Paula Northwood December 10, 2017
Scriptures Isaiah 40:1–8; Mark 1:1–8
Early in my career, I attended a conference for ministers, and I must have stepped out to go to the restroom, because when I returned I could see them dividing into three groups. I was asked, “Are you a Prophet, Preacher or Pastor?” Looking wide-eyed and confused, I stuttered, “I’m . . . a . . . Paula?” The facilitator looked like he wanted to make me go stand with my nose in the corner. At that point in my life, I didn’t have an answer. To be called to the ministry is an unusual vocation, and I have found that people have many expectations.
When I hear people at Plymouth talk about what kind of leadership we need for the future, I have heard: someone who is young but has years of experience, a person of color who is like us, intellectually brilliant but down to earth, passionate about social justice, prophetic but not too political, a good preacher and also good at pastoral care and so forth . . . you understand the challenge.
Looking at the text for today, we clearly have a prophet in John the Baptist. But he is pointing to one who is to follow him and is to be greater than him. That, of course, is Jesus. This morning I want to examine the ministry of John and Jesus with respect to these roles of prophet, preacher and pastor. In the Gospel of Mark, the story begins with Jesus’ baptism; there is no heartwarming birth story. In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we have what appears to be a bragging contest between the relatives of John and Jesus as the narrative alternates between the stories of both. This makes sense when you understand that these gospels were written much later after both of these men lived. In the book of Acts, which was written earlier, we read that people who were following “The Way,” a Jewish reform movement, had never heard of Jesus, only John. Early Christians were trying to make sense of who was the true leader, the true messiah.
Both boys, John and Jesus, were conceived in unusual circumstances. John’s mother was supposedly barren, and she became pregnant as an older woman. She was what our medical community calls a geriatric pregnancy. Very unexpected! Mary could top that. She was a virgin and supposedly never had had sex.
John’s father, Zechariah, is struck speechless during the pregnancy and doesn’t regain his speech until John is born. Jesus’ father, Joseph, had a dream where an actual angel of God told him what to do. When John is born he is given a special name. John was not a family name, so this was unusual to use a name other than the father’s. When Jesus was born surrounded by angels and shepherds, he was called Immanuel, God-with-us.
As they grow up, John goes off to the wilderness, like an early Eagle Scout. Some scholars think he may have been a part of the Essenes, a Jewish monastic group set apart in the wilderness. We don’t really know. In any case, John became a prophet. He spoke out against the evils of the world and invited people to repent, to change their ways, and he baptized them into new life.
And Jesus? Jesus was found discussing theology at the temple. He was a scholar at heart. He preached at the synagogue. But this is where it gets interesting. This bragging contest culminated when Jesus was baptized by John. One might think that Jesus became a disciple of John, and some scholars think this is the case, but then John said, “I am not worthy to tie this man’s shoes. I baptize with water but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” Jesus emerges triumphant.
In our text this morning, the author is bridging the Hebrew scripture with the Jesus story. John the Baptist embodies the spirit and power of Isaiah. The practice of baptism was not original with John. Ritual immersion had been a common practice in Judaism starting around 500 BCE. It was often preceded by a time of careful teaching of the Torah and the Prophets and the proper way to observe the traditions of Judaism.
With John, this ritual took on a fresh intensity because he used it as a sign of spiritual awakening—a change of heart and a new openness to the mind of God. It symbolized an all-encompassing forgiveness and release of whatever was troubling the person. It was an invitation to have courage and hope in a difficult, challenging world.
In that time of political upheaval and unrest, the secular powers feared John’s popularity. People were flocking to the wilderness to hear him. But then John spoke out about the sexual indiscretions of the political leader Herod, and John was put in prison. If you remember the story, Herod, in a moment of drunken delight and generosity upon seeing his stepdaughter dance, exclaimed, “That was so wonderful! I will give you whatever you want, up to having my kingdom!” Her mother, who was still angry at John for speaking out against their adulterous relationship, encouraged her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter. The prophet was silenced.
Returning to the time following Jesus’ baptism by John, after a time of testing, Jesus began his ministry as a preacher. It did not start out very promisingly. Jesus went to the synagogue, read from the scroll of Isaiah and then proclaimed that he was the embodiment of these scriptures. “Jesus is a little too full of himself,” some said. Others interpreted his remarks as blasphemy; they wanted to kill him. But Jesus kept on preaching, and his message boiled down to this: the Kingdom of God is here, now. It may not seem like much of a message to us today. Kingdom language is archaic. For us, it is better understood as the realm of God. This realm is filled with its peace, forgiveness, healing, sanity, empowerment and freedom and is available to all, here and now. And, Jesus often said, it is to be found within.
Eventually, the folks around Jesus calmed down and accepted him as a gifted rabbi. They gathered as he spoke in parables and metaphors claiming to be the bread of life, the living water, the true vine. What Jesus was offering was a fresh perspective, a new way of looking at world; a new code of behavior. No longer were women to be treated as objects but as whole human beings. No longer were people of different races to be treated with disdain but as whole human beings. No longer were people suffering from illness of any kind to be treated as less than whole human beings.
In addition to being a preacher, Jesus was a pastor with a surprising talent for opening up victims of mental and physical illness to healing energies. Jesus broke down barriers, never built them. A good example is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus arrived weary, thirsty and without a container to hold water, without a bucket. He needed to rely on this stranger who, according to tradition, was the wrong gender from the wrong ethnic group and the wrong religion. She offered him literal cold, thirst-quenching water. Jesus offered her a deeper relationship with the divine, spiritual thirst–quenching water.
We have all been there; weary, tired, and thirsty, we find ourselves empty-handed. Once when my spouse and I were traveling in Croatia, we needed to get from the island of Hvar to Dubrovnik to catch a plane. We took a ferry to the mainland to a little village where we climbed a hill to the place where we would catch a bus. It was hot, we were tired and thirsty and the bus never came. After waiting half the day, my spouse even tried sticking out her thumb. No one stopped. We trudged the mile back down the hill, dragging our suitcases to the little village. Not speaking any Croatian, we timidly approached a group of total strangers and asked if anyone would drive us the 100 miles to Dubrovnik. One big, burly man put down his beer and said in broken English, “I have car. We go.” As we made the trip in a comfortable air-conditioned car, he passed around bottles of water as he sang along to opera and then American songs from the ’80s and we joined him—the beginning of a friendship.
In a moment of crisis comes opportunity, which is always for Jesus a moment of human exchange and transformation. Jesus is transformed as much as the people he encounters, as he grows into his calling and the limits of his gifts. As time goes on we see Jesus, the preacher and the pastor, become more prophetic as he criticizes those in power, both religious and governmental, for not caring for the weak and marginalized.
So what kind of leaders do we need? For us, maybe the question is not which—prophet, preacher or pastor—for we need all three. Maybe it’s not even a question of who’s out there that can embody these on our behalf. The question is: Can we, each one of us, open ourselves to the power of God and let the Sprit be born in us? If we believe we are the priesthood of all believers, if we believe we all have gifts to share, then we all have a ministry to live into.
This season is a reminder that Christ is born, and millions upon millions of people, spanning time and the globe, have found power in this story and have felt the infusion of the Spirit. It flows into us often when we least expect it. Jesus and John are instruments of God, and so are we. The kingdom is within.
This is an invitation to everyone. I invite you to an awakening sense of God-consciousness—that the realm of God (or as Jesus put it, the Kingdom of God) lives in you—in the humus of your soul, the soil of your heart. The realm of God is like a seed hibernating within you waiting to sprout and flourish—not just someday in the future, but here and now. Here and now! Yes, we need leaders with certain competencies to guide us, but the real work comes from you.
The poem by Richard Wilbur read earlier has a line that the prophet is “mad-eyed from stating the obvious.” I think we are mad-eyed from stating the obvious about the political and social mess we’re in. And we are sad-eyed about all the losses we have experienced in this church. We may be showing up weary and thirsty and without a bucket. We want someone to hand us the bucket already filled. But it does not work that way. In the moment of crisis comes opportunity and, perhaps the hardest work of all, human change and transformation.
The Gospel demands of us—both when we speak and when we listen—to avoid letting fear loom so large that it overpowers our ability to speak prophetically on issues, to preach on topics where we need to be educated, to pastor in ways that meet deep need with words of comfort and healing. Jesus in the Gospels is anything but silent on these issues, and those who follow him cannot be silent, either.
Prophet, preacher, pastor. John the Baptist simply points, and he points to the one who is greater than himself. Jesus points to a God that is so compelling people drop everything and follow him. The spiritual life is all about intentional direction. This Advent season, where is God pointing this church? Where is God pointing you? Where does your life point?