A reflection on St. Luke 3:10-18
I cannot think of him in any other way except as “Old” John the Baptizer. But he was only in his early thirties at the outside, a bare six months older than his cousin, Jesus. But he is old to me, as ancient as everything else about Israel.
Charlton Heston’s movie baptizer* is stuck in my head, that’s the problem. Gritty, grimy, dressed in scratchy camel hair, stealing honey from African killer bees, gobbling down hapless grasshoppers, looking like some Stone Age Neanderthalic prophet clubbing people with their sins — there’s John, gone crazy-mad with axe fever, itching to launch himself into a pyromaniacal rage.
There he is, dipping his water-puckered hands into the Jordan River time after time to wash the sins off “vipers,” and off of “stones” that pretend to call themselves children of Abraham. Hear him, yelling away about the axe and the fire and the wrath of God soon coming upon Earth?
What is this?
Just more Doomsday talk, you know, just something that fits in with today’s preppers and survivalists, and National Geographic Channel specials about preppers and survivalists. Everybody’s getting ready for the last day, that One Big Last Day (sometime this Friday if my calendar is correct).
With breathless panic “the crowds asked (John), ‘What then should we do?’”
Well, if you have to ask don’t you already know the answer? Stock up on six month’s supply of freeze dried food pouches, get a warm sleeping bag, plenty of propane, and buy gold (and I buy my gold from Rosland Capital).
Can you picture them, all those people listening to Old John, hunkered down in front of the first century’s version of How to Survive the Coming Wrath? And the questions tumble out.
“Teacher, what should I do?” It is not surprising that all these people come to John the Baptist, pleading, “What do I have to do? I’ll do it. Just tell me what I have to do.”
And the answer is: Nuthin’. Got that? That’s pretty much what he says, as I read it. You see, none of his answers focused on the person who asked, “What must I do?”
Instead, all his answers put a spotlight on what must happen for someone else.
There’s an interesting twist. There is nothing you may do for yourself. Instead, there is everything you can do for your neighbor.
Like what? Like, live charitably. Collect honest taxes, no more than necessary. Do not use a public trust to extort money.
Can you imagine a happy land like that? None of those people could. That’s why they needed a John the Baptizer to remind them.
Nothing of what he said is about “me.” All of what he said is for somebody else.
Dunno, but as “real” Doomsday prophets go, Old John turns out to be a decided disappointment. What he says doesn’t sound like Doomsday at all, not to me. Does it sound like that to you? But if it is Doomsday, let her roll, I say, let her roll.
Old John’s version of Doomsday isn’t about doom at all. In fact, it turns out to about the “one who is coming.” He’s the one. He will do it. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and he’ll put a fire in your belly. You wait and see if he doesn’t.
God sends the Christ, who gives his life for us each. It is this and this alone that gives life to the world and rescues us from the entropy of death. We can’t strive for it. It is given. We don’t earn it. It is free. It is not about “us” getting. It is about him giving.
The way of God is totally opposite from what we expect, even maybe from what we deserve. It contradicts how we experience life. “Tell me what I must do.” And instead I am pointed gently to a neighbor. I am moved beyond expectation.
Henry Thoreau talked about those who “march to the beat of a different drummer.” But here’s Old John showing up with a whole ‘nother drum set.
That is our situation as the Church of Christ on a sojourn in this place. Life around us has this steady pace of what’s expected.
But John’s pounding an expectant beat, and here comes Jesus with a sweeter rhythm: Life is a gift. The kingdom is free. Christ is on our side. Grace and mercy have the last word. Look after each other.
Even now he is tapping out the sounds that measure our steps to this Table where his Body and Blood mark the dimensions of our need and his gift.
* The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, and a featured author at First Things magazine web site.