Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
I know you don’t need me to tell you that everything about John the Baptist seems extreme: his appearance, his clothing, his diet–certainly the way he speaks. His urgency spills out in violent judgment; he’s explosive.
But have you ever considered this? People are drawn to him. He may call the Sadduccees and Pharisees a brood of vipers and mock their appearance at his baptism of repentance, but they are there! They had to go out of their way to get there: he’s in the desert. He’s not a lunch hour diversion at the curbside on their way to the deli.
Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount sounds very different from anything John says today, also went to him and was baptized by him. We could say Jesus was his disciple; yet when I compare the two, I have to ask what their styles have in common.
Maybe that’s the point: who in their times would talk about their style? Yet in our day, a person’s style seems to have become the touchstone for an individual’s authenticity. How often have I, in scripture classes for example, underlined Jesus’ teaching in parables as an index of his pedagogy? But that’s style, not content and that’s not what he lived. How often have journalists and believers alike scrutinized the style of recent popes? We really expect to find something crucial in an individual’s style more than in his or her life.
And it’s exactly there that Jesus and John reveal their common ground. I suspect that John’s manner doesn’t alienate because he’s so transparent. He doesn’t rant to insulate his comfort zone; what he says isn’t about him. He tells us what we are, not what we seem to be. His whole point is to be displaced by the one who is to come after him–and his life proves that he’s true to his word.
John announces the coming Kingdom of Heaven and prepares for it with penitence. Jesus announces the in-breaking Kingdom of Heaven and the forgiveness of sins that follows upon penitence.
It doesn’t matter that Jesus sits as table and doesn’t eat locusts and wild honey; that he goes from hamlet to hamlet and doesn’t live in the desert or that he wears conventional clothes and not camel’s hair. He may accept the hospitality of fine dinners and houses to rest in but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, not because he’s homeless on the street but because he will be claimed by no house, will be consumed by no fine meal, will be confined to no signature lifestyle. He is transparent to let God shine through his life.
That’s the challenge, I believe. I don’t have to make a show of thread-bare clothing or squalid digs to be a disciple. But I do have to ask, who owns me? Am I no more than where I live or what work I do? Am I just a calculated identity or professional persona? Is my life a big cover-up of the most commonplace and boring faults; or am I the discriminating hoard of colorful anecdotes and accomplishments.
Can I risk hope without the guarantee of immediate satisfaction? Or recognition? Can I allow hope to reveal the Kingdom of Heaven already breaking in?