The church I served in Northern Virginia was part of the upscale community, of McLean. Lots of lawyers, and a host of government contractors and officials in that town, and in the church, likewise. Can you imagine getting anything done at a church with that kind of membership? The head pastor used to shake his head and complain on almost a daily basis, “All chiefs, no Indians.”
Several of our members, worked for the State Department. They would be with us for a few years and then go off on assignment. Often their spouses were from other countries. One State Department official, Larry, was married to a woman who was originally from Japan. She didn’t attend our church since she was a practicing Buddhist.
One afternoon I’m at the church and I get a phone call from Larry. Our conversation goes something like this. Larry says, “Hi, I’m calling from California. My wife and I are on our way to Japan to attend a Buddhist celebration of our grandson’s birth—It’s sort of like a Buddhist baptism. The Buddhist side of our family is open to and respectful of Christianity. They have asked me to read a few words of appropriate scripture about Christian baptism. Can you give me some suggestions?”
Only in Northern Virginia, right?
I was really touched that Larry had that much confidence in my Biblical expertise. Off the top of my head, though, I couldn’t think of any scripture passages relating to the baptism of infants. I hummed and hawed. Finally he offered to call me from Japan, after I had had some time to think on it.
For the next 48 hours I stewed and fretted. I scoured scripture, consulted commentaries and my Bible concordance. Sadly, and this was a surprise for me, there are no New Testament passages about babies, aside from Jesus’ birth narratives—and those, of course, are specific to Jesus. There are no cherubim and seraphim hovering over a baby while Jesus offers a blessing. All the baptisms that are described in scripture are of adults, and some of the words would not be appreciated especially in a service featuring a baby and even more especially in an interfaith service. Can you imagine what might have transpired had Larry read the passage I just read at a Buddhist gathering? “You Brood of Vipers.”
When Larry called me back, I had to admit that I had not come up with even one scripture reading that was baby-baptism specific. He would have to settle for “Let the little children come to me for to such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Good verse, but it’s about children not infants, and it has nothing at all to do with baptism.
And no, I never found out if he took my advice.
What I am getting at though, in relaying this story, is that baptism had its origin in Holy Spirit and fire—the church has tamed it, dusted it with sweet smelling baby powder and wrapped a cuddly blanket around it. John’s baptisms, out there in the wilderness, at the Jordan were part of a call to action. You Brood of Vipers! Come dip in the waters and purify your lives, because God’s judgment is at hand!” Scary words, those!
In fact, John the Baptist’s life story, if it were ever made into a movie, which probably someone has done at sometime or other, without a doubt would be R rated—R for Restricted – not appropriate for children under seventeen and definitely not appropriate for babies.
So, what is that life story? Well, we don’t know anything about John the Baptist’s early life. There is some scriptural evidence, though, that John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. We have more evidence than what is in scripture, though, that John actually lived—So often this time of year, we tend to get a little suspicious of those warm and fuzzy Christmas scenes in Matthew and Luke. Magi traveling from afar to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Angels visiting shepherds to tell them about Jesus’ birth. They seem to be more in the realm of legends or myths, than historical truths, right?
I will leave it to you to ponder the existence of magi and angels, but we have other confirmation that John the Baptist lived and baptized people. That poof is an outside historical source. What we read about John in the Bible is corroborated by a near contemporary of John, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. About John, Josephus says, “John being a good man commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.” Cool huh? An historical account straight from the 1st century!
According to Josephus, John the Baptist was put to death by Herod, because the king was suspicious of anyone who had a following that might potentially turn political and violent. Then, too, as attested by both scripture and Josephus, John had had the audacity to criticize Herod for committing incest. Like I said, R rated stuff here. More R rated stuff yet, in John’s story, though, or at least gory stuff. On Herod’s order, John was beheaded.
It is evident from scripture and confirmed by Josephus that John lived in the wilderness, dressed in animal skins, and ate honey and locusts. Why did he live as he did? Best guess is that he chose the wilderness as his base of operations because that is where Judaism got its start—In the wilderness, led by Moses. And it may be that John hoped his eccentric dress and odd food preferences would remind people of another eccentric dresser with an odd food palette-the Jewish prophet, Elijah. John rooted his message, then, in the history of the Jews. It gave him credibility among his fellow Jews. From there, though, he took off, in a new direction, leaving in the dust, those Sadducees and Pharisees whose own message, if they even had one, was stale as week-old-bread, and definitely self-serving.
And now I want to ask you this—as I asked myself this week: Honestly, if you had lived in John’s day, in the 1st century, and in the area of Galilee, not knowing how history would unfold, do you think YOU would have gone to the Jordan River, to be washed in the waters—much less taken with you your children and grandchildren?
Of course not, right?
Sadly, though, I, we can’t avoid John today. Here he is, in worship, in our lectionary, for heaven’s sake. Last year, maybe, we could have tolerated him. But these days when our political landscape is in daily, no, better, hourly flux, we yearn for security. Sameness. The blessed past. Maybe those Jews who came to the waters were looking for something or someone to change their miserable lives for the better—I mean they were living under the yoke of Rome, but WE Here today? We don’t need any more shaking up. Fie on you, John the Baptist. Just leave us alone!
I have an acquaintance, actually a friend of a friend, who lives in North Carolina. After the elections, she hopped in her car and drove, alone, that is, all by herself, to Plains, Georgia. She wanted to and in fact did, attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday Bible Study class. My guess is that she yearned to be reminded of a time when to her mind, anyway, decency held sway, and when a man of honor and faith was in charge of our country; when we were resting on SOLID ground. But of course, she is looking at the past through those proverbial rose colored glasses, right? Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the late 1970’s, had their own earth-tremor moments, which led to changes for our countryWhich just means I guess, that change is inevitable. I know that is a new and profound idea—you can quote me, “Change is inevitable,” but be sure to give me credit!
So today we remember John the Baptist, the R rated change agent for his time and ours. We come to the Baptismal waters reluctantly. Also reluctantly we bring with us our little ones—knowing we can’t protect them from the inevitable—better, then, to make sure they are prepared for what’s coming. We come to be baptized, by John AND by the Holy Spirit and by Fire. We come, fearful of what is to come, yet putting our trust in God, the one who is ultimately in charge. Prepare the way! Amen