Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:1-6 Part 3
The furor over the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" did not focus on the figure of John the Baptist, but even this characterization challenged our perceptions. With his long, unwashed, straggly hair and beard and his piercing, always-moving eyes, this John the Baptist was not only "one crying in the wilderness," he personified the wild, untamed nature of the desert he inhabited. It was as though he and the desert had become one. His speech had the same tone to it; short phrases--few long, complete sentences. Everything about this John was unkempt, untamed, out-of-step with the cultivated norms of his society. Perhaps this characterization was drawn so radically in order to make Jesus appear less radical at first sight. In any case, the Baptist strikes us as one claimed by the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah quoted in the gospel lesson.
Other presentations of John the Baptist provide us with additional perceptions. Greeting cards of the season frequently feature works by Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. In Michelangelo's "Doni Madonna" (1503-1504) in the Uffizi collection is such a work. The earliest known painting by this Western artist was commissioned by Angelo Doni to commemorate his marriage. In this work, Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus dominate. Mary is the closest to us, and she hands the child over her right shoulder to the waiting and supportive Joseph. In the background and on a lower level are several figures which are generally taken to symbolize the pre-Christian era. At about the horizontal axis on the right appears John the Baptist, also a young child. He looks up toward Jesus, clearly personifying the break between the old age and the new. Here John the Baptist occupies a clearly theological position in the painting. He is the herald of the reign of God.
In San Francisco's M. H. de Young Museum is a "St. John the Baptist" by El Greco. Here it is John who dominates the canvas. Presented close to the surface of the painting, John is silhouetted against stormy sky, and a diminutive wilderness setting in the low background. On either side of him are large flat rocks. A lamb (sleeping or slaughtered?) lies on the one to his left. In the crook of one leg is a small banner which reads "Agnus Dei"--Lamb of God. Whether accomplished or not, the reference is clearly sacrificial. John is clothed in an animal skin draped over his right shoulder. His left arm hangs to his side, loosely holding a tall, slender cross, obviously ceremonial rather than practical. His right forearm extends toward the viewer and the fingers of this hand point to both the cross and the lamb. This John is not agitated. He appears to be at ease. His purpose for being is to point to the One yet to come; the One who brings the reign of God; the One who will fill the valley, bring low the mountains, straighten the crooked, smooth the rough way and bring the salvation of God.
The American artist Thomas Cole also painted a "John the Baptist Preaching." Cole was an early environmentalist, expressing his concerns in his art, frequently using other stories as the bearers of his message. While considered a landscape painter, many of his works were concerned with religious and moral themes. In this painting we are treated to such a work. Here is a landscape, pieced together from Cole's sketches from a tour of the Hudson River and his imagination. Conceived on a vertical axis, mountain peaks thrust upward, towering over a small group of diminutive figures in the central foreground. Above and between the mountains, cloud formations billow and swirl. Strong, dramatic light enters from the upper right of the canvas and brightly washes over the figures as if it were a spotlight. On a stone outcropping stands John; on a lower level a small crowd watches and listens as he extends his arms in a cruciform shape, pointing to an empty cross to his left. The whole scene is dwarfed by the landscape, giving us some clues as to Cole's theological understandings. This John, too, functions as a "voice of one in the wilderness," pointing to something greater than himself; calling people's attention to what is about to occur in their very midst.
An intriguing treatment of John the Baptist was sculpted by Kent Nerburn as his doctoral project at the Graduate Theological Union. The sculpture is on view there. After studying techniques of Italian artists, Nerburn went about releasing the figure of John from a single tree trunk. From the gentle bow of the tree, John wraps himself in a rough garment, even as the whole presentation is wrapped in the tree. Bald and beardless, John seems internally focused rather than externally. His head is tilted and turned slightly to the right, and he looks out, but does not see. He is one with the wilderness, but rather than the agitation of Martin Scorsese's John, we have here a quiet expectant John. The preaching is done; the waiting--for Herod's soldiers or God's breaking into history--is what is left.
Michelangelo's "Doni Madonna" can be seen in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery and in reproduction in Frederick Hartt's, Michelangelo (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1965). The "St. John the Baptist" by El Greco can be seen in print in El Greco of Toledo, by Jonathan Brown, William B. Jordan, Richard L. Kagan and Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982). Thomas Cole's "John the Baptist Preaching" is in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It is discussed in The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America, 1700-1900, a catalog of an exhibit by the same name curated by Jane Dillenberger and Joshua Taylor. Copies are available from The Sharing Company, Austin, Texas. A print can be found in Matthew Baigell's Thomas Cole (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1981). Roger Wedell