This sermon was preached at St. John the Apostle United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas on January 10, 2009.
“There are no good people and bad people. No right people and wrong people. Just one big lost humanity dying for the glory of God.”
LOVING THE WORLD
January 10, 2010
Luke 3: 1-22
Let’s face it, John the Baptist is a hard guy to relate to. He was severe, demanding and more than a little scary. Even as a young boy, John was drawn to the desert to the east of the Dead Sea. As he matured, he spent more and more of his time in the wilderness until, finally, it became his home. According to the Bible, locusts and wild honey was his steady diet.
John was the classic abstainer. He didn’t eat rich food, he didn’t drink wine and, it appears, he even refused to live indoors.
But there was a method in all this madness. John was trying to free himself from the corrupting influence of Imperial Rome. God’s Messiah, the Christ, was at hand—John could feel it. The Holy One of Israel would be like a harvester who beats the wheat on the threshing floor, storing the good grain in his barn, and burning the chaff in the fire.
John didn’t suffer from a messiah complex; his marching orders came from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. John was “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the Way of the Lord.”
John’s job was to get God’s people ready for the coming of Messiah when, Isaiah promised, “every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill made low.”
John knew what that meant. A true and purified Israel would be lifted up and the corrupt forces of Roman power and domination would be cast down . . . and cast out.
And when that happened, John believed, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Considered against this backdrop, John’s lifestyle makes a weird kind of sense. He didn’t drink wine because wine was costly. As Jesus reminded his disciples, John didn’t wear fancy clothes or live in palatial splendor: nice clothes and palaces cost money. And you couldn’t earn money in first century Israel without getting wrapped up in the Roman system.
John didn’t expect his audience to adopt his radical lifestyle in every particular, but he wanted them to live as far from Roman corruption as circumstances allowed. Tax collectors could collect what the law prescribed, but not a shekel more. Soldiers had to stop shaking down the populace and learn to live on their meager wages. If poverty was the price of moral freedom, so be it.
In John’s mind, money and corruption were joined at the hip; purity and poverty were sisters.
People came to John asking how they could prepare themselves for the coming Day of the Lord, and he was ready with an answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Was John a subversive, a radical, a weirdo on the fringe?
King Herod certainly thought so. This isn’t the Herod we meet in Matthew—the one who tried to kill the baby Jesus. That was Herod the Great. When that Herod died, his kingdom was divided up between four of his sons, one of whom bore the name of Herod Antipas. This is the Herod we meet in today’s text.
“Antipas” is a short version of the Greek word “Antipatros” which means “Like the father.” Antipas had an older brother, Antipater (a name that means essentially the same thing). But Antipater and another brother named Aristobulus were killed by their paranoid father, Herod the great. As his name Antipas suggests, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Herod Antipas really was “like the father.”
Herod Antipas came to power as an adolescent and had been on his throne for over thirty years by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. In the eyes of Antipas, John was just another weirdo revolutionary who needed to be eliminated.
Do we agree?
Let’s be honest here. When you hear John say, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise,” don’t you get a little uncomfortable? Haven’t we been taught to view people who talk like that as the enemy?
Of course we have.
But if John was a wild-eyed radical, why did Jesus come to Jordan seeking his blessing?
If you are serious about the life of the Spirit (and you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t) you can’t escape John’s dilemma: How can we hang out in Rome without living like the Romans do? How can we honor God while living in a godless world?
Those of you who didn’t grow up Baptist may wonder what I mean by “the world”. Drain the glory of God from creation and you are left with the world. Creation is the coffee; the world is the grounds. We easily assume that we can shuffle through life with one foot in the world and the other foot in the kingdom of God.
That’s what Herod was trying to do. Like his daddy, Herod Antipas wanted to be known as “King of the Jews” and he worked hard to protect Jewish religious sensibilities. When Pontius Pilate displayed the Roman eagle in the temple in Jerusalem, Herod Antipas backed him down.
On the other hand, Antipas was a close friend of the great Tiberius, the man who, by this time, had reigned as Roman emperor for as long as anyone could remember. Paranoid and half crazy, Tiberius lived on the Mediterranean fortress island of Capri. Herod Antipas checked in on his emperor friend every now and then—it was good for business. Herod built a Roman town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and named it “Tiberius”. Then, fearing that this might not be enough to cement his position in the Roman world, Antipas transformed the Sea of Galilee into the Sea of Tiberius. The mad emperor liked that sort of thing.
When John came preaching repentance in the wilderness, Herod Antipas was pushing fifty, teetering on the verge of the most disastrous midlife crisis in recorded history. The moment Herod saw Herodias, he had to have her.
But there were problems. For one thing, Herodias was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip and the sister of Herod’s step-brother Agrippa. When Philip was forced to divorce Herodias he was a little miffed. Agrippa was seething.
And then there was the fact that Herod was married to the daughter of a king, Aretas, the Arabian ruler of Nabataea. When his daughter fled home in tears, Aretas readied his army for war.
Herod was undeterred. Having spent much of his life in Rome, Antipas knew how to live as the Romans do. If Herod could convince the emperor that marrying Herodias was a good idea, it didn’t matter what anybody else thought.
In the Roman world, might made right. The Emperor Caligula once had his horse sworn in as a Roman senator to make precisely this point. No one dared challenge this bizarre move because Caligula had cornered the market on power.
Herod’s marriage to Herodias didn’t just enrage Herod’s brother Philip, his step-brother Agrippa and Aretas, his father-in-law; it earned the enmity of John the Baptist. Herod had John arrested and carted off to the lonely castle of Machaerus east of the Dead Sea.
Unlike John, King Aretas had a powerful army and was willing to use it. Herod was vanquished in battle (God only knows how many innocent men died in the process) and Herod and Herodias fled in terror to their good friend Tiberius. Predictably, Tiberius took Herod’s side, but before the imperial armies reached King Aretas, Tiberius was dead.
Now the power equation shifted dramatically. If might makes right, and you lose your might, right becomes wrong in a heartbeat. Herod’s step-brother Agrippa was a good friend of the new Emperor, a madman named Caligula. Herod Antipas soon found himself living in lonely exile in Gaul, modern France. (Pontius Pilate soon suffered the same fate.) Meanwhile, with the backing of his good friend Caligula, Agrippa claimed the mantel, King of the Jews.
John the Baptist never claimed to be the last word. “I baptize with water,” he told the people, “but the Christ will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
By all accounts, Jesus embraced John’s view of the world. As soon as Jesus was baptized by John, he retreated to the wilderness for forty days and forty nights to hammer out the shape of his ministry. Then we see him moving from town to town, calling disciples and preaching a gospel remarkably like John’s. Like John, Jesus was inspired by Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness to be alone with God . . . but, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus returned to a world dominated by the likes of Herod Antipas. Jesus didn’t wait for the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the soldiers to come to him—Jesus invaded their world with a holy enthusiasm that shocked his contemporaries.
Jesus didn’t condemn the world, like John, and he wasn’t conformed to the world, like Antipas; he embraced the world in the love of God and the power of the Spirit.
How could it have been any different? “God so loved the world,” the Bible says, “that he gave his only Son.” Far more than Herod Antipas, Jesus was truly “like the father”. Jesus found God’s glory in the wilderness and released that glory back into the world. As followers of the Son, we share this mission.
I told you the sad story of Herod Antipas for a reason. Remember, drain the glory of God from creation and you are left with the world. And as Herod Antipas learned to his sorrow, when you embrace the world, you make yourself and everyone you touch miserable. How can we live in Rome without living like the Romans do?
In the wilderness, Jesus drank in the glory of God. Returning to the world, Jesus poured out God’s glory. Drink in; pour out. Retreat; advance. Breathe in; breathe out.
This sanctuary is our wilderness. We enter this place as strangers to the glory of God. That’s why we bristle when John tells us to share what we have with those who have nothing. That’s why we flinch when Jesus squanders his good news on the poor.
We long for the Spirit. We long for the glory of God. We long for Jesus. But you can’t get to Jesus without going through John. Baptism in water, the baptism of repentance, comes first—then we’re ready for the good stuff. This is where we get the glory back. Confessing that we have fallen into the rhythm of the world, we enter the rhythm of the Spirit.
We enter this wilderness sanctuary feeling beat-up and betrayed, angry with the world. We hear the gospel, but it has an alien ring—like words in a foreign tongue. Then we remember the baptism that washes the world away. We remember the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Suddenly, the world is ablaze with the glory of God.
Now, there are no good people and bad people. No right people and wrong people. Just one big lost humanity dying for the glory of God. The Love of God ignites a love for the world, in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, Amen.