2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


God's Acceptance

John 3:23-30

Jesus put John the Baptizer out of business. That's right. Jesus put John the Baptizer out of business, and I, for one, am glad. John was a weird dude, wearing camel's hair, eating honey and grasshoppers, living in the desert. It seems that every day was a day of fasting and self‑denial for him.

And he was always calling out to people, saying in a loud voice, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." And that was his polite way of speaking. Can't you just see him, at the mall or on the sidewalk at lunchtime, "Get right with God!" I bet he never combed his hair or used deodorant.

When the good people came out to the desert, the upstanding perfect attendance worshippers and the temple clergy, the Pharisees and Sadducees, John said to them, "You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" And then he told these snakes to produce fruit as evidence of sincere repentance or they would be thrown into an unquenchable fire by the mighty one who was to come. Would you want this guy to tell stories around the campfire at your child's scout weekend? I wouldn't.

John just plain wasn't very likeable. I wonder if he ever laughed or hugged anybody. Did he ever get the giggles or weep or take a nap in the afternoon sun or cradle a newborn baby in his arms or sing silly songs with children? I doubt it. He was so serious, so disciplined, so earnest. And yet they all came out to him, from city and countryside, for the baptism of repentance.

John's younger cousin, Jesus, Mary's oldest boy, the one whose paternity was, well, questionable, was quite a different sort. Jesus was a lively and unpredictable kind of guy, a people lover and, I dare say, a party lover, too. He was just as likely to have dinner with a prostitute as with a Pharisee, just as likely to embrace unclean lepers (and become unclean himself) as to reject his mother and brother's fear for his safety, just as likely to wash his own disciples' feet as to let a strange woman wash his feet with her tears, just as likely to make more wine for a wedding as to turn loose a boy's five loaves and two fish to feed a multitude. In his own ways, Jesus was serious, and disciplined and earnest, too. But he never seemed to worry about what other people thought of him or about doing things the right way. In fact, Jesus didn't worry much at all. He seemed to prefer to use his power to love people before inviting them to change. Perhaps Jesus saw that repentance is never a one‑time event. And if you make repenting sins your top priority, you can't stop, even if it means picking out other people's sins as well.

John the Baptizer knew, of course, that his little cousin was the Messiah, the Christ. In the Gospel of John, he baptizes Jesus and then says to his own disciples, "Behold the Lamb of God." And according to all reports, John was quite clear that he himself was not the Messiah, not the Savior, not the Christ, not even Elijah or a great prophet. Humility is realistic self‑knowledge, not exaggerated self‑effacement, and John was humble. He called himself the forerunner, the preparer of the way, the friend or best man of the bridegroom who makes all the arrangements for the wedding and then gracefully steps aside when the bridegroom arrives.

Still and all, the gospel writers tell us that when John is imprisoned by Herod for criticizing Herod's relationship and marriage to Herodias, Herod's brother's wife; when John is powerless to continue calling for repentance and then hears that Jesus is out and about, consorting with all kinds of people, teaching all kinds of new ways, John, from prison, sends two of his own disciples to Jesus to ask a simple question: "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" So much for gracefully stepping aside! John won't get out of the way of the bridegroom until he is absolutely sure Jesus is the right man. I expect the question may have sounded more like this: "Are YOU the ONE who is to come, or shall WE look for ANOTHER?” (I mean, really. How could this guy Jesus be Israel's Messiah when he keeps company—eating and talking, healing and forgiving—with foreign women?) I am reminded of Marlon Brando's great line in The Godfather, "That's a very good question. Don't ask it again." But Jesus is not a godfather, or at least not that godfather, and he isn't defensive when the question is asked. It is, after all, a very good question and sometimes it's our question, too, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

"Go and tell what you have seen and heard, " is Jesus' answer, to John and to us. "The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."

There Jesus goes again, mentioning all those folks we don't want to be—poor blind, sick, lame, unclean, even dead people whose unfortunate situations were believed by all to be their own fault—the result of sins, plain and simple. People in need of repentance, surely?

And then there is that poignant last line, "And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me." Is it an afterthought or is Jesus deliberately acknowledging to his cousin, the serious and faithful man who baptized him, that he is offensive; Jesus knows that by almost anyone's standards, his own actions are offensive? People call him a wine bibber and drunkard; he breaks the Sabbath law and then compares himself to King David to justify it; he chooses for his inner circle a Jew who extorted money from other Jews as a tax collector for the Romans; he even heals a Roman soldier's beloved servant and then commends that pagan's faithfulness. In these words, "And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me," is Jesus asking for John's understanding, John's compassion, or at least John's patience with Jesus' most unorthodox ways? Does he ask the same of us?

Remember the story told at the beginning of Luke's Gospel, when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth? Both women, the teenager and the old one, are pregnant unexpectedly for the first time. Elizabeth says to Mary, "at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy." That infant was John. John the Baptizer leaped for joy. Can you imagine that? In his adult ministry John is notably joyless, even harsh, in constant opposition to those he sees falling short of God's demand for obedience. He told those with two coats to give one away; those with any extra food to share it; he even challenged Roman soldiers to stop abusing their power over a broken people, the Jews. John seemed to believe in a god of stem and uncompromising demand, who would punish any unconfessed misstep with eternal fire.

Sometimes when I feel powerless or afraid, ignored or threatened, misjudged or hurt, I like to play a little game called, "If I were in charge of the world." Like John the Baptizer, I can guess who is sincere of heart and who is not, who bears good fruit and who does not, who God will reward and who God will burn in unquenchable fire.

But then along comes Jesus, who breaks open every assumption I had about God's faithfulness and human faithfulness, and in his own actions goes beyond my wildest dreams or worst nightmares, beyond John's wildest dreams or nightmares about who the Messiah, the Savior, will be.

It's no wonder that John is distressed. He's in prison and he must know that Herod, who has already enraged the people by arresting John, is unlikely now ever to let him go. Perhaps John is afraid that the end of his life is near, that all his work is for naught, that he has proclaimed the wrong Messiah—truly the mistake of an entire lifetime.

Prison can cause amazing transformation in people. With a simple sentence, a single verdict, what we take for granted about individual freedom, self‑respect, mutual trust, personal affection and basic human dignity are taken away. Prisons, nursing homes, AIDS units, mental hospitals, homeless shelters, cancer floors, these are places we avoid because we are afraid we will find ourselves powerless there: powerless and stereotyped, forgotten and hopeless.

What kind of experience did the prisoner John have in hearing Jesus answer: that the blind see, the lame walk, the leper is cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news? Did John also hear good news? Did he hear the great news of Jesus who loves us regardless of our own harsh judgment of each other? Jesus, whose respect for our human dignity is unchanged, even by imprisonment and uncertain faith? We do not know. We cannot know what John's response was. All we know is that Herod ordered John beheaded, and then presented the head of John the Baptizer on a platter for his stepdaughter as a thank‑you gift. She danced for him on his birthday and she delighted him and he promised her anything. Anything. And at Herodias' prompting, she asked for the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. And she got it. It is a gruesome and terrible story, this effort to demean and trivialize John's life. And when Jesus heard of this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

And today, two weeks or so before Christmas, we hear John the Baptizer's last words as recorded in the Gospel of John. "The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase but I must decrease." And it is a clue, it is a hint, it is a glimmer, that beneath the worry and the dutifulness, beneath the condemnation and the threats of eternal fire, beneath the uncertainty and the holy fear John knew, John really knew that this Jesus was the Messiah—the one to free even John from the bondage of his own expectations. "He must increase and I must decrease." And let it begin with me, and with you. For truly we are poor, we are broken‑hearted, we are self‑righteous and we are sick, and even like Herod we are imprisoned by our own fears.

And Christ comes to us and loves us, with all our frailties, all our misdeeds, all our carelessness, all our desires, and all our joys. Christ loves the whole package, not just what we, or the Baptizer in us, thinks are the good and worthy parts.

Yes, Jesus put the Baptizer out of business, but not before offering to John his own boundless love. It is the greatest gift John was ever given. It is the greatest gift we are ever given, and it comes to us, not because we've danced for it, not even because we have repented enough, and it's not presented on a silver platter or wrapped in fine paper. It is the simple gift given time and again through the mutual recognition and acceptance of human love. We have only to receive this gift, to receive it and then to give it away. It is the greatest gift we can ever give to another—Christ's boundless love.

Christmas is coming soon. A season for hope and for joy. Hear the bridegroom's voice and rejoice, for He comes for you! And by all means enjoy those around you soldiers and sinners, the sick and the self‑righteous, the Johns and the Herods whom you know, for in such rich company as these will Christ's love most surely be found. Amen.

Rev. Elizabeth Claiborne Jones THE PROTESTANT HOUR