- Pamela Jolicoeur
- Paul J. Dovre
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Dr. Paul Dovre, Interim President, Concordia College
John the Baptist: The "Going Out of Business" Evangelist
November 30, 2010
Paul J. Dovre
Texts: Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-29; Isaiah 40:1-11
When we lived in and around Chicago in my graduate student days, I had a chance to visit a very unusual and out of the way place in the city. It was called, "Bughouse Square." It was a park area where, on Saturday nights, people would gather to say whatever was on their minds. They were, to say the least, unconventional in appearance and point of view. Often they literally stood on their soapboxes calling the world around them to some new way of thinking or some new plan of action or warning them of some new apocalypse.
Whenever I read about John the Baptist, I think a little bit about "Bughouse Square." John the Baptist conducted his ministry in an out of the way place. Even though as the son of a priest, Zechariah, John was also a priest - he didn't act like it or sound like it. No, he lived in a desert, wore camel's hair and ate locusts and wild honey.
But there is indeed a significant difference between the speakers at "Bughouse Square" and John the Baptist in the wilderness. People like us who came to "Bughouse Square" came simply for amusement. The people who came to hear John the Baptist came with serious purpose. John the Baptist was taken seriously by the religious and political establishment, by the ordinary people and by God who had called him to make straight the path for the Lord's coming.
John got a lot of attention. The gospels include him as a central figure. I couldn't help but wonder as I reread the story some weeks ago - what would a modern day John the Baptist say and who would listen?
This is the season of Advent - the season we tend to overlook in our haste to claim the Black Friday specials and then the Christmas cheer. But as the worship theme suggests - we are ‘blessed to await'. That means we are not to skip Advent but to observe it as a waiting time, a perspective taking time, a time of self examination and preparation. And contemplation of John the Baptist's ministry can be very helpful. One way to contemplate the ministry of John the Baptist is to consider the three distinct roles he lived out - the roles of prophet, pastor and servant.
John's role as prophet was quite clear. He was to call people to repentance. In some respects, he was like the prophets who had preceded him - reminding people of God's law and God's call to holiness, justice and faithfulness. It had been, scholars tell us, three or four hundred years since a prophet had appeared to the Israelites and the conditions of religious, social and political corruption which had occasioned the coming of earlier prophets prevailed again at the time of John. There were, again, people pursuing false gods, living a life characterized by self indulgence and betraying the tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. People came by the thousands to see and hear and respond for they saw in this John a genuine, credible prophet.
If John came today, what would he say? How would he call us to repentance?
- In a nation with a growing gap between rich and poor, with an alarming rate of infant mortality, with soon expiring financial support for the unemployed - he would undoubtedly remind us of God's law of care and justice.
- To economists and politicians who play games with principles and numbers and passions - he would remind us of God's higher calling. He would tell it straight - less is not more. When we sow incredible public debts, we can expect to reap the consequences in this generation or the next.
- In this coming week of December 7 remembrances, we recall our nation's lack of awareness and good sense 70 years ago in the face of a gathering war. One scholar described it in a book, "While America Slept." The difference today is that the enemy is within and we are not asleep, it is more like we are in a coma.
- And those who appeal to personal rights in every decision, he would no doubt remind us of God's first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
You could describe all of the anecdotes as signs of a sort of inner death that is occurring in our culture. For, increasingly, we have lost track of both the religious and secular narratives that once shaped our moral code. We have traded in our observance of the authority of God for the fickle constructions of our own devising. And that makes it okay to name our own gods, to ignore the realities of budgets that don't balance, of human needs that are ignored, of personal dalliances that cause no guilt, of campaign rhetoric that is ethically bankrupt. As we await, we do well to remember both John's call to repentance and the prophet Isaiah's warning: "The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows on it."
But, you ask, who would listen to such a message? In John's time, many did. Perhaps because they knew that some fundamental things were amiss in their lives, in the life of their society. One writer has observed that "when John summoned people to repentance, he was confronting them with a choice they know in their heart of hearts they ought to make." He spoke to conscience.
And what about today? Don't count us out. There are signs of angst among us. Note the public opinion polls which indicate our unhappiness with our political process and our uncertainties about the future. And perhaps on a personal level, there may be both indifference and guilt inside each of us. We note things "out there" and "in here" don't square with God's law. And expediency as an answer makes conscience shake.
Prepare the way - part of John the prophet's task was to call us back to recognition of the distance between God's will and our practice. And his testimony comes alive for all of us today as we again, await Christ.
John also had a role as pastor. He was an unusual pastor in a couple of ways. First, his parish was not in the midst of the populace but in a wilderness place, a limestone formation near the Dead Sea said to be one of the worst deserts in the world. And instead of his going to the people in centers of population, the people came to John and in large numbers. And he was prepared to receive them. Part of the reason for his wilderness life was contemplation. He had time to study, to hear and to consider the word from God. That contemplation gave him a certain clarity about God and about his own calling. And people recognized in him the voice of God.
John behaved unconventionally in another way - in his practice of baptism. Ritual washings were part of the very fabric of Jewish religious life. When a Gentile became a convert to the Jewish faith, he or she would undergo a baptism which symbolized a cleansing of all the pollution of past life. In John's ministry, he called Jews as well as Gentiles to this baptism in the realization that no one was immune from the violation of God's law - everybody needed the cleansing of baptism.
John's pastoral role reminds each of us that the need for the washing away of sin is a universal condition now as it was then - regardless of our station or faith, our piety or our profession. Denying that reality can only lead us to increasing levels of guilt on the one hand or a pompous, hollow self righteousness on the other.
And what the people of Judea and Jerusalem needed, John the pastor offered them - a baptism of repentance. What an incredible experience it must have been for folks concerned enough to tramp along dusty and rutty roads for miles and days to hear a ragtag pastor call out their sins and then invite them to a cleansing. That was John the baptizing pastor. His call to repentance comes fresh to us in this season of Advent. It is part of our preparation for the Christ who is to come.
John's third role was that of servant. Letty Russell, a distinguished theologian, described John as a "going out of business preacher" for he understood that his ministry was a passing thing - that Jesus would follow. John understood that he was the one who would prepare the way for one whose "shoes he would not be worthy to stoop down and untie." John had his disciples and the evidence is that many of his followers felt that he was the promised messiah. But the biblical witness deliberately play down that view and John clearly understood his own very specific role as herald, as preparer.
John knew he was a servant who would be going out of business for what Jesus offered was more than a call to repentance and more than a baptism of repentance. He offered a baptism of the Holy Spirit - a baptism that not only cleansed unrighteousness but renewed and restored people into a relationship with God.
So John's ministry was a servant ministry for he looked beyond himself in this particular calling to the God who called him. John the Baptist could forget himself and point to God.
I am no John the Baptist but, like you, I have a calling. In the first instance, my calling and yours is, like John the Baptist's, to prepare the way of the Lord. We do well to follow John's example by studying the word and the will of God, by renewing the narrative of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the rest. And we would be faithful to John's legacy in examining the conduct of our lives and the life of our society in the light of God's truth. It would be faithful to cleanse from our lives and the life of our society the impurities and the imperfections that abound.
But ultimately, we go out of business for while God's work is surely our own, only God in Christ can complete our salvation. That is why John went out of business and it is why, ultimately, we servants go out of business, too. And we are free to do that, safe and secure in the mighty and gentle arms of a God "who will feed His flock like a shepherd and (He will) gather the lambs in His arms." Amen.