January 8, 2012
John the Baptist has for me always been a fascinating character study. While the other disciples come across as gentle, even tentative, and certainly, with exceptions, dutiful to Jesus, John has the rebel in him. He comes across as a guy who didn’t mess with pretence, who wasn’t big on pretty words, who told it like it is, whether you wanted to hear it or not. He was rough around the edges, and he is often depicted in art – and in our own minds – as a little scruffy, a little disheveled, and usually with crazy hair and an intensity that would make a crowd weary even while they couldn’t resist hearing what he had to say.
He is the ideal forerunner to Jesus, the man of hard truths, – and often seems closer to an equal to Jesus than even Peter. What impresses us most of all, of course, is his unwavering faith, and his courage in the face is adversity. We have no sense of John ever faltering in his belief in Jesus. We are offered no sense, as well, that he tried to take power himself – other than preaching about the coming of someone better and purer then himself. At every turn he refutes those who ask if he is the Messiah: “I am not worthy to stoop and untie the thong of his sandals,” he says humbly. And when the day arrives when he meets Jesus, he refuses at first to baptize him – feeling himself unworthy. He follows through only when Jesus insists. If there are any campfire chats I’d like to listen in on, the ones between John and Jesus would rank near the top, if not the top. And we can all wonder what might have happened had John the Baptist been present on that fateful day in Jerusalem instead of being stuck, as he was by then, in prison. He was not, after all, the kind of guy to stay silent. If Jesus came to draw people in and bring them closer to God, to spell out the good news of the Gospel, John was the perfect rabble-rouser to shake them awake to hear the message. He prepared the way for the Holy Spirit. Directly, the gospel describes him carrying out the very baptism that allows the Holy Spirit to come to Jesus, and for God to name Jesus as the Chosen One.
Where are our rabble-rousers? Who is shaking us awake so that we might also receive the Holy Spirit? We might look to the protestors of the previous year – those in the Middle East, and the Occupy Protests held across Europe and North America as trying to rouse us. Virtually every week, there is a protest on Parliament Hill, but the media rarely pay attention to them anymore. Protestors, by nature, are crying out against the current system, but they don’t often come armed with many solutions. In that sense, we are discouraged by them. They are flinging stones, when we want the solutions, the resolve of Jesus to bring answers. Too often, the stones break glass, the protestors dwindle, and the rebellious voices drift away. Then things go back as they were. In fact, we can imagine that without Jesus’s following up – and coming through on his behalf – the warning and protesting voice of John the Baptist would have come to nothing.
I once read a piece on the complications of solving poverty in which an advocate said: “I do not need to have all the answers to raise the questions.” That was John: he came in with the questions, and he did a fine job of putting us on the hot seat. For doing so, he paid with his life. But John could not do it alone; he needed Jesus to follow up with some answers, to be thoughtful about solutions. It’s no coincidence that the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as a flame – like a spark, you might say – an inspiration to action.
It’s a New Year – a time when we think about new beginnings, when we assess who we are. In our history as a church, we are, by our own definition, the protesters. The people who spoke out – beginning with Martin Luther – about what they saw wrong in the world and with the church hierarchy at the time, who were more focused on keeping the average person in line, and uncertain of God’s message, than giving them the spark of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther cast some hard stones, like John. Unlike John, he made some grievous mistake in his interpretation of Scripture in his later writings. He forgot to always make way for the Gospel. But if I don’t need all the answers to ask the questions, I don’t need to agree with the whole of a person to admire the core of who they are.
What will we do now with the spark of the Holy Spirit and our role, in our faith, as the protestor church, the people of protest? There is value in throwing stones when the world is asleep, but what do we do if they don’t wake up? We have only to look within ourselves for the answer – and perhaps that is where we should look first. Consider our New Year’s resolutions – the things we want to fix about ourselves: To be more organized, for instance, or less critical. To hold our tempers better, or work harder on making our families happier. What are these but a protest against self – an inward stone- throwing? It’s all fine and well to know what’s wrong, but the next step is to find the answer to fix it. That is what moves us from John the Baptist to Jesus; from rabble rouser to solution-maker. The Bible put it in 10 steps — the commandments – which, we all know, if we followed truly, would make the world a pretty fine place, or at least nearly so. We need steps as well, and they don’t have to be big ones. Perhaps we turn off our blackberries in the evening. We learn to count to ten. We focus on new habits. We consider the feelings and views of others.
Those steps are actually part of a larger movement. Improving ourselves has a trickle-down effect. This is what Jesus understood, and it is why the Gospel begins ultimately with self: the act of treating others as we would want to be treated, or loving others as God loves us. It is hard for us, who are so wealthy, to resist the urge to give when we see the world from this light. It is hard for us, picking up the stones of protest, to consider the next step. Ultimately, it is the act of moving ourselves outside of ourselves, the act of passing on the spirit, which God lays upon each one of us.