Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Desert Life: Sermon on Matthew 3:4-6

When it came to his enemies... one down, one to go. And he hadn't really had to lift a finger. Not that he took a great deal of satisfaction in any of it. He hadn't orchestrated this. He'd only said what his God told him to, and the rest had followed. Over a year earlier, Ahab, the mighty king of Israel, had gone into battle alongside his ally, Jehoshaphat, the king of southern Judah, against the Aramean king. The prophet Micaiah had warned Ahab not to, but Ahab was not one for listening to prophets. That was the problem. And Ahab had gotten himself shot through by an Aramean archer. They'd brought him back for burial, washed his bloody chariot by a pool in Samaria, and just as he'd been warned, dogs had licked up the blood (1 Kings 21:17—22:40).

His wicked queen Jezebel was still around. But she'd become the queen mother. One of her several sons, the hapless Ahaziah, had risen to the throne. But he was loyal, not to everything that made Israel Israel, but to all the things that made Ahab and Jezebel worthless to rule. Ahaziah “served Baal and worshipped him and provoked the LORD, the God of Israel” (1 Kings 22:53). During his days, Mesha, the king of Moab, had gone into rebellion against his Israelite overlords. Served Ahaziah right. And then, one day, pagan Ahaziah took a tumble from his rooftop to the ground below (2 Kings 1:2). Broke some bones, sustained internal injuries, had to be carried into a bed. He'd sent messengers to go seek a prophet's word to reassure him he'd be okay.

But he wanted a prophet for a Philistine god, the kind of god he liked, not the kind of God that had ushered his ancestors out of Egypt or shown them love. He didn't want the real God; he wanted a fly-speckled fraud. He sent his messengers on the way down to Ekron. But they didn't make it. A man intercepted them, scolding them all for abandoning Israel's covenant God. And the man promised that King Ahaziah would die. When the messengers came back, all they could do was say what the threatening man was wearing: “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather around his waist.” And Ahaziah had been around long enough to know it could only be one man: Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kings 1:1-8).

So the injured king, angry and desperate, sent a military unit to go drag Elijah down from his hill and force him to make a personal appearance. Elijah declined. And not politely. No, Elijah declined by promptly calling fire down from heaven, which devoured Ahaziah's soldiers. So Ahaziah sent another unit. And Elijah called down more fire. And so Ahaziah sent another unit. But instead of demanding Elijah's presence like the two who came before him, the third unit captain just begged Elijah to spare his life. So Elijah turned to the nearest angel, got confirmation he'd be okay, and went with them. Just so he could give the exact same message to Ahaziah that he'd given before – nearly word for word. And it came to pass. Ahaziah died (2 Kings 1:9-17).

Not long after that, Elijah took his disciple Elisha on a road trip, as it were. Down south. First to Bethel. Then to Jericho. Then to the banks of the Jordan River. They wanted to cross, so Elijah took off his hairy outer cloak and rolled it up and wapped the surface of the water with it – and just like that, the flow stopped and parted and they crossed over, out of the Land, reversing the journey of Joshua and the Israelites long ago. And then fire fell from heaven one more time – but not to destroy. No, fire fell from heaven like chariots and horses, all ablaze, and they whisked Elijah out of sight, from earth to somewhere else (2 Kings 2:1-14).

Through the years, prophets and rabbis and sages wondered what purposes God might still have for Elijah or for his legacy. The prophet Malachi explained that, before God's return in the fires of judgment to destroy evil on the Day of the LORD, Elijah would be sent to God's people, to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers,” so God would see something in Israel worth sparing (Malachi 4:5-6). In coming centuries, rabbis speculated just what Elijah might do when he came back. Some thought Elijah would use his prophetic wisdom to settle all their thorny questions about the Bible that they couldn't figure out how to answer. Some thought he'd use his prophetic wisdom to judge court cases. Some thought he'd re-establish the tribes of Israel, either sorting out messy marriages or reviving the records of family lines. Some thought Elijah would come to “compel insiders to become outsiders and outsiders to become insiders.” Some thought Elijah would come to establish peace on earth. Some thought Elijah would come to invite everyone to God.

Over eight centuries after the chariot of fire came down in the desert spaces near the banks of the Jordan to pick Elijah up, up, and away, a rather younger man – maybe 32 or 33 years old – came to a place like that. And his name was John. He came as a hairy man, a wilderness prophet, in a camel-hair shirt and a leather belt. In short, he came dressed like Elijah famously dressed (Matthew 3:4). And Jesus explained that this man, this John, was the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14) – the one Malachi talked about. John was the 'Elijah' of Malachi, sent to a wayward nation to call them back from going the way of Ahab and Ahaziah, one and all.

And, you know, John, walking the world in Elijah's shoes and Elijah's demeanor and Elijah's role, seems like he should have been an unattractive figure. Austere. Stern. Gaunt. Shabby-looking. Maybe frightening. What kind of breath do you think you'd have if you ate nothing but bugs and raw honey every day and had never seen a tube of toothpaste before? What aroma do you think you'd have if your only pair of clothes involved a shirt made of camel hair, and you were constantly getting it wet? And if a man were walking around today with that kind of breath and that kind of smell, refusing every meal that wasn't bugs and raw honey, with hair never cut and doubtfully combed, and he applied for a role preaching in just about any church in this country – how many do you think would give his application much thought before filing it in the little bin with the black disposable lining? When I was in college, there was a time some of my peers nicknamed me 'John the Baptist' – after all, I had hair past my shoulders, an austere demeanor, and a fiery and confrontational style. (I hope I at least dressed better and didn't have locust breath.) But if I truly looked and behaved like John the Baptist, what are the odds I'd be in this pulpit right now? Too often, we mentally domesticate John, the shaggy fellow preaching outdoors with a locust leg stuck in his teeth and flecks of honey stuck in his bushy beard. Who wants to listen to that guy – who wants to come close, to do anything but step to the other side of the street from him? The desert life wins no fashion contests, curries no favor, offers no opportunities for advancement.

But, Matthew tells us, John was paradoxically attractive. The crowds flooded out to him, from Jerusalem the great capital city, from the whole land of Judea, and even from Herod Antipas' dominions of Perea and Galilee. And that's very strange. There was something about John that drew people to him. I'm sure some initially went because he was a curiosity, a tourist stop – “Everybody, come get a look at the Astounding Preaching Hairball!” But then they heard his message and were hooked, like they'd forgotten what reality was, had learned to live off of simulations and counterfeits, until John force-fed them a taste of the real deal and their long-dormant appetites and tastes reactivated with a bang (Matthew 3:5).

In a world of pampered religious aristocrats, the priests and elders in their great finery, the Pharisees were well known and respected for their upright simplicity; but John was more self-denying than the hardiest Pharisee or even strict Essene. John was a wilderness prophet, true to Elijah's style. John lived fully 'off-the-grid,' as we say these days. We rely on other people, to some measure. When we want to eat, we go to the grocery store. We buy food that someone else butchered or cultivated or picked, and that still someone else shipped there, and that still someone else stocked there, and that still someone else will take our money in exchange for. Even if just in that, we rely on people – not to even mention the people who paved the roads that take us to the store that people built, using the gasoline that still other people refined from crude oil that yet other people drilled for. If we're paranoid enough, we might try to get 'off-the-grid' – get out into the woods, become self-sustaining on the land, no connections to public utilities.

But John took it so much further. So far that he wouldn't even accept food that he himself grew. Only food that no one provided but God, food that all John had to do was gather, and not a morsel more. And so, for the sake of total reliance on God and total communion with God, John gave up every creature comfort and every life's pleasure that could've been his. He never said every member of God's people would be called to such extremes of asceticism, of self-denial. But he served as a prophetic reminder of how far the range extended in that direction, how possible it is that our call is further in his direction than what we're prone to live, in our fancy connected houses with plenty on the table and plenty in the closet. And in his desert life, in his cashless existence, in his self-denial, he identified radically with the poor and the outcast. There's scarce a refugee or peasant or needy person in the world, be it city or desolate countryside, who owns truly less than John had. He lived like the utmost extreme of poverty, identifying with their pains and struggles. The prophet of the poor.

Yes, John was an ascetic amidst the pampered and the paupers. And, in a world of feel-good pieties, John was a fearless truth-teller – just like Elijah had been. Elijah hadn't cared what Ahab or Ahaziah wanted to hear. He had no interest in what message might be profitable. He took no thought for how to most gently and winsomely couch what he had to say. He was direct and to-the-point. Elijah announced harsh truths. And so did John. His was a message of judgment and repentance, 'turn or burn.' He offered hope, to be sure, but hope discovered on a rough road. Others in his day – they proclaimed messages of self-satisfaction or self-commendation. Some thought that everything was fine as it was, that the status quo was tolerable. Some thought that they had a quick and easy program for making Judea great again, through certain ritual or legal actions, and then God would act in predictable and controllable ways. But John was about the skies and the sands, the flood and the flame.

Today's religious and cultural atmosphere, at least as much so as in the age of Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, is rife with ear-tickling pleasantries. Ours is often proclaimed as a “post-truth culture,” from the halls of power politics to the media broadcast centers to the pulpits of the mass antichristian anti-sanctuaries to the endless cycles of rumors for the rabble. It's all ear-tickling. We hear a tale that we think confirms our preconceptions about how good we ourselves are, or how bad our opponents are, and we accept that as 'true.' We hear a tale that challenges our preferred narrative, and we reflexively denounce that as 'false.' The terms, as we see them, need have no significant relation to reality. It's all about maintaining the narrative. It's all about massaging the ego. It's all about feeding the desires full of advertising and artificial emotion. That's not just a liberal thing. That's not just a conservative thing. It's an American thing. It's a global thing. You'll find it as perilous among self-proclaimed patriots as among hardened anarchists and communists. You'll find it in gossip at the local diner, and you'll find it in the saccharine siren-songs of the trendiest pseudo-church. We have plenty of pundits who deceive themselves into thinking they're truth-tellers. But we have a dearth of honest-to-God truth-tellers.

But John was such a truth-teller, speaking forthrightly about sin and repentance, about damnation and salvation, not exempting himself, not holding himself out above everyone else, but cutting away every temptation to power and making himself a slave of his message – and of the Divine King whose messenger he was. And what was John's trumpet-blast of truth? He could have called down fire, like Elijah did. Elijah seemed to be calling down fire left and right, sometimes. But John said the fire was already on its way down. He wasn't the match. He wasn't the lighter. He wasn't the ignition. He was the alarm. And loud he'd sound, loud he'd sound, 'til all Israel had just one choice to make: knowingly heed or knowingly disregard.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to issue a public invitation: Turn to God, decisively and drastically. He told them there was no other way to do it than by becoming outsiders and then insiders all over again. So I guess you could say he compelled an Israelite remnant of insiders to become outsiders, then compelled these newly minted outsiders to become insiders. And so, like Joshua and the Israelites with the ark of the covenant and like Elijah and Elisha with the rough and scratchy cloak, John the Baptist took a micro-Israel under renewal through the waters of Jordan to the banks of the Promised Land.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, with prophetic wisdom to see into each person's situation and give them counsel. He told tax collectors to scam no one (Luke 3:12-13). He told soldiers to bully no one, extort from no one, gripe about their lousy pay to no one (Luke 3:14). He told the next-to-poorest peasant, a man with two shirts to his name and nothing more, to give the spare shirt to the bare-skinned fellow shivering down the road; and he told those on the verge of poverty to feed the still-hungrier with every morsel they could manage to keep alive without (Luke 3:11). And John had the credibility and moral authority to speak those words, given the desert life he led. For his desert life was a source of power.

John came, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to restore whole generations to covenant faithfulness, to a return to the Israel they should've been. He came to restore them by turning their hearts to one another, by giving them a common focal point: the God of Moses, the God of Sinai, the God of the Covenant, who was on his way to do a new thing. And so, to turn generations back to God, to restore them to healthy covenant standing, to make them ready to meet their Maker with a messianic face, he invited people to confess their sins and be baptized.

It sounds so simple. But it wasn't easy. When Matthew describes people as “confessing their sins” and being “baptized by him in the river Jordan” (Matthew 3:6), the word carries the sense of an open declaration. An act done without holding back. No reservations. No resistance. Just an honest admission that they were as guilty and impure and alienated as the most distant foreigner. Just a public statement that they accepted responsibility for Israel's problem. That they, and not the supposed 'villains' of the other factions in public life – they, and not some scapegoat they or their leaders had chosen – they, and not fate or chance or the logic of history – no, that they were what was wrong with their world. And then naming concrete ways that that was so – real things that they personally had done. Not a list of problems of their neighbors, from which the confessor could stand aloof. But their real own dirty laundry, brought into the open, displayed not with pride, not with defiance, but with true contrition. Confessing their sins. Dredging them up to the surface. And then, and only then, getting the bodily surface washed to start society over again from its birth.

In John's eyes, you see, there can be no renewal apart from vulnerability and honesty. And real vulnerability, real honesty, mean confession. Confession is what the desert life is all about. The desert life is the freedom to be unveiled, to be unmasked, to scream our shame in barren places – to hear all the most uncomfortable truths spoken aloud in our own syllables, in the most clarifying air. And so John called Israel to confess their sins. It's a wonder to me that people listened. That people did. But they did. They came to hear John. They felt the impact of his message. They encountered reality at last. They laid aside their pride and their defenses, they spurned the paths of self-satisfaction and self-justification, and they identified their own reflection as the blurry shadow blocking Israel from the light. They named their wrongs, keeping nothing in reserve under wraps, and named them as wrongs to be regretted and repented. They let John cast them as outsiders, treat them as foreign beggars, and then let John seize control and wash them clean and restore them to the Land like days of old. And if the way home meant coming close to bushy hair, disheveled clothes, burning eyes, locust breath, so be it.

And then there's us. Confronted with this wild man, this locust-breath man in the camel-hair clothes, this new Elijah for a new season of darkness – what should we do? What can we possibly take from him? We can learn to appreciate John the Baptist. He cannot be tamed. He cannot be sanitized. We've often tried to do that. But the wild man breaks through. And he points to a wild Christ. So must we. And if we have to get wilder to do it, so be it. If we have to set aside some creature comforts to better point to Christ, so be it. If we have to live more like poor and homeless exiles, so be it. If we have to live in less dependence on the safety net of society and in greater dependence on God, so be it. If we have to spend some time in the desert, so be it. Let our lives and words point to a wild Christ – wild with holy love.

And to do that, we need first to confess our sins. We need to stop pointing so many fingers at the evil out there, and start seeing our own reflection as the shadow. We need to name our own wrongs as wrong, holding nothing back, and admitting that, if we're to stand again after our fall, it can only be by grace. We need to confess our sins. And we need to recollect our baptism. Like those who heard John's message, we once had to be reckoned as full outsiders before, again by grace, we were brought through the water into the land. We had to be born again, regenerated through the washing with water by the word. There was no other way. And the Body of Christ is our new Israel; God is all our promise, and to him must you turn. The decisive act in your life was the day someone took you through the water, stood you back up as a spiritual Israelite in covenant with God through Christ, and told you to go conquer the worldwide land through the gospel. Because that, and nothing less, is what your baptism meant and means. Live by it, in the city or the desert, on the farm or on the road.

And then commit yourself to the truth. Ours is a good truth to tell, though – told well – it flatters none, least of all ourselves, but surely not those who yearn to be married to Death by the ministrations of Sin. But commit yourself to truth and only truth. See and tell, not the news of the hour, not the spin of this or that faction, but truth you've seen and known. And above all, the truth of the gospel – of Christ crucified and risen and coming again, the Christ who yearns to divorce us from Sin and Death so we can find a better Bridegroom in him. The truth, in short, that you confessed at baptism – that truth, do tell, tell always, like Elijah and John, no matter the Ahabs and Ahaziahs of the day. Only repent and live by faith in the Son of God – to him be the glory forever!

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