The fastest way that we write people off: call them crazy. (1)
Truth be told, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking John the Baptist is a little crazy.
It happens every Advent: we get two Sundays in a row to think about this guy John the Baptist. Now, during this family oriented, fun season of Advent, we might imagine that John the Baptist is a gentle character, a gentle saint, maybe like Santa Claus. (But then you remember that St. Nicholas punched a heretic once — true story, google it — and even that argument kind of falls apart.) The reality of John the Baptist, though, is that he was kind of a scary dude. You might even say he was a little crazy.
Advent really is different than Christmas. While our less liturgical neighbors are thinking about shepherds and angels, we’re talking about apocalypses and crazy dudes in camel’s hair.
Footnote: Sometimes being a Lutheran is deeply weird. Christmas is warm and fuzzy, but Advent? Advent is crazy.
Truly, John the Baptist isn’t unlike the street preachers of our own day. My current cover photo on Facebook, the one that dominates the screen when you go to my personal page, is the same one it’s been for just about every Advent for the last five years or so. It’s a photo that I found years ago when looking for something to bring a little Advent to my little corner of the massive social network. I don’t even remember where it came from anymore.
It’s a photo of a white man in a tuxedo without the jacket. He has on glasses and a very serious expression. He’s standing up very straight on a street corner like your average crazy street preacher, and he’s holding a sign that defies expectations.
It reads, in big, handwritten letters, “THE BEGINNING IS NEAR.”
I have loved that photo since I first found it.
We often think of street preachers yelling just the opposite: “Repent, for the end is near!” Though we often write such people off today as crazy — and believe me, I have some good stories of bad theology from the street preachers I’ve met and heard around Atlanta — John the Baptist wasn’t unlike the street preachers of his time. Last week we learned all about him: about how he wore camel’s hair, ate bugs and dressed strangely. Even today, Jesus seems to ask John’s disciples: “What did you go out to see?” A spectacle? A crazy person?
Because of John’s eccentric description in the Gospels, it’s no surprise that those who have chosen to depict him in art, plays, movies, and books have had a field day with our old friend John the Baptist. In one of my favorite books, Christopher Moore’s Lamb, which is the hilarious story of Jesus told from the point of view of Jesus’ childhood best friend, Biff, John the Baptist is Jesus’ insane cousin, always going out to scream at the crowds. Like in the Bible, he’s about the same age as Jesus, and everyone dismisses him as the nut in the family that everyone has — up to a point, when they realize the crazy cousin is onto something.
Then there’s Godspell, when the same actor who plays John the Baptist also plays Judas, ushering in both the beginning and the end of the story. From this angle, we can see that, when it comes to Jesus and resurrection, saying “the end is near” is not all that different from saying that the beginning is near.
Finally, there’s Cotton Patch Gospel, one of my favorite depictions of John the Baptist. Cotton Patch Gospel, a book by Clarence Jordan turned into a musical, tells the story of the life of Jesus as if Jesus had been born in modern day rural Georgia. Though the story is a reinterpretation of the Gospel of Matthew, the story stays true to the overall story of Jesus — a seemingly regular boy born to poor young parents in the middle of nowhere: Gainesville, Georgia, to be exact.
I was going through my second Advent as a pastor years ago, I decided to make this version of John the Baptist into my Advent theme. It was so much fun that I decided to bring a little of it to you guys, because what is Advent without a little Southern charm.
The opening song from the musical is called “Something’s Brewin’ in Gainesville.” A little later, we meet John the Baptist. Allow me to get into character.
We are told, “At this time, a new preacher showed up in the rural part of Georgia called John the Baptizer.” Jesus went to the Chattahoochee riverside to hear him preach. “He heard John claiming that the famous virgin’s baby of Gainesville was no rumor, but an his-torical fact.” “People were coming from all over: Atlanta. Opelika. Oneona. Two Egg. Cordell. Ty Ty. Gluck. And when they owned up to their crooked ways, he dipped ‘em in the Chattahoochee.”
The first we hear of John is him ranting like a street preacher, similar to what we heard last week: “You sons ‘o snakes! Tell me, who put the heat on you to run from the fury ‘bout to [crack] break over your heads!? You got to reshape your lives! ‘Cause God’s new order of the Spirit is con-fronting YOU! Hallelujah! …He’s so much stronger than I am, I’m unworthy to shine his shoes! Hallelujah! He’s gone dip you in the Holy Spirit and fire! His combine is already runnin’! Hallelujah! Can I hear a hallelujah?”
Get the idea yet? John the Baptist is no regular saint. He’s a little crazy. He’s essentially a crazy street preacher who just so happened to be telling the Gospel truth. And part of what makes him kind of like a crazy street preacher is his sense of conviction, of certainty.
So then, if John is so crazy and certain, why is it that he sends his disciples today from prison to ask if Jesus is really the one who is to come. That’s right, in case you missed it: the guy in prison for this Messiah sends someone to say “Are you the Messiah?” So much for certainty. Even John the Baptist, in prison for his faith, wondered about his own faith: am I crazy?
And Jesus isn’t impatient with them or with John. He simply says, “Go and tell them what you see” because Jesus is a big believer in “by your fruit you will know them.” The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in the hummus, I guess, in this case.
“…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
In other words, go back and tell John that the impossible is happening. Go back to prison and tell John he’s not crazy. It’s real. This is happening.
Or, more accurately, go back and tell John the Good News that God is here, and it’s crazy.
Illogically, absurdly amazing. The impossible is happening. Go back and tell John to rejoice. The truth is that faith entails being a little crazy — believing the impossible, and rejoicing.
You may have noticed that we lit a pink candle this morning.
You may have thought that this is for no particular reason.
You’d be wrong. One pink candle? For no real reason? C’mon, that’s crazy.
You see, sometime around the ninth century, church folks decided that Advent, the preparation time for Christmas, should be four weeks long. And they decided that people shouldn’t only repent and be sad as they remember the way the people longed for the Savior of the World to come. In their wisdom, our ancestors in faith wanted us to rejoice, too, because help is on the way — and help has already come. And so for one Sunday out of the four, they made one candle a few shades lighter than the others. Since the original color of Advent was purple, the candle a few shades lighter is pink, and that gave us Gaudete Sunday, when we are called to both acknowledge our need for a Savior — and also to have the gall to rejoice.
Which is pretty crazy when you consider the state of the world: the war, disease, poverty, and hatred that seem to have a grip on the world so often chokes out joy and faith.
Faith is hard. Faith is stubborn. Faith is somewhat illogical considering the evidence.
Faith is crazy.
Faith is like the crocus that comes up in the desert in our Isaiah reading. Stubborn like the buds and blades of grass that push their way up every spring. If all you knew was winter, imagining spring would be difficult. Faith is sometimes like that. It is for me. It was for most of the saints. It certainly was for John — even crazy John the Baptist in camel’s hair, imprisoned for his faith.
Faith is crazy and downright hard for the logical mind.
Mary Oliver has a poem about how illogical hope can be. Her poem, “Mysteries, Yes,” posted by a pastor friend last week, is where I want to end today.
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say, ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”
Let us rejoice, beloved. Let us look with astonishment on what God is already doing among us. Let us dance, laugh, and rejoice. Because God is coming, and God is already here in bread and wine and words and in each of us.
And that’s crazy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. This was first and most succinctly stated in my hearing by Dr. Greg Ellison of the Candler School of Theology.