John the Baptizer doesn’t get it. At least, not all of it.
The Gospel text for this week is John’s fiery sermon, the only one we have from him, where he warns everyone that the Divine ax is lying at the foot of their tree, ready to cut them down if they don’t repent from their sinful ways and start again.
You can read the whole thing here, by the way. It’s from Luke 3:7-18. Go ahead and read…I’ll wait.
So, a few things about John the Baptizer, his sermons, and these verses:
- It doesn’t appear that John is happy that people are seeking repentance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” he asks. It’s almost as if he thinks that the people deserve, and should get, “what’s comin’ to them.” We like the name-calling God that John speaks of, the one who labels us “brood of vipers.” John is about Divine retribution.
- His advice for the people wondering how they should behave isn’t new or novel. For the neighbors he tells them to share with one another. For the money-makers he reminds them not to take more than their fair share. For the people in power, the soldiers, he reminds them that they can’t use their power wrongly. None of this is some big secret…it’s like my Mama always told me, “You know how to behave. Do it!”
- John’s rhetoric is so honest, so alarmist, people begin wondering if he’s the Messiah. He’s saying exactly what they expected from God: a message of warning and retribution.
But John knows he’s not the one. Something in his gut tells him it’s not him. He knows it’s about Jesus, ultimately…even if he can’t put his finger on just who Jesus is yet.
He will, but not yet.
But here’s the harsh truth about John the Baptizer: while he knows it’s about Jesus, I dare say he doesn’t know what Jesus is about.
Because Jesus, too, came preaching, but he came preaching a Gospel of repentance that was carried through grace and forgiveness, not retribution. John doesn’t get that.
Because Jesus came calling people names, but called them things like “child of God,” and “friend,” and “blessed”…without them earning it.
And Jesus, too, was asked what was required to be in God’s good graces. You can find it in Luke 18:18 or Matthew 19:16 or Mark 10:17 or John 3:1. Pick an example. Because although Jesus appears to start out with giving behavioral advice to everyone who asks, he never ends there, but eventually ends with Jesus giving them a task that they can’t accomplish.
Because God is not about better behavior, Beloved. If it were just about “being better,” then John the Baptizer’s message would be enough. But Jesus gives impossible tasks to hammer home that salvation isn’t about right behavior, but about God’s sacrificial love. John doesn’t get that.
And Jesus’ rhetoric was so honest, so authentic, but…but it wasn’t what the people wanted. They kind of wanted a God of retribution, a God who would demand right living, and separate the wheat from the chaff with a Divine winnowing hook, who would take the ax to the tree and cut down everything not up to snuff.
But instead of that we got Jesus, who’s words would be the sword that cut through our systems and schemes with terrible grace, and who, because of that, would end up on a tree. Because if Jesus wouldn’t cut down everyone we didn’t like, humanity would do it for him and hang him there…
And here’s the sad truth that I’ve encountered in my years as a pastor: many people trust and preach the message of John the Baptizer. It’s what I hear more than anything.
The God of retribution is, for some reason, more appealing than the God of divine love. Probably because we really like to be right…and want everyone to know it.
The God of right behavior is, for some reason, more appealing than the God of grace and forgiveness. Probably because we like to know the rules so that we can do them and achieve the eternal life that God’s willing to give out of sacrificial love.
Jesus is about God’s love and forgiveness for those who are unwell, not those who have made themselves well through strong moral character and hard ethical work…and if we think we’re well because of the strength of our moral character, we’re probably the sickest of all!
John the Baptizer was preaching about Jesus…but he didn’t get what Jesus was about. And at Christmas we’re invited to rethink what Jesus is about. That is the true blessing of John the Baptizer: he points to the Messiah, but he isn’t the Messiah, thank God.
Because we don’t need more retribution in this world, we need sacrificial love.
Because we don’t need more name calling in this world, but we need to be called by our names and beloved children of God.
Because we don’t need more calls to “be better,” we need more calls to “forgive as you are forgiven.”
Because we don’t need any more so-called messiahs strong arming the world into submission, but we need the Christ who will submit to the cross to show just how far God will go to prove God is not about retribution, best behavior, or any of that.
John the Baptizer knows it’s about Jesus, but doesn’t quite get what Jesus is about…
And I consistently wonder: do we?