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As we move into the Advent/Christmas and Epiphany seasons of the church year, we’re going to read a lot of Gospel texts about John the Baptist. And usually, when we read about John the Baptist, we’re struck by what a colorful character he is. And by “colorful” I mean, weird; unusual; different.
And indeed, in the moment, John was a different kind of guy, and that was probably a good marketing strategy. Being “different” got John a lot of attention, and it’s probably why a lot of people hiked down from Jerusalem to see him.
But this time around, as I was thinking about John the Baptist, I was struck by how NOT different he actually was – at least in the context of ancient Jewish prophets. As much of a wild and crazy guy as John may have seemed to be, he was utterly a conformist and a traditionalist when you consider:
- The place he chose to preach – the Jordan River; Sure, it wasn’t in the Temple or in a synagogue, but the Jordan River was a symbolic and strategic place for ancient Israel; it’s the place where they crossed over into the promised land; it’s another place where God parted the waters; it’s a place where they expected God to be at work … (it wasn’t like John appearing in some foreign country…)
- John’s style and behavior – sure, he was quite eccentric compared to other people around him; but even so, his strange clothing and diet looked just like Elijah; and like Elijah and most of the prophets, what he did and said ticked people off … (usually, people didn’t respond to the prophets by saying, “good sermon Pastor!”…)
- John’s message – he wasn’t preaching a new God; he was lifting up the very same God of Israel who had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, and he was calling them to be faithful to that God …
In many ways, John the Baptist – and what John the Baptist says and does – ISN’T new or different.
So what is different? What was so different that John was remembered not only in our Gospels, but by other contemporary historians of the time?
And really, the only thing different was the time. The times were changing – indeed, they had already changed. And because the times were different, God was about to do a different thing. And people were going to need to live in a different way.
Folks needed to live differently in order to live faithfully into a different time and a different situation. In some respects, this too wasn’t “different.” This was what prophets had always called people to do. And it’s probably the root reason that prophets ticked people off, because even when we know it’s true, we don’t like to be told that things are different and we’re going to have live differently, too.
And indeed, with or without crazy guys like John the Baptist, the challenge of living faithfully always involves recognizing the different situation, and being willing to live differently. And although the exact details may be different for each different time, the goals are the same.
And the goals that John the Baptist (and all the prophets) called people to are the same goals God calls us to in the different times we live in today. In every time and in every age, prophets like John call us to:
- Take our relationship with God seriously and personally – that is, to be personally invested in our own spiritual growth and connection to God; sure, lots of people and activities and structures can help us, and that’s good; but there is no substitute for individually investing ourselves in the things that give us life … (not simply going through a few “religious motions” has always been an issue…)
- Never assume that an “institution” or “tradition” will take care of things for us – this is a time of year when we all like to fall back into our warm “Christmas traditions”; but precisely because “traditions” and “institutions” sometimes give us warm, fuzzy feelings, they can also lull us into complacency that those things will be around forever and take care of the hard work that we really need to do right now… (and sometimes the “trappings” give us a false sense of security…)
- Live differently, even when it’s hard, precisely because we’re taking our relationship with God personally and we’re not going to rely on the “way things have always worked before”… (and that’s always harder than it sounds …)
The difficult thing about times being different is that it isn’t clear exactly what the changes are going to mean, or exactly how this “living differently” is going to look. And although there are always a few people who claim to have all the answers, prophets like John the Baptist didn’t pretend to know exactly. And yet, the prophets didn’t need to know exactly, because they trusted God to be there in spite of the change. And even though they knew the changes would bring great challenges, they saw hope and promise because they knew that God would be with them through all the changes.
I don’t know exactly what changes need to made personally or communally for us to live faithfully in different and changing times. But I do know that in every age and in every time, God calls us to live faithfully by taking our relationship with him seriously and personally. In every age and in every time, God calls us to examine whether we’re relying too much on institutions and traditions to do the hard work for us. And in every age and in every time, God calls to wrestle with how we’re going to live differently because the times are different.
Those calls are always the same. And they’re always the same because God is always with us. God is always acting to give us hope and strength in the midst of the changes. And God is always doing a new and different thing in our lives, precisely because we face new and different times.