For those you thinking to yourself, “Didn’t we just read this passage last Sunday?”, no, you’re not crazy. We read the first eight verses which I admit was a bit risky for a new minister’s official first sermon. Conventional pastoral wisdom would caution against labeling any congregation a “brood of vipers” right off for fear of offending them. But none of you seemed unduly offended by last week’s sermon—so I thought I’d try again!
Granted, the offending language is not mine but that of John the Baptist, with whom I want to spend the summer reacquainting ourselves. Even in Minnesota, summer’s sultry heat can make a nice accompaniment to John’s hellfire and brimstone. John’s fiery disposition suits his role as the last of the Old Testament prophets, even though John shows up in the New Testament. Prophets are not known for mincing their words. And yet as harsh as their words can be, they are words that clear the way for the Lord and make his paths straight—the Lord, of course, being Jesus himself.
Interestingly, John the Baptist is one of the only characters in the Bible for whom we get a visual description. Matthew describes John as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.” The purpose of this description was so that we might identify John as the returning prophet Elijah. Malachi, who closed the Old Testament, promised that one like Elijah would return in order to turn the hearts of people back to God. However Malachi also promised this would happen on what he called “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Knowing what John looked like makes many pine for a similar description of Jesus. Unfortunately the Bible gives us little if nothing. There may be a hint, however, in that famous story of Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax-collector who climbed a tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells us Zacchaeus climbed a tree “because he was short.” But it’s unclear whether the personal pronoun refers to Zacchaeus or Jesus, leaving some to wonder whether our Lord was the one who was vertically challenged.
Mostly we’ve left it up to centuries of artists and painters to sort all of this out—which goes for John the Baptist too. We know what John wore and what he ate, but the rest resides in artists’ imagination. Among my favorite painters of John is the Italian baroque master, Caravaggio. He painted at least eight renditions of the Baptist, the above hanging in Kansas City, of all places, just inside the main door of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
I’ve stood and stared at this work for what seems like hours—though at the moment it hangs in Rome alongside almost 30 other works by Caravaggio in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death. Painted around 1604, it’s a stunning piece of work featuring what is considered the most perfectly painted left knee in the history of art. More significantly, the painting displays Caravaggio’s famous reputation for realism. Whereas the customary practice was to depict John with traditional idealistic attributes such as a halo around his head, Caravaggio strips away the idealism to emphasize what critics call a “brooding intensity” (perhaps to go with his brooding viperousness if he was thinking about the pretentious Pharisees here). This intensity is further reinforced by Caravaggio’s trademark contrast of deep, opaque shadows, playing across the body and shrouding the sockets of the eyes, with a bright light illuminating from above.
However, unlike his inspirational masterpieces, Caravaggio himself was no saint. He had a volatile temper that was always getting him into trouble. He was insanely envious, greedy, spiteful, violent and faithless. He was imprisoned on numerous occasions—sentenced to death for murdering a friend over a disputed tennis match. He escaped prison and became a fugitive, and finally destitute and wracked with pneumonia as he awaited a papal pardon for all his offenses—a pardon that arrived three days after he died. Though he painted a wealth of spectacularly beautiful masterpieces, he could never paint over the mess he made of his life. Aside from his incredible talent, there was nothing about his brief 38 years that would induce anyone to emulate him—even though at times most of us probably do with our own episodes of envy, greed and spite. And yet that such a coarse man as Caravaggio could produce such moving art emphasizing God’s redemptive power only testifies to God’s insistance on receiving glory not from those who can manage their own spiritual successes; but from those who must desperately rely upon His grace. The very sort of sinful people who made their way to the desert to be baptized by John.
John baptized with water for repentance. Given water’s association with divine judgment (think Noah’s flood or the Red Sea), to plunge yourself into water was to admit you deserved your doom. These days we would describe it as throwing ourselves on the mercy of the court. It was a way to say you were sorry and show that you meant it. Coming to the water required a realistic look at yourself. You couldn’t confess your sins while wearing a halo on your head. You couldn’t think that just because you had the right genes or behaved the right way or said the right words that somehow you God owed you favor. This was the Pharisees’ mistake. Somehow they forgot that righteousness was an outcome of grace instead of its cause. It’s an easy mistake to make. We do it whenever we cry “why me Lord” as if somehow God owes us for being good people.
Instead of asking “why me,” John tells us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” or better, “bear fruit that looks like repentance.” Demonstrate that you’re not as good as you think or as righteous as you pretend. And do it now. “The ax is lying at the root of the trees;” John howls, “and every tree that does not bear good fruit [that is, fruit that looks like repentance] is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
I can imagine John the Baptist lifting a fist as he howls, his eyes ablaze and his brooding face a fiery beet red. I can imagine this because I grew up in the South where this is what those Baptist preachers who ranted about “repentance” were like. For me, growing up within the confines of respectable Southern congregationalism, we didn’t hear any fire and brimstone in our church. We dismissed fiery preachers as crazy and uncouth, sort of like the Pharisees dismissed John. This was easy to do since John was a desert preacher. The desert lay beyond the fringes of respectable society. It was the place where the outcasts and lowlifes and demon-possessed hung out. Being a desert preacher in John’s day was sort of like being a street preacher in ours. I don’t know if you have a lot of street preachers in Edina, but in Boston, we had one that stood outside our respectable New England congregational church every week. Not only would he rail at pagan passers-by about their sin and the wrath to come, he’d turn and aim his indignation at us inside the church.
One Sunday I was preaching much like I am now when the back doors opened and this street preacher stormed in and charged down the aisle toward the front. He waved his arms and yelled all about our faithlessness and hypocrisy and how God was going to be bringing the lumber against us soon. The ushers politely escorted him out, so I was told. I didn’t see it, I’m ashamed to say, because I had ducked down behind the pulpit. I was scared. And yet looking back, if that street preacher was right, then fear was a valid emotion.
John the Baptist talks about Jesus bringing the lumber too, or at least about chopping some lumber. “The ax is at the root of the trees;” he said, which was just another way of saying that Judgment Day was close. Or as Malachi put it, “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Instead of singing angels and lowing cattle, John paints a picture of Jesus coming with a winnowing-fork in hand with which to separate wheat from chaff—another classic image for Judgment Day. “The wheat he will gather into the granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now it’s one thing to catch heat from John the Baptist, quite another from Jesus the Respectable Congregationalist. Jesus is supposed to be all about peace and love and turning the other cheek, not burning your cheeks with unquenchable fire. The temptation is to turn down this heat by noting how John says Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Rather than the fire that burns up, Jesus brings the Spirit who fires up, energizing us and enabling us to be better people. I don’t deny that. But in the context of Old Testament prophetic tradition (in which both John and Jesus reside), the fire of the Spirit is fire that destroys first. It burns whatever needs burning. As Malachi described it, the Spirit’s fire is a “refiner’s fire… that purifies and refines God’s people like gold that they may present offerings of righteousness to God.” We see this happen at Pentecost as a band of fearful disciples were refined into impassioned apostles by the Spirit’s fire. The fire that destroys does not burn for the sake of destruction. It refines for the sake of redemption.
Chances are that you’ve been burned in your life. Chances are you’ve deserved it. But what about when you didn’t deserve it? What about the fire that came by no fault of your own? People severely mistreated you and betrayed you. They lied to you and they lied about you. They abused you and left you wounded, indifferent to the intractable pain they caused. Astonishingly, Jesus commands that we love these people, that we pray for our persecutors and turn the other cheek; to do unto them as Jesus has done unto us. Is this unfair? Sure—it’s why the Bible calls it grace. But grace is not the abdication of justice. It is only an abdication of retaliatory justice. Because our hearts and our hurt so easily deceive us, the Bible condemns throwing stones and repaying evil with evil. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” Jesus warned, “Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” That God will execute his just vengeance against all who persist in evil is what enables you to have pity on your enemies now. Assured of evil’s ultimate defeat, you can genuinely pray for your persecutors.
And you can genuinely pray for yourself too. You love your enemies because Jesus loved us when we were his enemies. None of us wear halos on our heads. Just as we have been hurt by others, so we have hurt others too. There are those times that you were the one who betrayed. You told the lie. You caused the pain and didn’t care. Maybe you feel guilty for that. Maybe even ashamed. And in your shame you hide behind the facades of religion and rationalization. In your fear you duck behind pulpits. You feel the heat. But the holy fire that burns does not burn for the sake of destruction. It refines for the sake of redemption. The unquenchable fire of God’s justice makes way for the thirst-quenching relief of God’s mercy. And for those quenched by that mercy, “fruit that looks like repentance” ends up looking like righteousness too. Jesus mercifully entered the life of the sinful Zacchaeus who responded by giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back fourfold all whom he had cheated. God’s redemptive power testifies to His insistance on receiving glory not from those who can manage their own spiritual successes; but from those who must desperately rely on His grace.
And it is that grace in us despite us that results in an artistry and a beauty identifiable only as the Spirit’s work: the Spirit of Jesus whose fire refines us like gold that we may present offerings of righteousness to God. And all this to our joy. “Bless our God,” sings the Psalmist, “For you, O Lord, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us … through water and fire that you might bring us out to a place of abundance.”