Sometime, you might have to deliver bad news to someone. You might be afraid that they’re going to lash out at you; even though the thing in question isn’t your fault, you may still feel like they’re going to get mad at you, when all you’re doing is delivering the news. So you might start giving this bad news by saying, “Now don’t shoot the messenger, but…” I know I’ve done that before.
The phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger” is not a recent one. As many of you probably know from history classes you took in school, messengers were set apart from the usual rules of war. You couldn’t shoot messengers. After all, if one side wanted to surrender to the other, you’d never know unless you let a messenger through. So it was critically important that armies didn’t attack messengers. Today, when we talk about delivering unwanted news, it’s easy to cast ourselves in this light – to be the bringers of bad news when it’s needed, but not wanting to be punished for it.
These rules about shooting the messenger have been consistent throughout the world, across geographic regions and cultures, even across time. Yet, cultures would dress up their messengers differently, in a way that was appropriate to their own culture. When you received a messenger in the ancient world, it wasn’t your place to criticize how he might be dressed; you weren’t there for the messenger, after all. What you needed was the message.
Well, brothers and sisters, that brings us to today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. In it, we read of God’s messenger. And, of course, that messenger comes dressed in his own garb. It’s… well, let’s just call it “non-traditional.” “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey,” says verse six.
I think one of the hardest things for us as modern readers of the Bible to understand is what life was like in ancient Judea. We take so many things for granted here that it’s hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes… or sandals for a second. When thinking about this passage, we might be ready to dismiss John’s eccentricities because he lived a long time ago. Or we might just consider that people lived in a desert – maybe they just had a lot higher tolerance for a dirty appearance than we do.
Well, there’s some truth to that. But on the other hand, there are tons of rules for being clean in Judaism. There had to be, because the world was simply dirtier than the one we’re used to. Still, they prioritized bathing and being clean. Not to mention, John just seems to be eating whatever is nearest him. If there’s one thing there are more rules about in Judaism than washing, it’s eating. Yet, John is surviving off of the locusts and wild honey he’s finding in his immediate vicinity.
Basically, John is not at all respectable. He’s the opposite, actually. He’s a hairy weirdo who dresses funny, lives in the wilderness, and eats whatever food he can find. That’s just as weird then as it would be now. And yet, people are flocking to him in droves. They’re coming to him, to meet down by the river and to be baptized by him. Now, some of you smart-alecks out there are probably thinking that people just want John to go in the river and wash, and that’s why he’s baptizing so many people. But that’s not the case; rather John is preaching, according to our passage from Mark, two things. So I want those two things to be the focus of my sermon today, too.
The first of the two things John is preaching is “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as Mark tells us in verse four of today’s reading. John isn’t just bringing people down to the river to dunk them in water; they’re coming to have their sins washed away.
The idea of the forgiveness of sins being a crucial element of baptism is something we often lose in today’s world. After all, as Christians, so many of us get used to seeing people baptized as babies that we forget about this important aspect of this ritual. As a church that believes in infant baptism, however, we acknowledge that we are not just washing away sins that have already been committed; we’re also washing away the power that sin has over us in the world. Yes, we will still sin, even if we were baptized as babies. But you know what? I’ve known a lot of people baptized as adults, and I’ve yet to meet the one who avoided sinning after the baptism.
We need baptism as a symbol, because it reminds us that God – and God alone – is capable of washing away our sins, just as dirt is washed away from our bodies. Lost among all the talk of prayers and church attendance, of how to speak and act toward others and the world around us, is often this simple truth: God loves you, and is happy to forgive your sins.
Our church ritualizes this forgiveness, not by re-baptizing us every week. After all, our one baptism is enough to mark us as Christ’s, and he is constantly making us new. Instead, we have a formalized time of confession and pardon, in which we remember that, yes, we have sinned; furthermore, God loves and forgives us, even when the world around us forgets and forsakes us.
In a world that is governed by absolute conformity to a society’s rules like the one John lived in, this Gospel call that, by the grace of God we are free from our sins, is radical, exciting, and energizing. Our culture today is no less obsessed with image, with titles, and with perfection. In fact, I read not that long ago that the number one reason diets fail is that people make a mistake on one day; once they’re not perfect, they’ rather give up than try to get better. The world constantly puts these pressures on us to meet some absurd standard in order to be considered worthwhile. Yet, our faith in Jesus offers us a way to say, “No, world; you are wrong. I am loved, and whatever I may have done in the past, God is willing to let me start over. Hallelujah!”
Even though this message came from a guy who, despite bathing every day, smelled like camel, people were drawn to John because of his message. Yet, this was not the only message John preached, nor was it even his most exciting message, exciting though it was.
The second of the two things John is preaching is the coming of Christ. John was regarded as a holy man. Understandably so, for he was able to give his whole life over to God, living every second for God’s work in the world. Yet, John says that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John is setting people up to understand that greater things are afoot.
I have to say, I find that a particularly inspiring message. When I think of all the ways that God has influenced my life, I am often left in awe. From the family I was given, the friends I met, the experiences of Jesus I had at camp and at church, to finding my way into ministry and to this place, it’s almost impossible for me to put words to how much God has meant to me. My life, without Jesus in it, would be nothing.
Yet, John spoke to people just like me and said, “God has more in mind. You’re just living in the in-between time.” For those whose lives are good, John offers blessings beyond measure. For those whose lives are difficult, John shows them that God has a greater plan than just the disappointments this world can so often bring us.
Brothers and sisters, John lived in an age when he could attract people by saying, “This is not all there is.” So often in today’s world, we (and I mean Christian folk, too) are guilty of thinking that what we see in front of us is all there is. It’s no better and no worse, it just is. We can easily be conned into this thought because we’re surrounded by the incidents of our lives all the time. Yet, we know: Christ will come again. Probably not today; maybe not tomorrow; maybe long after we’re all buried. Yet still, we have hope.
We know from the day of Christ’s resurrection that the world could never be the same. We know that, in the darkest of times, there is always the light of hope. The Christian tradition is filled with imagery of light and darkness, because it’s so appropriate. Particularly at this time of year, as every day gets a little bit darker, we need reminders that God still has light for us. No matter how hopeless or dire a situation may seem, God has a way to find a way out. After all, Jesus had met the ultimate end that our world offers – death on a cross. Yet, he returned to show us that God is never, ever beyond hope for us. God is always there for us, even when we feel like all is lost; our most difficult task, though, is finding how God is speaking to us.
I think sometimes we might like it if God were to send messengers dressed up in camel’s hair and smelling like bugs and honey. That would sure make God’s messages easy to spot, wouldn’t it? Instead, though, God comes to us in all sorts of ways, various and surprising. Our task this Advent is to look for those messages God is sending. While we may think we’d like something easy to identify, it’s also easy to look past someone who looks like John did.
So as you ready your hearts and your homes for Christmas this year, don’t forget to give a little thought to John and what he promises. Your sins are forgiven, because God loves you more than reason can explain. And this world, though it lets us down, is not where we get our final answer, because Christ will return, and in him we can hope. Take your time, and look for the messengers who bring the hope of Christ to your life, and go out yourself, becoming a messenger to others – camel’s hair coat optional. Amen.