Sermon: Baptist at the Party

December 4, 2022

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

by Eric Anderson

I went to seminary with a lot of Baptists. Andover Newton Theological School was closely related to the United Church of Christ on the one hand and to the American Baptist Churches on the other. You might find UCCs outnumbering Baptists in one graduating class and find Baptists outnumbering UCCs in the next graduating class. As a result, we always invited Baptists to our parties.

The Baptists at the parties were fun.

We tended not, however, to invite the Baptist to the parties. John the Baptist, that is. Even ignoring the fact that he’d been deceased for just under two thousand years, not even seminarians could imagine inviting John the Baptist to a party. Or, well, we could imagine him being at a party. There he’d be, staring wild-eyed across the room, shaggy and unkempt and scowling. Just about the time someone would offer him a snack he’d burst out with, “You brood of vipers!”

So, no. No inviting John the Baptist to the party.

The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, however – and for that matter Church worship leaders over the centuries that Advent has been observed – have invited that grim prophet to our pre-Christmas party. “John! Hi! It’s so nice to see you. I’m glad you were able to get away from all that preaching and baptizing for an evening. Have you met Eric? Or Anne? Or the Suzukis?

“Oh, by the way, could you cut down on the ‘brood of vipers’ comments for just tonight? That would be great, thanks. Have a mochi.”

Do you think that would go well?

I don’t think that would go well.

Why has the Church invited the Baptist to the party?

As Advent has developed over the last 1500 years, most of that time Advent has not been a party. Christianity early on developed its great celebrations: Epiphany and its younger sibling Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Before two of them – Christmas and Easter – they set preparation times. Contemplation times. Penitential times. Christian leaders believed that the celebrations would be freer, more spirited, and more connected to God if they were preceded by cleansing of the soul. Before the feasts, they created fasts. Before the merriment, they asked for solemnity. Before the praise, they asked for piety.

As Debie Thomas writes at JourneyWithJesus.net, “I’ve never seen John the Baptist featured on an Advent calender or Christmas greeting card, but all four Gospels place him front and center in Jesus’s origin story. John’s gaunt austerity is the only gateway we have to the swaddling clothes, angel’s wings, and fleecy lambs we hold dear each December. As baffling as it may seem, the holy drama of the season depends on the disheveled baptizer’s opening act.”

When the Baptist appears at the party, he challenges us not with his own appearance, but with a mirror that reflects our own. With the Baptist at the party, we have to face ourselves honestly. With the Baptist at the party, some of our pride withers away. With the Baptist at the party, some of our persistent self-delusion fades. With the Baptist at the party, we see whether we’re bearing good fruit – or not so good.

The Baptist at the party also reminds us that the image in that mirror can change. The Baptist’s ministry, after all, was baptizing. Washing. Cleaning. Renewing. With the Baptist at the party, we realize that we can be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. All we have to do is… repent. Do things differently. Do things better. Do things… well.

Personally, I rather like my delusion of perfection. I don’t care to see it corrected, and I’m really not eager to correct it myself. Do I really want to do better, when doing it the other way was working? Sort of? A little?

The Baptist at the party, however, reminds us just how great the party is, or can be, or will be. Yes. How great it is. As Rachel G. Hackenberg has written for the UCC Daily Devotional, archived at rachelhackenberg.com, “The start of Advent lays bare the world’s pain … without which there would be no reason for God’s coming. No reason for angels singing. No reason for prophets preaching. No reason for magi seeking.

“No reason for hoping and imagining and living toward a new world.”

It’s not just our imperfections coming clear – it’s also the stresses of the world, where wars persist, where a pandemic still slays, where abusers make “safe at home” into a lie, where the fragility of human life is so obvious. In other places on the planet, we could retreat into a false certainty, that at least the land is permanent. Here on Hawai’i Island, we watch the seas reshape the coastline as they rise, and we see the flowing lava rebuilding the mountains. Even without human action, without human malice, without human error, we know deeply that all things that come, will go.

So come on in, John. Welcome, Baptist, to the party. If I flinch when I look at you, it’s not your face I’m seeing – it’s my soul I’m seeing, and I know I need to do something about it. I’m not happy about that, John, neither the mirror you’re holding nor the work I need to be doing, but you know, I would rather do and be better. I would. So I’ll work at it, John. Thank you.

And thank you for being at the party because the world is bigger than I am, and it’s harsh, and it’s got lots of evil. Thank you for proclaiming a Savior with powers beyond my own. Thank you for opening up the possibilities I hadn’t imagined. Thank you for the hope, John.

Come in. Enjoy the party. We couldn’t have it without you.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric tends to improvise during preaching, so the recorded sermon is different from the prepared text.

The image is Saint John the Baptist Praying in the Wilderness by an unknown artist, attributed to the Venetian School (between 1500 – 1699) – Art UK, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91953978.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on December 4, 2022

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