Sermon Lesson (John the Baptist): Luke 3:1-20 (NRSV)
Sermon Lesson (Angel Gabriel): Luke 1:26-33 (NRSV)
Old Testament: Isaiah 1-4, 8-11 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 126 (NRSV)
A companion video sermon on the Angel Gabriel was released as part of The Characters of Christmas this past Sunday.
We now enter the third week of Advent in our quest for Christmas and our candle, which will be lit this Sunday, symbolizes both love and joy. It is about this time, in the darkness of the night skies, that true anticipation picks up. We are in the home stretch as we reach what was historically the darkest day of the year (although, with modern techniques and clocks we now know now that the Solstice lands on December 21 and not a few days later on December 25). Our hearts leap, our pulses race, and we begin to feel hope for a new life, a spiritual renewal, and salvation.
For this reason, I chose to focus on two of the Annunciations in the Gospel of Luke, which are tangible (albeit verbal) proof that Jesus is—indeed—coming.
An annunciation in its broadest sense is any formal announcement.
In Christianity we think of the Annunciation as the Angel Gabriel coming and announcing to Mary that she would bear the promised child.
However, Gabriel was not the only messenger in the New Testament and not the only person to proclaim the coming of someone greater than those who had come before.
Another such is example is Jesus’s own cousin, John the Baptist. His announcement came roughly thirty years after the Angel Gabriel, but it reached a wider audience at the time—and Jesus’s coming was just as imminent when he spoke the words of coming in the desert.
A Little on John the Baptist
John, if we remember from the first week of Advent, is the beloved son promised to the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, the favorite cousin of the Virgin Mary. The Angel Gabriel appeared, in fact, to Zechariah to tell him the glad tidings, although Zechariah was a little less believing than Mary during her own visit from Gabriel.
Then we don’t hear about John the Baptist for about thirty years. By then, he is a man grown, a man ready to take on a trade or a profession. In the case of one such as John, you might expect him to become a priest like his father Zechariah. It would have been expected, as he was not only the child of a priest, but he was a miracle child who had been dedicated to the Temple. His mother, Elizabeth, was also of the lineage of Aaron, and therefore part of the spiritual aristocracy of first century Palestine.
John, however, was a bit of a revolutionary, like his cousin Jesus would prove to be. John did become a holy man—but instead of marrying as men his age would have, having a family, and devoting his life to God through work in the Temple or the local synagogue, John instead walked into the desert and started controversially baptizing Jewish men and women.
(At this time, only sinful gentiles converting to Judaism were put through the indignity of baptism by water. It was unnecessary to baptize a child of Israel. It was, in fact, nearly blasphemous and extremely radical. To baptize a son or daughter of Abraham’s line is to suggest that they are not blessed or chosen by God—and are not the Jewish people God’s chosen people?)
A Mental Photograph
I would also like to stress at this point that John the Baptist was not only conducting bizarre and heretical baptisms in the middle of the desert in his quest for “holiness” and in his desire to serve the Lord Most High—but he presented himself much like a madman might.
In Matthew’s description on John (Matthew 3:4), we learn that John is wearing camel hair and living off of locusts and honey. In short, John is living off of the land. He is living the life of an aesthetic, revered men who were nonetheless viewed as insane in their search for truth. John, in his chosen lifestyle, withdrew complete from society and only using what God directly provided for him.
To get a clearer picture of John the Baptist, I’d like you to imagine you’re an upright Victorian man or woman who, despite going to the jungle in some far off corner of the globe, expects to see only beauty and civilization there—and instead come across Tarzan or some variation of the “savage man.” Tarzan as a character is clearly intelligent, lives off the land, but is a complete shock to any “civilized” person’s sensibilities. While he is brave and resourceful he is not what anyone would expect a man “wise in the ways of the world” to be.
This is the sort of contrast a Jewish man or woman, secure in their minds that God will one day save them from Rome, would feel if they accidentally got lost in the desert and came across John the Baptist.
John the Baptist probably smelled horrible from lack of proper washing (despite baptizing people in the Jordan), grew out his hair and beard to the point of offense to proper society, and could easily have had a fanatic zeal in his eye that many would have interpreted as demon possession.
John the Baptist would have stood in stark contrast to his cousin Jesus, in his presentable handwashed robe and sandals, hair and beard long but neatly brushed, with an easy way of speech that allowed him success when he preached in the local Synagogue.
As modern Christians, two thousands and half a world away from the events told in the Gospels, tend to forget what the historical John the Baptist was actually like. We don’t see him clearly, because time, culture, and translation shade the little we know about him—where he came from, how he lived, and (perhaps most importantly) what he said.
What John the Baptist Said
John the Baptist said many, many things. Although he only is given a chapter or so in Luke, his followers believed he (and not Jesus) was the Messiah who had been promised. The cult of John the Baptist survived in the region for about two centuries, well after Christianity had solidified as a separate religion from Judaism and had spread into the greater Roman Empire.
Fortunately, for us, we have the Gospels to tell us a bit about John—although it is distinctly through a Christian perspective and not a Mandean one (the Mandeans or “Sabians” being monotheists who revere John the Baptist).
We know that John baptized Jewish men and women in the Jordan despite the fact that this was clearly “fringe religious expression” at the time.
We know that his followers asked him if he was the Messiah – or the promised savior who would deliver Israel from those who would control her.
We know that despite being radical and “a crazy in the desert,” the establishment considered him a threat and he was arrested for his crimes.
We know that he supposedly was raised from the dead three times (Matthew 14:2), at least according to the talk about the royal court.
We know that, while locked in Herod’s jail cell, he was beheaded on the whims of a pretty girl who could dance (Matthew 14:1-12).
We also know that no matter what anyone said, John denied that he was a Messiah and he clearly stated that one was to come after him (Luke 3:16)—and this was his annunciation of Jesus Christ.
Yochanan (John) versus Yehoshu’a (Jesus)
Many people stress that John and Jesus were cousins (which is true). At Christmastime and during the Advent Season, we note that their mothers (Elizabeth and Mary, respectively) were not only cousins but best friends (also true).
When we look at the two cousins after they grew up and began their ministries, many note the similarities between John and Jesus (they both stood for goodness, they both believed in baptism, and they both tried to reform a religion that they saw as having gone astray).
Both John and Jesus were hailed as the Messiah.
Both demurred in various ways (John directly referenced that one was to come after him, Jesus spoke in riddles and parables to deflect away political attention).
Both were imprisoned for speaking dangerous political and religious beliefs.
Both of the cousins were executed on a technicality (in John’s case, a promise made by a king to a girl; in Jesus’s, a politician’s fear that he would lose his position as governor).
Both, after their deaths, lived on in the cults that formed around them (Jesus’s followers were a bit more successful in their proclamation that he was the Messiah, as seen in the spread and success of Christianity. However, the Mandeans or Sabians, who revere John the Baptist, are mentioned several times in the Qu’ran and there are five thousand adherents to the religion currently in the world).
Both men are recorded in the annals of Josephus, a Jewish historian who died about AD 100, so we do have independent verification of their lives in first century Palestine.
Despite all this, the two preachers, the two cousins, walked very different paths.
The Promise of John the Baptist
John baptized the sinful—which included everyone as far as he was concerned—in the river Jordan, far away from society’s sins. His otherness and strangeness and radicalness had those who met him wonder if he was the Messiah, but God did not send John to save the nation. John undoubtedly helped to save souls (that, after all, is the purpose of baptism by water)… but John the Baptist knew that he could not offer unfettered access to salvation.
For true salvation, another would come—and that other would be Jesus of Nazareth.
John’s words rang out in the desert, were repeated after his death, and then were recorded in the Gospels. John spoke of another. John spoke of one who could do more than baptize (or cleanse) with water … but also with fire, or the Holy Spirit.
These words have been recycled and honored throughout the centuries and now every time a newborn child or a convert is baptized into the faith, we speak those words. John’s annunciation—his proclamation—was so powerful that many of us know parts of it by heart and it has become part of our Christian culture, even outside of the Advent Season.
For we are baptized not only by water but by the Holy Spirit as followers of Christ Jesus…
Referenced Bible Passages: Matthew 3:4 (NRSV), Matthew 14:1-12 (NRSV)