“Every year when Advent rolls around, we hear John’s voice shouting out in the wilderness. He draws a crowd, demands people repent, and offers to baptize them as a sign that they have. But where did John come from?"
Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
December 4, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright Pastor Matt Skinner begins a reflection on our text with, “I wonder who baptized John.” It is a provocative question. Every year when Advent rolls around, we hear John’s voice shouting out in the wilderness. He draws a crowd, demands people repent, and offers to baptize them as a sign that they have. But where did John come from? What set him on this path? Is he alone or is he part of a movement? Is his baptism a form of commissioning? And if it is, are there people supporting him, encouraging him, guiding him? Some scholars have speculated that he was one of the Essenes – “a semi-ascetic Jewish sect who expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism.” They “flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE” and are associated with the Dead Sea scrolls. So maybe they were his people. Maybe they molded his faith. Maybe their practice of baptism seemed like a great symbol of washing clean and starting fresh. Maybe baptism had proved so important in his life that he wanted to make it available to others. Maybe.
What we do know is that he modeled his ministry after the prophet Elijah, right down to his camel hair outfit. Elijah was famous for his relationship with YHWH, his bold speech, and his deeds of power. He was to act as the forerunner for the Messiah. As you heard, John knows he is not the Messiah. He acknowledges that one is coming who will be much more powerful. We also know that he is following the pattern of Isaiah as a voice crying out to prepare the way for the Lord. So maybe, like the prophets of old, he was called by God out of nowhere. Maybe he wasn’t so much baptized as anointed to serve. Maybe, like for them, God was his source of strength and God’s Spirit his only guide. Maybe.
But we also know, from the gospel of Luke, that John is the son of a priest who served in the Temple. Ordinarily he would have followed his dad into the family business. But instead of leading worship, singing the psalms, and presiding over sacrifices, he is out in the wilderness. I wonder how that came to pass. Did Zechariah bless him and send him on his way with a heart full of pride and a bit of envy? Or was John’s non-traditional path a sign that he had broken with his father and all the structures that would have prepared him for Temple service? Maybe, like innovators of every age, he was driven (if not baptized) by the needs of the day. Maybe he saw people who were not being reached by his dad’s style of religion. Maybe he thought God was moving in a new way. Maybe he had read his history and knew that God had used the wilderness as a crucible to form God’s people before and could do it again. Maybe.
Skinner also says the best sermons are the ones we need to hear ourselves. They make “the word of God tangible in our weary flesh and creaking bones.” They slip past our filters and either poke us in the ribs or give us a hug. They say what God needs to say to others and to us. If he is right, what does John’s sermon in the wilderness say about what he needed to hear? His first word was “Repent!” What did he need to repent of? Repenting, of course means to turn, to have a dramatic change of mind or direction. Was he repenting/turning from/breaking away from his years with the Essenes – a community who, despite all their holiness, had shut themselves away from the very people who needed them. Was that why he went out into the wilderness – so he could reach people? Or was he repenting/turning from/breaking away from his years of timid silence? Was that why he was using his outside voice, like the prophets before him? Or was he repenting/turning from/breaking away from his time in the Temple – a path that now felt as restrictive as his old clothes. Was he reveling in the freedom of interacting with God in the wide-open spaces where Israel had learned to trust YHWH for manna and water, for formation and direction, for the signposts of the Law and the security of the Covenant?
And what about you? As you listen to John’s sermon, what are you moved to repent of/turn from/break away from? Is there something that has drawn you out into the wilderness this year, some yearning to be closer to God, some desire to recalibrate your life? Are you moved to reach out to people that have previously been strangers to you – because of their need or their gifts? Are you finding your voice? Are you moving into a different stage of your life, with new opportunities and challenges that require you to trust God more than when your life was settled? If you answered “Yes!” to any of those questions, what is one thing that you can change during the remaining weeks of Advent that will bear good fruit?
I started this sermon out asking, who baptized John? Who taught and molded him? Who anointed and commissioned him? Who birthed and blessed him? I asked, because I have a suspicion that without those people, he never would have been able to stride out into the wilderness and call on everyone to repent. And I ask, because if you are going to repent this Advent, you will need to be sure that you are part of a community that will support you in making such changes. And most of all, anyone who repents needs to be certain that God believes that they can make those necessary changes, that they are loved, that they are worth being redeemed. Or to use John the Baptist’s language: that they are wheat, not chaff! I hope you know these things! And may God guide our repentance! Amen
 From “John and the two sides of the pulpit” his reflection on the text for workingpreacher.org, 12/1/19  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_the_Baptist  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essenes