Detail from a miniature of John the Baptist.
From the New York Public Library Digital Collections
The fiery prophet John the Baptist offers both company and challenge for a pastor transitioning from seminary into settled parish life.
How often can the words, “You brood of vipers!” be preached to a suburban congregation before they start grumbling?
Often, I’ve learned. I know this because I preach one-sixth of my sermons on John the Baptist.
As an associate minister who preaches from the lectionary on the second Sunday of each month, I revisit John the Baptist twice a year, during Advent and the celebration of the baptism of Jesus.
Five years into my first parish call, John remains a worthy companion and a formidable foil in my transition from seminary into a settled pastorate. There are certainly other Scripture passages from which I draw strength and example for the road ahead. But John’s teaching leads me toward a vibrant and sustainable ministry.
As a young, newly minted clergyperson, I saw John the Baptist as a kindred spirit. I found my faith and my call in graduate school, where I first heard theology that connected my commitments to social justice. I took on the convert’s enthusiasm, and like many zealous young preachers, I couldn’t understand the pace of church life. I felt bogged down by the practicalities and politics.
How could anyone hear a prophetic voice under the weight of so many meetings and committees, amid the ponderous processes of congregational polity?
I preached on the Baptist’s story for my third sermon of my first call, and I found comfort and company in John’s zeal and passion, alongside his deep frustration with the entrenched systemic structures.
“You brood of vipers!” (Luke 3:7 NRSV) felt more like catharsis than reprimand. John pushed people to act now: “The ax is lying at the root of the trees” (Luke 3:9) -- another John the Baptist favorite -- felt like just the right pace.
A few weeks later, celebrating the baptism of Jesus, I met John again and took up his fervor alongside his ministry. He preached with heat and ardor, meeting his cousin in the throes of his vocation. John may say that it’s Jesus who will bring the baptism of fire, but to me John has always felt more fiery, more raw -- and like a more rounded character, complete with descriptions of his rough clothing and peculiar taste buds.
As I struggled to preach to my wealthy, white congregation, I looked to the Baptist. Despite his strong words, odd style and outsider status, he magnetized crowds and transformed lives. Perhaps, I thought, so could I.
By my third year, I had become immersed in the community -- spending hours beside hospital beds and in confirmation class, helping congregants craft mini-sermons for midweek worship, listening to parents ponder their children’s questions (“Does God get a timeout?” “Does God use magic on people?”).
I then realized how intimate and personal John’s plea is: repent, turn yourself around.
In Advent that year, I told the story of entering a church for the first time after my divorce. I had looked across the room and wondered how so many people could have the “right” clothes and hair and makeup. How could so many people, I thought, have their acts together while I sat shattered in the last pew?
I truly realized that we all, pastors and parishioners alike, come broken. And we all need John’s call of repentance, together with true, whole, blessed forgiveness. I realized that the suburbs, far more than the diverse city, require a veneer of happiness and independence. The gift of church -- of Jesus’s message to us in community -- can be in teaching us vulnerability.
After five years with John in the lectionary cycle, I thought I might tire of this character. I even considered asking to switch to another Sunday of the month. I must admit, I enjoyed preaching on the Magnificat last year -- hearing Mary’s heart song, and wondering what heart songs my congregants carry.
Even so, it was a relief when the lectionary cycled back to the comfort and the call of John the Baptist this December.
This year, I realized that his prophetic warning precedes the honest questioning of the crowd, “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10). John’s tone shifts, and he addresses each of those in his presence with a specific and tangible action: You have two coats? Share with someone who has none. You have much food? Share with someone whose cupboards are bare. You are soldiers? Tax collectors? Deal with people fairly, and don’t be greedy.
Each of John’s listeners got a specific task -- not an easy one, but one that was at the center of his or her daily life. John, this strange man in camel-hair garments, this wilderness man who lived in the desert and ate locusts and wild honey, saw straight into the hearts of those gathered. He preached fire and brimstone, but then he turned it into practical tasks directed to the life circumstances of each of his hearers in turn.
Early in my ministry, I loved John the Baptist for his fire, his directness and his outsider status.
But I’ve come to appreciate the balance he strikes between the prophetic and the pastoral -- the big vision and the practical application in the lives of his hearers.
I needed a few years of settled ministry before I could see beyond his fire to how deeply he knew the culture and people that surrounded him. John’s strong language comes from a love of God and a desire for transformation woven into the context of his people and the social and political powers that bound him.
Beginning my parish ministry, I was blind to John’s pastoral side. I wonder what he will teach me next, what I will have ears to hear in the years to come.