Three umpires walk into a bar. Over a couple of beverages, they start to argue about the best way to call balls and strikes. The first umpire says, “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.” The second one says, “I calls ’em like they was.” And the third one says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ’em.” My dad loved that joke. Whenever my brothers and I debated Dad’s take on our behavior and the consequences which were likely to follow, we knew the discussion would probably end with that line: “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.”
The umpires’ description of their work is a pretty good one for the work of the prophets as well. They were charged by God to see clearly what was happening in their world and in the hearts of their people. Then, with God’s guidance, they called out what was wrong, named what needed to be corrected, and boldly announced the consequences of continuing on their current path. They looked around at the people’s actions and attitudes, and they called ‘em as they saw ‘em. They called ‘em like they was. But the good news is that, unlike baseball umpires, the prophets also called things as they could be.
John the Baptist was one of those prophets. After four hundred years of prophetic silence, God began speaking once again to this strange man who appeared in the Judean wilderness. At least, he seems strange to us. He may not have seemed so strange to his contemporaries—eccentric, maybe, but not strange.
There were a number of religious sects who had retreated to the wilderness to the east of Jerusalem, including the Qumran community of Dead Sea Scrolls fame. Dressing in clothing made of camel hair, secured by a leather belt, wouldn’t have seemed strange. Poor people of the time often dressed like that.
Eating wild honey and locusts wasn’t so strange, either. Honey was readily available to a poor person living in the wilderness. And, while we may turn up our noses at eating bugs, they’ve been eaten for millennia the world over. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s population eats insects as a regular part of their diet today. Locusts were a good, plentiful source of protein for a wandering preacher and, for John, locusts had the advantage of being ritually pure: they’re one of four kinds of bugs that the laws in Leviticus officially permit eating.
But, there was something that set John apart. He had a message that drew people to him there on the banks of the Jordan. Matthew may have exaggerated a little, saying that everyone in the region of Jerusalem and Judea were gathering at the river, but there were enough people listening to John that it made Herod nervous. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Herod was afraid of John’s growing influence over the people, which might give John the power to raise a rebellion. In Josephus’ words, “The masses seemed ready to do anything John should advise.”
This is interesting, because John’s message was not a cheerful one. It was a call to confession of sin. It was a call to repentance—a call to a wholesale change in how people were living. It was a call to abandon worship by rote, to dismiss the assumption that credentials equaled acceptability to God, to rethink a so-called faith that was divorced from actions. It was a call to repentant self-examination, followed by a baptism that would signal a renewed commitment to truly faithful living.
John’s words were proclaimed with a sense of urgency, because something big was happening. The kingdom of the Lord had come near. The kingdom, and the arrival of the Messiah who would lead the people into, it were at hand. It was time to get serious. Souls and lives had to be made ready, and John offered a path toward that readiness.
John drew not only the masses but some skeptics from the religious elite. Some Pharisees and Sadducees (not all, but some) arrived to see what was going on, and when John saw them, he really let loose. he said they were no better than vipers—snakes whose venom could be fatal. John took aim at their confidence in their genealogies—the notion that being a descendant of Abraham was like a magic charm in God’s eyes. “Oh, no,” says John. “God can make children of Abraham out of anyone—or anything—God pleases. And don’t think that your elite status in the temple, or among the wealthy and politically powerful will save you. It’s time to walk the talk. It’s time to repent, and your repentance must be made visible in fruitful works.” In the words of St. James, “Faith apart from works is dead.”
While John’s words are directed toward the alpha dogs of the Jewish community, they applied to everyone who was listening. So did the words of warning—of unfruitful trees being hacked down and burned along with chaff winnowed from the good grain. His words were not gentle, or comforting, or pretty. What, then, could explain the masses of people flocking to the Jordan?
I think it’s because John was telling the truth. This, perhaps, is the best definition of a prophet: someone who is inspired and guided by God to tell people the truth they need to hear, especially when it’s a truth that’s hard to hear.
My Dad also used to say, “The truth hurts.” But, there’s more to this quote that’s attributed to Mark Twain. The full quote is, “The truth hurts, but silence kills.” This is what the people who flocked to the Jordan instinctively knew, just as we do.
It hurts to hear about our failings. It hurts to hear that our sin may cause catastrophic consequences, to ourselves and to others. It hurts to hear the truth that the way we live contributes to climate change, results in people working in near or actual slavery, even in or own country, or sustains long patterns of prejudice and discrimination against people who are different from us. It hurts to hear the truth that that casual, Sunday-morning-only worship isn’t enough, or that simply calling ourselves a Christian doesn’t make us one. But if we ignore those painful truths, we deny ourselves the opportunity to change. We keep going along in blissful ignorance, unprepared for the day of judgment when it comes. The truth hurts, but silence condemns us to death.
The truth hurts, but it also heals. When we come face to face with our own sin, we recognize our need for repentance. When we repent, we turn in a new direction. Where we have been unfaithful, we turn toward greater faithfulness. Where we have been unloving, we turn toward greater love—for God and for our neighbors of all kinds. Where we have been unjust, or supported injustice, we turn towards more just ways of living. Where we have believed that our mere national or ethnic or religious identities make us special in God’s eyes, we turn towards humility. Where we have allowed the world’s priorities to become ours, we turn towards the values of the kingdom—the kingdom of heaven which John proclaimed and Jesus brought near.
In 1864, 168 unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were massacred near Sand Creek, Col. The raid was led by John Chivington, a local army officer and ordained Methodist pastor. The superior who approved the raid was also a Methodist. For decades, Methodists sponsored and ran so-called “Indian boarding schools according to the principal that Indigenous people must be “Christianized” and then “civilized” before they could be regarded as human beings. Children were removed from their families and taken far away, where they often suffered from harsh treatment. Large numbers died, and many were buried in mass graves.
Nearly 150 years after the Sand Creek massacre, our General Conference observed an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.” It was a service of truth-telling and repentance—a first step toward healing the brokenness caused by injustice perpetrated by the Church. During the service, the church asked for forgiveness, from God and from those who had been harmed by the all manner of past violence and neglect of native people. Similar acts of repentance for the Church’s treatment of African Americans have also been observed.
None of these services were a magic wand that erased the pain caused by the wounds of centuries. But, they are a start—a confrontation with the truth that turns towards repentance, restoration, and a renewed commitment to justice and righteousness. The truth hurts, but it also heals.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus said. Responding to the truth of our need for repentance prepares us to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ—that God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn it but in order that the world would be saved through him.
In these weeks of preparation for Christmas, the world tells us we should be all ho-ho-ho, holly-jolly. And, indeed, as Christians we are preparing for a joyful celebration. But, John’s no-holds-barred indictment of those who practice fruitless, empty, formulaic religion is anything but merry and bright. On this Sunday when we worship in the light of the candle of hope, where do we find hope in John’s words?
John doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to declaring what is broken in the world and what we need to to begin the process of restoration. He does “call ‘em like he sees ‘em” and “calls ‘em like they are.” He doesn’t But, unlike those umpires in the bar, he also calls things as they’re going to be.
John baptizes as a sign of the repentance that brings about soul-deep change. But there is something more to come. There is someone more to come. The One who is so much more powerful than John that John isn’t worthy to carry his sandals. He is the One we know to be Jesus, and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Fire is a purifying agent, burning away what enslaves us. The Spirit is the power source that enables us to live as faithful citizens of God’s kingdom. The good news that John proclaims is that condemnation is not a given. John forces us to confront the truth of our need for repentance that allows us to turn in the direction of Jesus, and in Jesus we find our hope. We find the hope of forgiveness and acceptance. We find the hope of being a new creation. In Jesus we have the hope of abundant life, and that eternally. From the truth that John proclaims springs our hope in Jesus Christ.
On the cover of your bulletin is a photo of a Chrismon known as the Anchor Cross. It’s also called the Cross of Hope. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “We have hope [in Jesus], a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” This is the hope that John the Baptist announced.
Advent is a time of “calling ‘em as we see ‘em”—a time of honestly seeing our lives as they are. But, it is also a time of “calling ‘em as they can and will be.” It is a time of hope the One whose way we prepare by our sincere repentance and turning in a new direction. It is a time of hope in the One who baptizes with purifying fire and Holy Spirit power. It is a time of hope in the good news of Jesus: the truth from which our hope springs. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young