On John the Baptist (and Eustace Scrubb and Nelson Mandela)

On Friday afternoon, I was writing my sermon and procrastinating a bit on the side. During a bout of procrastination, I landed on a Christianity Today page covering the death of Nelson Mandela. I clicked on the sermon by PJ Smyth of GodFirst in South Africa, and was utterly mesmerized. The sermon took a sharp left turn from John to Nelson, but I think it worked. 

Advent 2
Matthew 3:1-12

For most churches, the season of Advent usually includes an appearance by John the Baptist, and yet he always seems out of place. His portrait certainly wouldn't make for a good Christmas card picture; it would look more like a mug shot than a cheerful holiday greeting. He is angry, and strange, and impolite. His story doesn’t end well; you may recall that he angered the wife of Herod by casting aspersions on their unlawful marriage. John’s head ended up on a platter during a royal party. So, you know: Merry Christmas, everyone!

We come to church in December wanting to see the baby Jesus; instead we hear from the desert dweller who doesn’t mince words. You heard what he said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

And yet loud and unusual John the Baptist is the one who reminds us, year after year, that the child we celebrate is the one who saves us. Jesus is the one of whom the prophets spoke – but so, too, is John. John is the other one of whom the prophets spoke – the one with the bullhorn, proclaiming that God is about to do something altogether new.

I’ve always been bewildered by his ability to draw a crowd. So far as we know, he didn’t teach like Jesus or preach like Paul. He didn’t even claim to be anything special; he told his disciples that he was nothing compared to the one he foreshadowed. Not even worthy to carry his sandals. Yet the people flocked to him. They listened to his wild-eyed preaching, and they heard good news.

What John proclaimed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He called people out into the desert to change their lives, and to receive the waters of baptism as a sign of their transformation.

Is it really good news to hear that you have to change? Is it good news to be told by prophet who subsists on wild honey and locusts that you’re living your life all wrong? That you need to exchange your old life for a new one—out in the wilderness, of all places—and get your hair completely wet in the process?

It’s good news all right.

One of my favorite images of a baptism of repentance is from the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s marvelous Christian allegory. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a whiney and unpleasant boy named Eustace gets dragged into Narnia with his cousins, Lucy and Edmund. Eustace isn’t charmed by the fantastical characters of Narnia. He wants King Caspian to take him to the British Consul so he can get out of dodge. When the adventures land the traveling companions on an island, Eustace decides he would rather sulk off by himself than contribute to the labor needed to set up camp. He finds himself in a dead dragon’s lair, and ends up happily perched on the treasures the dragon had been protecting. He falls asleep thinking “dragonish” thoughts—dreaming greedy dreams about his new riches. When he awakens, he discovers his dragonish thoughts have turned him into—you guessed it—a dragon. He is immediately sorrowful, immediately filled with regret and loneliness. He realizes that his greed has turned him into a monster, set apart from other human beings. Having recognized how crummy he has been behaving, Eustace wants to change. He tries his hardest to be a kind dragon, and offers his newfound, dragonish strength and skills to help his traveling companions.

After a couple days of this, Eustace the Dragon has a dream. In the dream, Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, comes to him. He leads him to a pool of water, and tells him he needs to bathe, but that first he must remove his clothes.

Eustace does his best to molt his dragon skin. But it doesn’t seem to be enough for Aslan. Eustace later explains to his cousin Edmund, “Then the lion said – but I don't know if it spoke – 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.

Then he caught hold of me – I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found … I'd turned into a boy again."

Just as it hurt when Aslan tore into the dragon skin that caged poor Eustace, it hurts to submit ourselves to the hard work of repentance. Before God, we have to admit our weaknesses, our meanness, our hypocrisy, our utter brokenness. And we have to let our old selves drown in the waters of baptism. But then we emerge from that watery grave, renewed and reborn.

This, sisters and brothers, is good news. It is good news for us as individuals striving to live faithfully.
Now, sometimes that’s where Christians stop talking about redemption and salvation – with the individual narrative, about the single soul saved. But there is another narrative. God did not merely instigate the incarnation to redeem individuals; God sent his Son because he so loved the world. There is a social dimension to the gospel – even the call to redemption.

In the last few days, I have been doing what we’ve all be doing: reflecting upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. I remember so clearly the day he was released from prison; at the time, I was young enough to not fully understand how a prisoner could be a hero; prisons were places for criminals, in my black and white world. Mandela’s world had also been black and white, but the black and the white were viciously and unjustly stratified by the system of Apartheid. He emerged from prison a peacemaker, a bridge-builder, a prophet and a politician. The transition of the old South Africa to the New South Africa could not have been what it was without his uncommon wisdom and faithful vision.

When word of his declining health got around over the summer, the pastor of a large, multi-ethnic church in Johannesburg preached a powerful sermon asking a question that many in South Africa have been asking: will SA survive the loss of this icon of liberation and reconciliation?

Pastor PJ Smyth said yes, absolutely – if. And the “if” he suggested was significant. South Africa will thrive if its citizens do three things, all inspired by the life and teaching of Nelson Mandela. They must live a lifestyle of apology, a lifestyle of forgiveness, and keep trusting God. The white pastor – alongside a black translator who effortlessly and charismatically spoke his words into an African dialect – spoke of how many South Africans, in retrospect, believe the process of reconciliation went down too quickly.

Perhaps the apology was too shallow to address the wounds that went so deep. And so white South Africans, Pastor Smyth declared, must live a lifestyle of apology. Not to merely say it, or feel it, but live like they are sorry. And conversely, the black South Africans who suffered discrimination and disenfranchisement through those many years of Apartheid – and who continue to suffer the consequences of the system, some twenty years after its dismantling – must in return live a lifestyle of forgiveness.

The only way forward, he argued, was for some to repent, and some to forgive. Christians, he said, must be at the forefront of this culture of apology and forgiveness. Christians are especially good at saying we are sorry because we know we are sinners, and Christians are especially good at forgiveness because we have been forgiven. Meanwhile everybody – those living repentance and those living forgiveness – must continue to trust God.

In the most powerful line of the sermon, he used the affectionate, deeply symbolic name South Africans use to refer to Mandela – “We must stay focused on Madiba’s Madiba.” The Madiba who made heaven and earth, the Madiba who sent his son to save a hurting world. The Madiba who sent a prophet to prepare the way of the Lord.

John the Baptist’s words are harsh. He is surely the inspiration for many a hellfire and damnation preacher, many a street corner doomsday prophet. He speaks words of judgment that we would rather not hear. Especially not now, in the presence of greenery and with the cheerful strains of Christmas carols echoing in our heads. And yet John’s message of repentance and forgiveness and yes, even judgment – is perhaps an even better reminder of the “reason for the season” than all our holiday finery.

Without John, the whole thing could come across like a fairy tale. John reminds us that the sweet little baby we prepare to welcome into the mangers of our hearts will eventually grasp a winnowing fork and do the hard work of cleaning up a world gone wrong. There is chaff to separate from wheat. There is chaff like dragon skins, those personal sins that alienate us from God and one another. And there is chaff like systemic injustice: chaff like Apartheid, chaff like institutional racism, chaff like cultural and economic oppressions that trap people into hopeless lives devoid of joy and opportunity. All of it shall go into the fire, if it hasn’t already.

This, friends, is very good news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

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