John the Baptist was a truth-teller.
Known any truth-tellers in your life? I think they tend to be kind of weirdos. Truth-tellers. “Awkward” is a truth-teller’s middle name. Their words sear, but we try to ignore it, or laugh it aside. Truth-tellers: Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress. They often seem a little unhinged.
Now, I don’t mean someone who is cruel with their words...and their cruel words somehow settle into your mind as truth. I think of all the bullies that say mean stuff that their victims start to believe is true -- that’s not a truth-teller. That’s a liar, in fact.
I mean a real truth-teller. Someone who truly says it like it is. Sometimes very eloquently. But often not from a position you’d expect. Those are always the great movie characters, right? The trash-man in the movie, who always speaks the true and wise word. The seemingly crazy, old bag lady. The blind beggar. The bartender. The child...truth-teller characters.
And it’s often tempting to want to prop up that truth-teller and have them (not you) just give a piece of their mind (i.e. your mind) to the big, mean opponent, or at least one who holds power over you. Propping them up, puffing them up...
Puffing up a crazy, mouthy, articulate classmate to go after a professor. Tell him! Tell him! (I’ve done it & had it done to me)
Puffing up a brother or sister to go after a parent. Tell him! Tell him!
Provoking a council member, puffing them up to go after the pastor. Tell him! Tell him! Give ‘em a piece of our mind!
Puffing a legislator up to go after a president. Tell him!
Then if the results go bad, if the response is negative, even hostile, well, it’s not your hide. No one even needs to know you put ‘em up to it…
I guess what I’m saying is that we can take advantage of crazy truth-tellers. They’re “out there” anyway, so the temptation is: “Well, may as well get them to work for us...or at least entertain us.”
You kind of get the sense that the people in Luke’s gospel, surrounded by the big, mean Pharisees, the Herodians and the Roman empire -- bullies -- opponents, higher-ups, to be sure, more powerful than they, were puffing John up to go after them. Tell ‘em, John! Go tell ‘em!
But all John does is tell the truth. He doesn’t incite violence, he tells the truth: “What should we do?” Share. Give a jacket away if you have two. Give food to anyone who is hungry. Nothin’ to lose, no one to impress. And John calls us to share. He doesn’t fall for the puffing up games people play.
That’s it, John!!? You’re not going to rip them a new one!!? You’re not going to verbally lambast them? You’re not going to declare war on them?
“No,” says John, “just share; be kind to one another. Everyone could use a little more of that. Be gentle. Do the right thing. Be honest and upright in your business dealings. Don’t extort money from people. Don’t rip them off. Don’t cheat...and be happy with what you have…
“And one more thing: [this gets us to our text here] This one Jesus, is it. I’m going to engrave that into your consciousness by baptizing him.
[slowly] This one Jesus is the embodiment of truth -- of what I’m challenging you to do: This one Jesus is the embodiment of sharing, of not cheating the poor, of welcoming the outcast and feeding the hungry. This one Jesus, who I baptize is the embodiment of truth.” John is a truth-teller and a truth-baptizer. He baptizes the truth. The truth is not cruel; the truth is love.
And you know you’re on the right track to truth, when the powers try to shut you up, when you are saying things that sear in their simplicity. Truth-telling, truth-baptizing got John thrown into prison. He told the truth about Jesus, and he told the truth about Herod’s adulterous wrong-doing with his brother’s wife. Everyone else turned a blind eye.
Ever been in situation where everyone is turning a blind eye, and it takes the innocence of a child or an outsider or a newcomer to say, hey, this is wrong! (Clergy group: “There’s a lot of ego and competitiveness in this circle.”)
John the Baptist -- John the pointer (if I ever had a pointer dog, I’d want to call him either John or Luther) -- John the baptist simply points to Christ. The true WWJD prophet. Don’t extort, cheat, lie, hog the best for yourself. Truth-teller. Not mean, not cruel. Just honest and clear-headed, even if a little “out there”. Although interestingly, did you notice: doesn’t say anything here in Luke’s gospel about John eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair. Maybe John was a little more main-stream, according to Luke.
And friends in Christ, John was certainly in the main stream, the river’s main flow, to be sure, when it came time to baptize. John preached repentance and new life, through baptism. A changing of ways, the forgiveness of sins. Through this water!
You know, ancient teaching has us using cold water for baptism? Luther missed this. He warmed the water up for babies. But baptismal water — especially practiced among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters — is supposed to be cold. Stinging. Because this Christian life is not an easy one.
Shane Claiborne: “My life was great...before I met Jesus (gave everything away, loved my enemies, prayed for bullies…)!”
The truth hurts. It stings. These cold waters of baptism make us jump a bit, cringe a bit. John the Baptist’s long, pointy finger pokes at us and guides us to follow after this one Jesus. The truth is eerie.
This one Jesus -- the embodiment of all truth — is already out there sharing. Already out there in the snow — on January 13, 2019 — Christ is already out there sharing warmth with all who are cold, nourishment with all who are hungry. This one Jesus — to whom John points and baptizes — this one Jesus — upon which a voice from heaven comes booming down: “this is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” -- this one Jesus is the embodiment of John’s truth-telling.
In an age where truth seems to be up for grabs (in a post-truth era), sisters and brothers in Christ, John calls us back, and sends us after Christ. And in an age where truth seems to be a distant dream, our God — incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who is “already out there” always in and with the world, moving down the path — stops, turns to us, loves us, and beacons us to come and follow, to come and join this way of truth. This love, this forgiveness, this walk of mercy and grace, this path of love is ours today and always. For you too, a voice from heaven says, are God’s beloved child!
Thanks be to God! AMEN.