark 3.1-6.

Take a look at Christmas cards you have received. Christmas cards you have sent. Christmas cards still on the shelves at the store. You will find manger scenes and shepherd scenes. You will find wise men traveling from afar. You will find quaint scenes of evergreens in winter. You will find animals with snow in the background. You will find Santa. Guess who you will not find – John the Baptist.

Yet the birth of Jesus is significantly tangled up with the birth of John the Baptist. Just read the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. What does John bring to this season we call Advent? What does he have to say to us at this time of year? John is a bit of an oddity. He has long hair and an untrimmed beard. He never cut his hair. Those guys at Duck Dynasty were not the first to sport that look. He had a strange diet. He did not receive many RSVPS’ for his holiday open house. Most of us prefer something other than locusts at our gatherings.

We cannot help but notice that Mark starts his Gospel by telling us this is about the good news of Jesus and then immediately begins talking about John the Baptist. John interrupts the Gospel. Just as he interrupts history. Just as he interrupts Advent and our holiday plans. John disrupts our lives to tell us that now is the time to prepare for the one coming.

John was a preacher. He preached that one was coming. Fred Craddock tells us he was no candle in the sanctuary, more like a bonfire in the wilderness. A stump would serve as his pulpit. The sun and moon served as his chandeliers. John was a wild man. Guys like this fascinate me. I have purchased books just because the word wild was in the title. I like to emphasize the wild in wilderness.

It is true, at Christmas we overlook John as we think of others. Mary and Joseph come to mind. Even King Herod seems more a part of the story than John. We are more likely to think of George Bailey, Clark Griswald or Scott Calvin than John as someone who belongs this time of year. No wonder he is often overlooked.

Yet there is something about John that seems to fit perfectly for Advent. Our text says that John came as a messenger to prepare the way for the one coming. John is always pointing toward the coming one. The gospel tells us that even while in the womb he leaped for joy when pregnant Mary walked into the room. This does not stop when he becomes an adult. He comes to “Prepare the way for the one coming.” He tells us “After me comes the one more powerful than I… I am not worthy to take off his sandals… I baptize with water – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

The only son of a priest would have had responsibilities and obligations to his family and to society. He was supposed to be a priest. He was supposed to marry and have children who would grow up to be priests. At some point John turned his back on this obligation. He turned his back on everything most important for one born into his position and headed for the wilderness. And there he announced that one was coming.

John is a reminder that our significance is not found in ourselves. Our significance is not because of our skills, our histories, our futures or our upside. Our significance, our very identity is found outside ourselves – in our relationship to Jesus. We cannot discover who we really are by taking a deeper look inside ourselves. The self-help section at Barnes and Noble cannot help us here. John the Baptist tells us, our identity is in Jesus. Identity and significance is found beyond mother and father and family. John reminds us we find who we really are in relationship to the one who is coming.

It is Advent. I am the un-Baptist. I may like to think I am drawn to the wilderness. Yet I live in modern convenience. John is eating locusts and wild honey. I am trying to include greens and whole grains into my diet. John is wearing camel’s hair clothes. I am looking for something more comfortable. But John reminds me of an important Advent truth. My identity comes from outside myself. I can only know who I really am in relationship to Jesus.

Do not expect a Christmas card with John the Baptist on the front. Do not expect Macy’s to include him in a display to help sell merchandise. It would be a surprise to find someone hanging an ornament to commemorate his role in the story. Yet he is not here by accident. As then, John points us toward the one who caused him to leap while still in his mother’s womb. As then, he points us toward Jesus.

Fred Craddock and John the Baptist

One of my favorite biblical characters is John the Baptist. Perhaps that is why I enjoy Fred Craddock’s sermon “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” The following excerpts allow us to see some of the skill of Craddock as he introduces the Baptist.

Have you ever heard John preach? “A lot of people did. If you take all the Gospels together, all the Gospels together, they came from what today we would call Lebanon, Syrophoenicia, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Arabia. Think about it. In the desert. Standing under the burning sun, sand swirling in your rice, people standing together who had sworn on their mothers grave, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with those people!’ Jews and Arabs standing together because, when the Word of God is preached, you tend to forget why it is that you hate this person next to you.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “He was an oddity. He had long hair, and when I say he had long hair, I don’t mean he just had long hair. It wasn’t like the young businessmen in Atlanta with a little ponytail. He never cut his hair. I mean, he never cut his hair. He had a long beard, not a neat beard like some of you have. I mean, he had never trimmed his beard. He was a Nazarite. And he was strange. And dressed in an unusual way – camel’s hair and a leather band around the waist. And his food – he never went home with anybody for lunch, and I’m sure no one accepted his invitation.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “Here was no chef offering up fancy dishes. He broke the bread of God with his bare hands and said ‘Eat it and live.’ He was no politician trying to make yes sound like no and no sound like yes. He said, ‘The judge is coming, and I’m here to serve subpoenas.’ He was no candle in the sanctuary, he was a prairie fire with a stump or rock as his pulpit. The sun and moon and stars as chandeliers. And the Jordan River, his baptistry.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “It must have been persuasive, because all the multitudes came out there. And when the sermon was over, they came over and said, ‘John, what are we to do?’ And he said, ‘If you have any food, share it. If you have any clothes, share them.’ The tax collectors came and said, ‘What are we to do?’ He said, ‘Don’t take any more than is your due.’ And the soldiers were standing on the rim of the crowd, and when everyone else was gone, they shuffled awkwardly up to the pulpit and said, ‘Any word for us?’ And he said, ‘No violence and don’t intimidate the people and don’t forage around here trying to supplement your income. Be content with your wages’… Did you ever hear him preach? It’s kind of frightening… What’s frightening about listening to John preach is that he puts you in the presence of God. And that’s what everybody wants, and that’s what everybody doesn’t want.”

Did you ever hear John preach? “He said, ‘God’s Messiah is coming. The kingdom is at the door. God’s Messiah is right next door.’ What a thrilling thing! Oh, of course, everybody jumped at that, like it was going to be the cure for everything. They were going to be turned around, of course, because their old motto, ‘Where the Messiah is, there is no misery,’ was going to be reversed: ‘Where there is misery, there is the Messiah.’ But they didn’t know it then. How exciting it was, and hope filling it was.”

“Did you ever hear John preach? If you haven’t, you will. Because the only way to Nazareth is through the desert. Well, that’s not really true. You can get to Nazareth without going through the desert. But you won’t find Jesus.”

Preaching During Advent

Preaching during Advent may not require an earth shattering sermon. But it does require that we prepare listeners for earth shattering news. (No matter how else we describe it, God coming to earth to live with us is earth shattering news). Tradition becomes helpful for us as we are given four weeks of expectation before Christmas. Four supportive themes emerge during our preparation – hope, peace, joy and love.

David Case used to facilitate discussions leading up to Advent and encouraged us to see this liturgical season as a time for preparation. He handed us Advent writings that emphasized this. He demonstrated how certain texts may help us to prepare. Prior to influence from Case we, like children wanting to open gifts before Christmas, moved quickly into the Christmas narrative without preparation. Afterward, we realized that we are included in a story that insists on preparation prior to the celebration. So we spent time with the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets before the Gospel. We discussed parts of the story that pointed toward God’s arrival. Thank you Dr. Case.

The preacher is not reconstructing a nativity scene. The preacher is calling out like the prophet Isaiah “Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, Smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.” It is no accident that John the Baptist preaches this same sermon when calling the crowds to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

This is no time for sentimentality. This is preparing for a divine invasion. We are announcing the arrival of the Lord of the universe. The Creator is moving into our neighborhood. Eternity touches earth. We prepare for a touch of heaven. It is probably not an accident that heavenly beings show up at this time to announce what is taking place. It is Advent, time to preach expectation. We are practicing hope, peace, joy, and love. We are leveling mountains and filling in valleys. We are rolling out the royal carpet, preparing for earth shattering news.