John the Baptist was about my age; he had a few years on me, sure, but by most accounts was still wet behind the ears. Probably he was hairier, with kind of an unkempt thing happening (whereas it’s a coiffed aesthetic I’m after). He knew he would be standing up in front of so many Hebrews, all in their Saturday best, all of them wondering about him, you know, with expectations and questions about him, and so I imagine he was nervous. And when John the Baptist gets nervous—God love him—he sweats, and as it is he is granola to the nth degree and smells, scripture says, like camel. So I imagine that he, too, would have spent the morning of his big preaching debut drenching himself in so much cologne that when he stepped out into the Judean desert, the whole of the hill country smelled like the cosmetics counter at a cheap department store. I get this guy.
Yes, John the Baptist was jittery. He scrambled to a rock there by the riverside and he got up on it and they were all looking at him and he was so much higher up than he had envisioned it and Is it hot in here? and he could see that they were aswirl with questions: Is this new prophet going to give a funny sermon? If he’s smart he’ll give a short sermon! Is that Old Spice I smell? He starts speaking and (we didn’t have the whole body of his message read this morning, so you’ll have to take my word for it) he does the thing that they teach you in seminary not to do, never to do, that is, to try to beat your nerves by talking louder and faster and so taking shorter, shallower breaths, and then turning red, and losing your place on the page and going off script and saying things for heaven’s sake you should not have said. His sermon turns to sheer bluster; he calls the crowd a brood of vipers and opines on tax policy (!) – and this is a mild man, fresh in from the Midwest ... of Israel, and knows better. But he’s a preacher under pressure. I get this guy.
Interestingly, in Luke’s account, we don’t see John do any actual baptizing; the story starts with a jumble of folk there at the River Jordan, ready to be dunked and turn a new lead and so on, it includes the greatest hits of John’s preaching, but then it cuts straightaway to after the fact, with everyone done and dripping wet. Which may mean, I don’t know, that things went downhill after that sermon of his, may mean that the new prophet botched those baptisms, too—almost fumbled one of the babies or held somebody down for such a long time that they came up sputtering and with water coming out of their nose—may mean that generous, old Luke thought, Oh goodness, this poor soul has stewed in humiliation already and let’s not have him go down in history that way. Regardless, the next thing we know, John, still ankle-deep in the river, is standing there with some man he’s baptized, the last—hallelujah, glory be! —the last one he’s baptized and right at the moment when the new prophet is thinking That’s a wrap, thinking, Finally! Now I can’t embarrass myself any further!, right then, as dumb luck would have it, a dirty, lone bird drops and strikes them. Splat.
Now, Old South Church in Boston, I don’t know what experience you have had with, let’s say, “friendly beasts” in worship. But at Plymouth Congregational where I currently serve, we have bats that think they’re those Blue Angel fighter pilots and they will dip and dive and do figure-8s and loop-d-loops and flips. And for the duration of the service no one can think of anything else save Where has the bat gone? and On which unlucky worshipper will the bat land? And, you know, people don’t say this, they don’t, but secretly, secretly, everyone wants it to hit the minister. People who barely mumble along on the Lord’s Prayer are praying like they’ve never prayed before, promising God their firstborn if only the bat will hit the minister. This scripture lesson has turned into every dozing Congregationalist child’s dream and every nervous, new prophet’s nightmare. So good luck recovering from that, John! I get this guy.
You all know the story. The man whose forehead the bird flew into, the man is no run-of-the-mill, regular, ordinary man; it’s Jesus. Now, we’re not given to believe that before this, his fateful, first day on the job, John had ever met Jesus. It’s true that thirty-odd years earlier, their mothers Elizabeth and Mary were splendidly pregnant together and both standing there, beautiful, big stomach touching beautiful, big stomach, both of their belly buttons ‘outies’ now – and that John leapt within the womb right then, kicked, as if he could somehow sense Jesus had come close. And he was only barely a little knot of being, swimming in a safe, warm sleep, but all of his soft, tiny almost-baby self sensed and felt and knew that he was held in the company of something beyond what he could ever be, something very alive and huge.
Fast-forward, then, three decades or so, and it’s been a nerve-racking, fraught, pressure-cooked kind of debut, and John wants to get back to anything safe and familiar. And some man makes his way to the front and the two are eye to eye – and tides rise in John. It’s not déjà vu or seeing a person you knew in a past life; again, it’s sensing and feeling and knowing that you are held in the company of something beyond what you could ever be, something very alive and huge. It’s Jesus. And John is overcome and stammers out what words he can. He says: “Him? Really? Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me, God. I am to serve him? He’s what I want to be when I grow up. His life sings, and I’ve never even met the man, but I hear something, and it’s what I’ve always believed justice sounded like and what mercy sounded like. And he’s so beautiful. I couldn’t kiss his feet. I’m not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” I get this guy.
I do, I get this guy. Old South Church in Boston, in the months I have been thinking of you and praying for you, following your common life from afar, in the meals I have shared with many of you, in the hospitality and kindnesses I have received from you, in tracing the force of your witness, felt over centuries, and in thanking God that churches like you are here to walk with our world on into tomorrow, well, tides have risen in me. And I’ve only just met you, but your life sings, and it’s what I’ve always believed justice sounded like and what mercy sounded like. And you’re so beautiful. It’s not déjà vu or seeing a people you knew in a past life; it’s sensing and feeling and knowing that I am held in the company of something beyond what I could ever be, something very alive and huge. It’s Jesus in you. I sense and feel and know and am responding to Jesus in you. And with John the Baptist, new guy of yore, I’m plumb wonderstruck, I am, and the words are just stammering, really: Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me, God. I am to serve them? I wouldn’t be worthy to put on the little booties of the babies they’d give me to baptize. But in this instance to see heaven break open over them, to see them shining there like all they’ve ever known is your belovedness, God, thank you. Amen.