211212 Advent 6C
December 12, 2021
Sermon: “John ‘the Joyful’ Baptist”
Rev. Kristian Wold
John is a strange character. Wild. The curmudgeonly killjoy of Christmas. He shouts at us that we’re a brood of vipers, and then yells stuff about wrath and axes and chopping and unquenchable fire. He stands knee-deep in the river, drenched in his camel-hair clothes, waving his arms, chomping on locusts, and spitting out his message of judgement. We meet him and we’re like Whoah! Let’s back off a bit. His words are scary and off-putting, and yet the gospel writer concludes, “So, with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news!? How is John good news? Are we missing something here? The answer is Yes, I think we do typically miss something about who John is and what he’s preaching.
I want to suggest that, underneath his gruff manner and the alarming images with which he conveys his urgent message, is a heart of joy. John is joyful. It burbles up and bursts out of him from time to time in laughter. Yes, laughter. I think John laughs.
I hear it in that middle section of the gospel story, when the crowds ask him, “What then should we do?” John knows at that moment that his harsh words have had their rhetorical effect and he has broken through their complacent and hard hearts. They are starting to believe that a new and different world may in fact be coming, one in which the hard cynicism, stern moralism, and strident idealism they are used to have no place. “What should we do?” they ask him. “How do we prepare to live in the different the Messiah will bring in?” And here think of John laughing. Well, he says like a kid, it’s easy!
Share. (Whoever has extra food or clothing should share.)
Be fair. (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed.”)
Be honest. (“Don’t extort. Be satisfied with your wages.”)
And he chuckles. And then he splashes water on them, washing away their old ways of ambition, greed, gain, and self-regard. He baptizes them in a joyful, romping, splashing party of repentance and recommitment to a life of love.
John is joyful because the One he is preparing the way for is God’s Messiah, the Dayspring who comes to cheer, the Sun of Righteousness who rises with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2). John knows that “Nations shall come to his light and kings to the brightness of his dawn.” (Isaiah 60:3) Beyond the growls and fiery words of first impressions, John’s spirit sings because the appearance of the One who is to come is “as sure as the dawn, coming to us like the showers and spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:3) John rejoices because what’s coming is a birth—of a baby at Christmas, to be sure, but also of hearts revived and creation renewed.
John is joyful. You can even see his traditional dress and diet as symbols of his joy. Yes, because camel hair can be made into a soft, warm, and luxurious fabric. And locust beans are a substitute for chocolate! Delicious, sweetened with wild honey.
Yes, John appears at first as an angry firebrand, but as we get to know him we can begin to see his great heart of mirth and joy.
The same goes for Paul.
He was a passionate person who didn’t shy back from strong words to the communities he was attached to. “Are you people of Galatia mad? Has someone put a spell on you?” he blurted in exasperation (Gal 3:1). And with the Corinthians he didn’t hesitate to admonish: “The pride that you take in yourselves is hardly to your credit!” (I Cor 5:6) Paul was as temperamental as John; he stirred up controversy; he spoke his mind. Like John his preaching had urgency because he knew the Lord was coming soon, and so he didn’t mince words.
But also like John, underneath that fiery exterior was a great heart of love and joy. You heard it in his opening words to the Philippians. “I thank my God whenever I think of you; and every time I pray for all of you, I pray with joy.” (Phil 1:3) And then you heard it again in this week’s excerpt: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
And why all this joy? Same reason as John. “The Lord is near.” The words mean two things. One, the Lord’s full reign of glory is near at hand, almost about to happen. So we can be hopeful and joyful, even and especially when times are dark. It’s almost over! The Lord is near! But two, it means that the Lord’s presence is always and in every place and moment of our lives, near at hand. As near as our heartbeat. As near as the breath. Because “the Lord is near,” Paul could be joyful, even in the most distressing of circumstances. He wrote those words from prison.
The Lord was near to John and Paul, and the Lord is near to us. Just like them, we live as often as not with fear, anxiety, oppression, sorrow, and suffering of every kind. Like them we have our good days and our bad days. We lash out in anger sometimes. We succumb to fear. Christian hope is not Polyana’s optimism; it can acknowledge the deep darkness of our world, the darkness that also pervades our hearts. But it is not overwhelmed by these things. Because the Lord is near, and joy is always available to us. It is a choice we can make, knowing that redemption is close at hand.
Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord, draws near now. Jesus, the light and the joy of our world, is coming with all the celebration that greets the birth of a baby. As we prepare his way in our lives, let the words of Isaiah be our prayer.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.
With joy I will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And may we encourage each other with the words of the prophet:
Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O people of God,
for great in your midst is [the Lord’s anointed, our Messiah of joy].