The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
There is a part of me that wonders why the Senior Minister always has to wear the black hat…why I always seem to get the tough passages…Last week, Jake gets the song of Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” And next week, Jane Anne gets the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God my savior.” So nice. And what do I get this week? [cue theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly] “You brood of vipers!” I actually realize that part of my call at Plymouth sometimes is to tell you things you would rather not hear…it just goes with the territory, even though I don’t always get to use the theme from the Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
So, when you hear about this fella, John the Baptizer (unlike Jane Anne’s family, he wasn’t Baptist; he was Jewish), he often gets to wear the black hat. He is out there in the wilderness, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey, clothed in a rough garment of camel’s hair (very scratchy in all the wrong places), and probably smelling a lot like a camel as well. Perhaps that’s why he was so into ritual bathing in the Jordan…it wasn’t just sin that he was trying to wash away.
John gets to challenge those who have followed him out into the wilderness -– a place of danger and testing, as we know from the biblical narratives –- to move out of their comfort zones and not simply to rely on their Abrahamic ancestry, but to “bear fruit worthy of changed hearts,” changed minds, and changed lives. John is out on the margins, living a physically and mentally difficult, rigorous, ascetic life, which strips away the less important aspects of life to get down to the basics: to live a fruit-bearing life.
He challenges those who are there who have two coats to give one to the poor…this does not mean just bringing an extra coat in the back of your front hall closet and donate it to Homeward Alliance like I did two weeks ago. It means if you have two houses, give one to somebody who hasn’t got one. [Cue The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme.]
John’s message and ministry were distinct from that of Jesus, and as you learned last week from Jake’s sermon, John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin), so Jesus and John were first cousins once removed. And Jesus was initially a follower in the John movement, but after John lost his head and Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus started a new movement that was focused on healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
I had never been a big fan of John the Baptizer. He was rough around the edges and seemed obsessed with purging people of their sins by washing them away ritually. And I have seen Jesus’ primary message as different. But in reading this text, the three examples of repentance that John spells out all involve economic justice. Giving your coat to someone without one. Tax collectors should only take the amount prescribed by the government (which was not the general practice). Roman soldiers should not extort money but be satisfied with their wages.
Sometimes, you have to look harder to see how figures of the past might emerge. About six years ago, I was with Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg on a pilgrimage in Italy, and one of my favorite places that we visited is far off the beaten tourist path outside the town of Nola near Naples. After wandering through the tiny village of Cimitile and attracting surprised stares from the local residents, we arrived at a Paleo-Christian church. (Paleo-Christian is not a diet plan…it just means that it’s very early…from the 4th century.) Going through the complex we saw ancient frescoes of early Christians, who seemed to look out at us postmoderns from a different millennium. Even through the disrepair of these ancient frescoes, their eyes of our Christian brothers and sisters seem to convey a longing to connect. And as we moved to a different part of the room we saw a few remaining representations of different saints and biblical figures, including this one of John.
You cannot see his eyes or his facial expression, but you can see the coarseness of his hair, and that fits in with the impression we have of John: the wild man who lives on the fringe of society who has a message to proclaim in the wilderness. And you can also see the Latin inscription, “Johannes Precursor,” literally John the forerunner.
I’ve noticed that there is something of a visual trope...
...in paintings of John, as the bearded guy with tousled hair and a doleful expression on his face. And one of the things this does is to project an image of John as a real, full-blooded human being (and unlike some beatific images of Jesus, looking fully divine, but not-quite-human). John looks like he’s carrying an emotional burden, as if the cares of the world are on his shoulders. For me that makes him more than a guy who wears the black hat and more of a real person who sees what is wrong with the world he lives in and tries to do something about it. John is the challenger, the confronter, the voice crying out in the wilderness.
This John is perhaps a little more like us, one who understands God’s justice and sees the disconnect between that vision and the world-as-it-is. Jesus was part of his cousin John’s movement. And though it is only in Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, the death of John the Baptizer comes after he called out Herod, saying that the king’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, isn’t legitimate. And the wife and daughter of Herod literally request John’s head on a platter, and Herod delivers.
Criticizing the empire and its petty kings is dangerous business. John is the precursor, the forerunner, the messenger who proclaims that the messiah is coming. John’s demise led Jesus to reframe John’s message and to recast it into a proclamation of an alternative vision for the world: the kingdom of God. And as we know, the demand for economic justice is at the center of that realm that Jesus proclaimed, the kingdom that he said is within us and among us.
The call to a change of heart is central to message of both John and Jesus. It is a call away from the narrowness of self-interest and into something far greater than our own lives. It is a call to give of oneself and to become part of a world order that is grounded in faith, in hope, and in self-giving love.
John offers each of us a challenge this Advent, in terms of how we can help live out economic justice, which is especially important in our current political reality. It is a challenge to ask ourselves how we can contribute to the realm of God, rather than simply to ask, “What’s in it for me?”
As we walk through these final days of Advent, I leave you to consider the question that the crowd around John asked him: “What then should we do?” What can you do to help as a cocreator of God’s realm today?
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. All photos by the author. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.