John the Baptist would have made a terrible dinner guest.
Wandering in out of the wilderness, he probably had not washed in days, perhaps even weeks. Dressed in animal skins and carrying a dangerous looking walking staff. He was definitely not smooth and urbane. And he probably had a very distinctive body odour.
And just imagine his behaviour at the dinner table. He sits down, looks at the food in front of him and says: “What’s this? I can’t eat this. Do you have any locusts or wild honey? And then, looking at the rather obese man across the table, he says: “You’re too fat and you have way too much food on your plate. You should give most of that to people who really need it – who are hungry and starving. “
And then he looks at the woman beside him and says: “You have too much make-up and jewellery on. Why do you care so much about your appearance?”
Or he says to one of the other guests: “You talk all the time and say way too much. Why don’t you be quiet and listen to other people for a while?”
John the Baptist does not appear, at least in the gospels, to have many social skills. But then he is a prophet, is he not? And the prophets of the Bible were not known for their politeness. They were known to speak the truth fearlessly and bluntly to people, some of whom were in positions of great power. And many of them were killed for it. And most of us know how the story of John the Baptist ends: for publicly condemning the immorality of King Herod and the royal family, he is imprisoned and executed by beheading.
And yet, it is important that we do not entirely confuse the rather colourful man with the message. He comes onto the scene at a time when Judaism was torn into many quarreling factions. And all these factions or groups hated each other and competed for the loyalty and allegiance of the population. And none hated each other more than the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And each of them was responding to an important concern of all Jews and that concern for every person was: “What is the best way for us to live out our faith in a way that God wants of us?” That is one of the great questions of the whole Old Testament. What does God want us to be and to do in life? How are we to live?
And every prophet had an answer to that. Jesus had an answer to that. And John the Baptist had an answer to that. But so did the Pharisees and the Sadducees. If you had asked that question of a Pharisee, he would have said: “You are called to keep the law of Moses as found in the Torah. All 600+ laws of them. They all apply to each and every one of you and you need to know them all so you won’t break any one of them. And we will tell you when you do. So come to the synagogue every week and we will help you memorize all of them. That’s what God wants of you – absolute faithfulness of the law”.
If you had asked the same question of a Sadducee, he would have said: “You need to faithfully observe all the rituals of the temple. You must attend every important festival and occasion in the temple. You must always bring a sacrifice, the most expensive you can afford to buy. Your attendance and your ritual sacrifices will save you because that is what God wants of you. God is found in the temple and nowhere else.”
And along comes John the Baptist and looks fiercely at both these groups and says: “you brood of vipers.” Not the nicest thing to say. He literally calls them a nest of snakes. And the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden would resonate in their minds. You can’t call someone a snake in Judaism and turn it into a compliment. “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not a warm welcome for those, after all, who were coming to be baptized as a sign of repentance. Not a warm welcome, because John saw in their hearts that this was only an empty ritual for them, it was only for the people’s approval and to gain converts to their own cause. It was only to show that, in case this prophet gained a large influential following, that they were on his side.
I have often thought that both John the Baptist and Jesus had this wonderful ability to look someone in the eyes and to know instantly what was really in their hearts. They both challenged all of the masks and pretense we all wear in our daily lives, and they looked beyond that into our very souls.
To meet Jesus and look directly into his gaze must have been the most awesome and yet disturbing thing to encounter. All the gospels bear eloquent testimony to how people were changed completely by one encounter with Jesus.
And that is what John the Baptist is calling his followers to understand. Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees called on the Jews to physically do things to get right with God. But what they did not call them to was to change in any way the real person inside of each one of them. All they called them to was for appearances only – to appear to do and to be the right kind of people.
John the Baptist called for repentance. When we hear that word today in translation we tend to hear it as feeling sorry for the wrongs we have done in the past. The word is coloured with guilt and regret. But the word John used in Greek was “metanoia” which really means changing directions, choosing a new way of being, taking a new path. And John was taking a well-known and often practised ritual of bodily immersion in water and using it to describe a complete change of heart inside the person. Not something of outward behaviour. Not a ritual bath to make you clean enough to go into the temple. But a complete change of who you really are.
The Christian gospel calls us to that new way of being – to a new way of living – to a transformation that does not change our outside but changes our very inner being. And that is why Jesus told his followers – “You have to be born again.”
And both John and Jesus, each in their own way and in their own language was calling us to start all over again, to live life differently, and to become different people. To be transformed, not outside, but inside.
And so the season of Advent calls us to get ready for an encounter with Jesus. To get ready, perhaps, to change directions, to take a different path, to look at our lives and ourselves in a whole different way.
That may be a completely internal change in some of us – perhaps in ways that no one else will notice. But perhaps in ways that some will notice.
And I think, in the time in which we live and in the world that we are presently living in, we are called to live with each other and with God with attentiveness. To pay attention to those things and those people who really matter.
I believe we are called to pay attention in ways that challenge the direction being taken by our culture and its technology. Distracted by smartphones, by ambient noise, by dozens of strident voices telling us how to live and how to be, by the demands of social media, we are losing our ability to pay attention to those things and especially to those people who really matter. It is almost impossible these days to get the full attention of someone whose eyes are constantly going to a screen or a smartphone looking for the latest message from someone who is not even present in the room.
At the risk of sounding like John the Baptist, we need to re-connect with God by re-connecting with each other. With God-in-us. With Emmanuel. And we do it by giving total attentiveness to the other, not to ourselves. Something as simple as catching and being aware of the slight hesitation in someone who fails to give us a cheery “fine” when we ask how they are. There are so many opportunities in our daily lives to be Christ to one another but we have to be paying attention to them when they occur, to watch for those moments when we can make a real connection and perhaps a difference in someone else’s life. If you read the gospels carefully, it is so obvious that Jesus gave his complete attention to everyone he encountered. And every encounter was an invitation to deepen the relationship.
John the Baptist called his followers to repent and change directions. Jesus pointed out the way to do it – to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.