Friday, December 8, 2017

John the Baptizer

In some circles people like to say that "Jesus is the reason for the season." (I don't tend to travel much in those circles!) In Advent, however - in this season of preparing for Christmas - Jesus barely makes an appearance. While we wait expectantly to celebrate the dear Savior's birth, the two central characters of the Advent Season are John the Baptist and Mary, Jesus' mother.  

John and Mary are different in so many ways. But one big thing they have in common is that both were faithful Jews. It is tempting to see John as, well, a “Baptist” I guess, and to see Mary as a good Roman Catholic girl. But of course even to say it aloud is to know that this is silly. Both are rooted in the customs and faith practices of first-century Judaism, not Christianity and especially not denominational Christianity. To understand them we need to appreciate what Christians call the "Old Testament" as the scriptures that shaped their faith as well as the first-century context of Jewish practices.  

As we think about John, it helps to remember his parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah is a priest who belongs to the priestly order of Abijah, according to Luke. (Luke 1:5) According to II Chronicles, back in the days of King David, the priests were divided into twenty-four different divisions. The eighth of these were the order of Abijah. These priests would serve in the Jerusalem temple for two weeks each year. Elizabeth traces her family lineage back to Aaron, Israel’s first priest. So Luke is suggesting that John is a “PK”—a priest’s kid; on both sides of the family. 

I think it’s kind of fun to think about that for a little bit. The guy we meet at the Jordan River is usually interpreted as a prophetic figure—a second Elijah or better still, second Isaiah, crying in the wilderness, preparing a highway in the desert, making the crooked places straight. There he is: dressed in his camel hair and his breath smelling of wild locusts and preaching repentance. 

But the tradition suggests that he came from a more "traditional" family. What might it be like to imagine how it is that John moves from what was no doubt an expectation that he, too, would become a priest to the journey that got him out there in the wilderness? How might his "roots" help to give him those "wings?"

Elizabeth and Zechariah are an older couple who’ve not been able to have kids. That rings bells for those who know the Hebrew Bible. We know about Abraham and Sarah and the promise delayed, and Sarah’s laughter when she finds out she is pregnant. We also know about Elkanah and Hannah, crying in the temple because she is distraught about not having children. And then Samuel is born. It might be interesting to think about Isaac and Samuel—two kids born to elderly parents. Most of us probably can think of at least one friend, an only child born born to parents late in life. It is a different kind of upbringing than people who grow up in larger families with younger parents; usually it's a very grown-up world. 

So when Luke tells us that Elizabeth was "barren" (that is of course the only way that first-century people could describe a childless couple, even if old Zechariah had a low sperm count) we are meant to remember these other old women who became mothers. Elizabeth herself tells us when the EPT turns blue that "she had endured disgrace for years." So few words, and yet it doesn’t take much imagination to enter into that world. These two people, getting on in years with their morning rituals: Zechariah puts the water on for tea, Elizabeth makes the oatmeal: morning liturgies and rituals that seem like they will continue until one of them dies, without interruption. And then all of a sudden their world is turned upside down. 

Zechariah is at work—on duty in the temple where it is his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord, the holy of holies. I have a little note in one of my Bibles that this is a privilege that would be afforded to a priest only once in his lifetime. So Zechariah is going about this holy work when an angel appears to him on the right side of the altar of incense. And as always happens in the Bible, Zechariah doesn’t say, “hey Clarence, how is it going?” He is scared out of his wits. Fear overwhelms him. You know what is coming next of course, it’s what angels always say in the Bible:  fear not Zechariah. And then the message:

  • Your prayer has been heard. 
  • Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant. 
  • Name the kid John.
The message continues: this grandchild of priests will have the spirit and power of Elijah and will turn the hearts of parents to their children and of children to their parents.

There is one more thing. Zechariah is speechless. Literally. As a sign that all this will come to pass, the poor guy comes out the temple and isn’t able to speak for nine months, until the child is born. When his son is born, however, he sings this amazing song. (See Luke 1:67-80) Luke then goes on to tell us that “John grew, and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to lead Israel.”

We meet him again every Advent, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and preparing the way for the one who is coming after him. But I wonder what his life was like in kindergarten or if he had a date to the senior prom. I wonder what was going on in his life in his early twenties that led to his sense of vocation and how his parents felt about all of that.

I'm not preaching this Advent on John (nor on Mary for that matter) but both are shaping my prayers. With John, it's his commitment to the truth and his awareness that his job is to point to the one who is coming - to Jesus. He prepares the way; he isn't The Way. I don't look or sound much like John the Baptizer, but I think this is what I am called to as a twenty-first century priest as well: to tell the truth, even when people aren't interested in hearing it. And to point to Jesus. It's not about me. It's not even about the Episcopal Church I love. It's not about building a fan club - or seeking approval. It's about Jesus. Our job is to prepare the way.