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Sunday, December 8, 2019 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
John the Baptist: The Holy Homemaker
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
It takes generations to build the Christ vision in the world, just as it took generations after Jesse to prepare for the coming of the Christ. It is our task to root ideas now that will bring the next generation to wholeness.
Joan D. Chittister, OSB
As many of you know, unless we are in a sermon series, I am not a preacher who enjoys putting titles with my sermons until after they are written and preached. I have, of course, a couple of reasons as to why. First, I sometimes wonder if a title can inadvertently tell the congregation what you are supposed to hear as the sermon is preached, and I never want to focus you or myself prematurely on just one interpretive trajectory, because when you and I are in the preaching moment and open to God’s Spirit, then only God knows what you might hear.
But second, the even more practical reason, is that we have to turn in bulletins two weeks in advance, and I never know that far ahead what exactly I will write on the Friday and Saturday before the Sunday arrives.
Yet even with all that said, I must tell you I have titled this sermon with you today. This is what it is: “John the Baptist: The Holy Homemaker.” I know! It breaks my rules. It tells you for what you are to listen. And it definitely makes me focus on one particular aspect of a very rich and theologically complex text. Despite that though, I am sharing it with you because I suspect none of you have ever attached those words—the Holy Homemaker—to John the Baptist before.
After all, look at the way Matthew talks about him! “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” John the Baptist is dressed in the clothing of Elijah the prophet, not June the Cleaver or these days, Rebecca the Pearson (a This Is Us reference). Frankly, I have always found it unfortunate that John never shows up in the nativity scenes that some of us collect. I realize it would not make linear sense with the story (he was in utero at the same time Jesus was), but his presence would certainly liven up the area outside the stable.
Actually, when I was a pastor in Texas, we played around with John the Baptist during Advent. The church had big figures for our nativity set, easily two feet tall, that we would place on a shelf behind the Communion table. The scene grew with each Sunday in Advent as we introduced the different characters of the Christmas story. So on the second Sunday of Advent, we would take our Joseph figure, who wasn’t going to show up until Advent 4, wrap him in burlap, and place him on the empty, wilderness-looking shelf so he could stand in as John the Baptist. While that was not the ideal solution, he did look strange enough to help make Matthew’s point. He was dramatic looking, off-putting up there all by himself. He certainly did not look like one who would do a good job of making a house feel like a home. You would never guess that hospitality was one of his spiritual gifts.
One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, called John the Baptist the “Doberman pinscher of the Gospel” because he sinks his teeth into us, shakes our souls around, and will not let us go (Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Cure for Despair,” Journal for Preachers, 1 January 1997, pp. 16–18). Vivid, isn’t it. Fred Buechner described him this way: “John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time” (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, p. 69).
This image of John the Baptist that Matthew paints, as well as Luke and Mark, and on which Taylor and Buechner reflect, is an image of a stark, wild-man street preacher, bellowing out messages to be baptized. Bellowing out calls for repentance. Bellowing out that the powerful one—the one wearing the sandals John was not even fit to untie—that one was on the way with a winnowing fork in his hand so you better be ready. Again, the title “homemaker” does not seem to fit very well with this John the Baptist character.
And yet I think that is exactly what John is calling us to do, especially during this season of preparation. He is calling us to prepare our home in order to be ready for the arrival of our Messiah. Now, allow me to clarify: John is not calling on us to prepare our literal homes, of course. Rather, John is calling on all of us to prepare the homes of our hearts. The ancient theologian Tertullian stated it this way: “John called us to purge our minds of whatever impurity error had imparted, whatever contamination ignorance had engendered, which repentance would sweep and scour away, and cast out. So prepare the home of your heart by making it clean for the Holy Spirit.”
With his startling dress of camel’s hair, his desolate landscape of wilderness, and his bare-boned sermons of baptism and repentance, John the Baptist, the holy homemaker, is calling us to prepare the homes of our hearts with the same kind of intensity and thoughtfulness that we employ when we do prepare our actual homes, so that we might be spiritually ready when our God once again looks for a place to be born and to lodge. But even as I say that out loud, knowing that invitation to prepare ourselves is itself a challenging interpretation, I am not convinced that is radical enough for this Advent.
In these days, as 2019 comes to an end and the dawn of another decade starts to rise, as articles of impeachment are drafted and we all settle into our ideological and political bunkers to prepare for a fight, I hear John the Baptist, God’s holy homemaker, calling on us, followers of Jesus, to also prepare the home of our collective heart, the one we share here as a faith community, because honestly, in our larger culture, the piles of the dust of cynicism are growing larger. The cobwebs of distrust are being spun at breakneck speed. The trash of hateful words and dismissive stereotypes are overflowing their bins into the streets and alleyways.
And the stench emanating from the disintegration of our common community based on the recognition of our common humanity is starting to overwhelm our senses. And don’t think all of that has not somehow made its way even into here. I am sure it has, which means our collective heart home is also rather filthy. We have got a lot of work to do if we want to make it ready and clean for the Holy Spirit, for the lodging of our Lord.
But while the work might feel overwhelming, John the Baptist, our holy homemaker, does give us a tool. He strongly suggests we use the powerful tool of repentance in order to sweep, scour, and cast out all that keeps us from being ready for Jesus’ arrival. “Repent,” John preaches. “Turn around. Change direction. Do it now. God is coming and you can change!” That is John’s bare-bones Advent sermon. That is the cleaning tool he offers us.
Now, I know that the word repent! is often heard with its traditional hard and severe sound, posing its ominous threat at impending judgmental doom. As preacher Gary Charles reminds us, “‘repent’ in English is a tired, old, church word. In the church’s past, the cry of ‘Repent!’ evoked scary images of wild-eyed preachers thumping their Bibles and haranguing all sinners in sight. Today, in mainstream churches [like this one], it sounds anachronistic, petty, and useless; it is now blunt and dull. It has been pushed to the church’s theological edge” (Gary Charles and Brian Blount, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 37).
And yet, I argue we need to pull it away from the edge and back to the center, for the reason repent can be such a useful spiritual tool for us is because metanoeite (the Greek word for “repent”) is actually an imperative invitation. It is an invitation to turn from our past ways of being and living to a future made possible by the grace of God. It is an invitation that means we do not have to be stuck forever living in ways that knock the breath out of us.
And isn’t that sometimes how we feel? Like the news and the stress and the crises here and abroad and the grief that can accompany long winter days knock some of our breath out of us? But “with God on the loose in the person of Jesus, we are invited to find a new way to live that is literally a breath of fresh air” (Charles and Blount, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 37). When our holy homemaker John preaches for us to repent, he does so as one who trusts that not only is new life in God possible, but it is imminently on its way in Jesus our Christ.
“Repent,” John preaches, with the sound of invitation in his voice, not only warning. Look at where you have been. Look at who you have been, as people and as a people. Be honest about it. Look back, be honest, confess, but then do something. Turn around. Change direction. Trust in a future made possible not by who you are but by who God is, shown most clearly in the one for whom we are getting ready. Trust that God’s goodness is much more powerful than our badness as people and as a people. And then, as we stand in that trust, start to clean out, make space, prepare the homes of our own hearts, the home of our collective heart, so that we might be ready for the Holy One, our God, to come and lodge in and with us, making all of it new and fresh and free again with plenty of room to breathe.
I have not yet seen the new Mister Rogers movie featuring Tom Hanks, though I hope to do so soon. But in this month’s Atlantic magazine, the journalist whose relationship with Rogers was used as a foundation for that movie wrote a lengthy article in which he reflected on their deep and abiding friendship. His name is Tom Junod. And though this is a bit lengthy, I would like to tell you some of what he said, because he offers a vision of what a cleaned-up collective heart looks like, and he offers that vision in his response to all of the inquiries he has received as to what he thought the Presbyterian minister Mister Rogers would say about the state of our nation, the state of our politics and discourse, were he alive today. Here is what he wrote:
Fred Rogers was not a particularly political man, despite the fame he won for going to Capitol Hill in 1969 and fighting for the survival of public television, . . . and yet, one can hazard a guess about Fred’s answers. . . . It’s obvious that he would have been saddened by our country’s continued refusal to provide health care to all its citizens. It’s obvious that he would have been devastated by the cruelties committed in our name at the border and shaken by our lack of mercy in all things, particularly our policies toward helpless children. But even more obvious is what his position would have been regarding the civility debate. (Tom Junod, “My Friend Mister Rogers,” Atlantic, December 2019; I commend the entire article to you.)
Quick note, in case your partisan alarm bells are going off, lest you think he is only critical of governmental policies, Mr. Junod also directly takes on those he calls “progressive activists who have decided that civility is a luxury that none of us can afford, an instrument of an intolerable status quo.”
He challenges everybody. Back to it: “Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.”
The public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into a place full of neighbors, something like a neighborhood. Talk about the possibility of fresh air, of breathing room. To me, Junod’s articulation of Rogers’ vision sounds like what a beautifully clean collective heart might look like; it sounds like what the kingdom of God intends; it sounds like a very hospitable place in which the Spirit of God could be born and lodge. It sounds like what I would hope for us to be and to birth as a community of faith.
But friends, that possibility, that vision will not come anywhere near fruition unless we—you and me and others with whom we have influence—start to repent on a daily basis, doing what we can to clean and to scrub and to scour our own hearts and our collective heart; turning away from our cynicism, turning away from our stereotypes, turning away from any hatred or disdain for our fellow human beings, in order to turn back to God, in order to turn back to goodness, in order to turn back to love and kindness and civility and graciousness and mercy.
For regardless of what we think about each other’s politics or anything else, what we think about each other, about anyone and everyone (no exceptions), needs to be clear: each and every person is a child of God, loved, claimed, treasured. For any of us to demean anyone—with words or by policy—is to cheapen the gospel, and John the Baptist, our holy homemaker, sternly warns against it. For cleaning day is coming, one way or another, and when that happens, the chaff—all the stuff that is only muck and dirty mess—will burn with unquenchable fire, John promises.
Friends, is it possible for us, today? Is it possible for us to clean up and to clean out, to make space, to make room in our hearts and in our collective heart for God’s audacious arrival into our history, into our world as Jesus? Is it possible for us to employ the tool of continual repentance so we might sweep out the mess of anything and everything that keeps us from living the good news of God’s claim on our lives, the good news of God’s claim on our world? Could we help make God’s vision, the vision Fred Rogers lived out in his own way, happen here and now, especially in the middle of these difficult days? Can we work to stem the tide of meanness, of hatefulness, of degradation that continues to pile up around us? O God, I hope so. May we get to cleaning so the home of our heart might indeed be made holy by the One known primarily as Love. I invite you to repent alongside me this season. For if we really long to follow Jesus, we can do no less. Amen.