Sunday Sermon for 5 December 2021: “Here’s Johnny!”

Today’s message from Luke 3:1-6 presents the odd religious personality of John the Baptist, who continues to provoke curiosity and controversy.

John the Baptist has been traditionally interpreted as a transition to Jesus and his ministry, as fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “ ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ “ (Luke 3:4b).

John the Baptist and Jesus were related as second cousins. Further, Jesus’ mother Mary and her first-cousin Elizabeth were pregnant at the same time and after their respective births the two men were likely raised and educated similarly. And yet John seems to have taken a dramatic turn: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).

John’s peculiar eating and dressing suggest that he wasn’t a mainstream Jewish teacher. John was likely an Essene, a member of a strict, apocalyptic Jewish sect isolated in a settlement near the remote Dead Sea. Given Jesus’ teachings and lifestyle, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Jesus and John were either members of or heavily influenced by the Essenes, contrarians who shunned the presumed cultural pollution of cosmopolitan Jerusalem.

Some misguided watchdogs of theological orthodoxy reject any suggestion of John’s and Jesus’ indoctrination by the Essenes. The sense is that identifying John and Jesus with Essene oddness is an attempt to render Christian teachings derivative. Contrary to these reactionary tendencies, a realistic view of human history reveals that ideas seldom pop-out from nowhere; there is always a context. Moreover, neither John nor Jesus fell from the sky fully formed. Both men lived immersed in a cultural milieu from which they and their admirers forged convictions, some of which continue to be treasured by subsequent generations.

It is notoriously difficult to place John in a definitive category or perspective. On the one hand, John the Baptist has often been treated as a shadowy, secondary figure, merely an accomplice who prepared the way for a subsequent Messiah. On the other hand, there are New Testament narratives (e.g., Matthew 11:1-19) suggesting that Jesus and John had a falling out because John was questioning Jesus’ methods and ideology.

Until Jesus started his public ministry, John may have been the more popular preacher. The tension between Jesus and John reached its zenith while John was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by the Romans’ political puppet, the latest in a series of Herodian leaders hated by many contemporary, devout Jewish persons.

Possible tension between Jesus and John may at least partially explain why the two cousins parted ways. A likely reason is that Jesus presented himself as the semi-divine Righteous Teacher found in Essene writings. John may not have fully agreed with Jesus and in any case the two men’s careers seem to have unfolded in separate directions.

From a devotional standpoint, John’s role remains vital inasmuch as he was a harbinger of great spiritual expectations. In the theme of today’s Advent topic, the challenge is to make peace with uncertainty swirling around John. A challenge for modern followers of God is to reclaim the innovative power of Jesus’ and John’s messages. Meanwhile, my prayer is that you will reflect and experience a wonderful season of peace.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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