The bible raises many deep mysterious questions, questions about the nature of being, about the meaning of life, questions which could occupy the finest minds ‘til Kingdom come. And the questions I’ll answer in this sermon? Well, they’re nothing like that. All my questions today have easy answers. My questions are about John the Baptist and they are: who, what, where, when, and for good measure, why. Let’s start with when, when did John the Baptist start his ministry? That’s easy if you know where to look. John began his ministry in the year 29. We know because the story of how John got started is told in the gospel of Luke, chapter 3. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, THAT’S when the word of God came to John son of Zechariah
What a mouthful! Who tells time this way? On the one hand, it does allow us to cross check the dates and come up with our “when”: the year 29. But we also learn something else, the Holy Land was divided. There were so many borders crossing and crisscrossing that Luke has to list more than half a dozen separate and competing rulers within the Holy Land—one ruler in this spot and another ruler just a few miles away.
There were deep-seated ethnic and political and economic conflicts between these different small states, and the borders were dangerous, the site of skirmishes and thievery. It was a time of division and danger, so most people wisely tried to stay well away from the borders. People tried to stay deep within their territory, surrounded solely by their own people. That’s what the Holy Land was like in the year 29. That’s what it was like when John the Baptist got started. So that’s when, how about where? Where did John the Baptist begin his ministry?
That one is easy too, because Luke 3 says that John went "into all the region around the Jordan river”, preaching and attracting quite a following. But you have to understand, this isn’t just, “oh, I get it, John the Baptist preached near a river”. Remember those disputed dangerous borders I was talking about? The Jordan River WAS a border, in many ways it was THE border, virtually its entire length was a disputed border. If John wanted to follow the Jordan River north, he would begin in a land called Idumea, then cross into Judea, from there the river turns toward Samaria, and from Samaria into the Decapolis, from the Decapolis into Perea, then from Perea back into the Decapolis for a while before dead ending in Galilee. John was preaching in all the region around the Jordan river, and it is easier to count the number of borders that he DIDN’T cross than the ones he did.
So that’s the when and where of John’s ministry—he worked at hotly contested borders during a time of stark and dangerous division. How about what, what was John the Baptist doing? Well, that’s the easiest question yet. The answer is right in his name—John the Baptist was baptizing people. He was baptizing people in the Jordan River. John met people at the most hotly contested border of his day, he stood in the very midst of a river used to divide people from one another, and he used that water to baptize them. He baptized all those who sought to return to God, regardless of what side of the river they had walked up to him from. John immersed people in waters which had been used as a means of division, and people came out of the water radically transformed, radically unified, fundamentally equal and beyond all borders because they shared spiritual unity in God’s eyes. To be forgiven is a powerful thing, to offer forgiveness is an amazing gift. Through baptism, a divided people transcended the stark political and economic borders that created anger and distrust among people who were neighbors! That’s the when, where and what of John the Baptist’s ministry, that leaves us with why. Why was John doing any of this?
Why is normally the hard question, but this time why is easy too, because the gospel of Luke tells us why. John was baptizing people to prepare the way of the Lord. John was baptizing people to prepare them for the coming of Jesus Christ. Every valley was to be lifted up and every mountain brought low. Understand, this isn’t about landscaping, it's about soul-scaping, it’s about spirit-shaping. John was preparing people to live without false distinctions of high and low, east and west, Jew and Samaritan. Because all that was going to become meaningless when the One who was coming arrived. John was preparing the way of the Lord.
That rounds out our who, what, where, when, and why of John’s ministry—that leaves us with one hard question, a question I can’t answer. Not by myself anyway.
Will we continue the work John started?
This is Advent and the work of John the Baptist calls to us: Prepare the way of the Lord! The work is still ours to do, after all. This is still a time of remarkable division just like it was for John. And this is still a world of hotly contested borders of faith, politics, and economics just like it was for John. The work calls to us but perhaps you wonder whether we have the resources that John did, whether we are able to do John’s work. John the Baptist had only one resource at his disposal: the waters of baptism. And we still have the waters of baptism! The waters of baptism are as wide and deep as a great and rushing river, and like a river they may either divide people or bring them together. As Christians we need not remain standing on one side or the other of any great divide, afraid that to joyfully reenter the waters of community will sweep us away. Instead, we may walk into the deep waters of our shared baptism and be immersed. We may be immersed in the equanimity of God’s love, the expansiveness of God’s love, the just-for-me and the no-less-for-my-enemy-ness of God’s love. Christians, it is Advent, it’s time to heal ourselves, heal our world, heal our church, amen? Amen.