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John the Baptist as uncomfortable Lenten companion

February 23, 2012

Have you ever noticed how things get a little uncomfortable whenever John the Baptist shows up?

Back during Advent, for example, when many of us were just getting ready for a nice, comfortable trip to the manger, John bursts out of the Lectionary in that awful camel-hair jacket, scarfing down wild locusts with his sticky, honey fingers.

Now, just when you thought it was safe to come back to church, he shows up again last night in Ash Wednesday services, yelling about vipers, wrath and fire and repentance.

What is it about John that we find so disturbing? Is it the fire-and-brimstone preaching? Is it his strange clothing, weird diet and his propensity to hang out in the wilderness?

He’s not my first choice as a guide through the Lenten season. I’ll bet I am not the only one who fidgets whenever the Baptist — whom I imagine with crazy white hair, wild eyes and a long beard — begins throwing his weight around and screaming about repentance.

Perhaps part of the reason for our discomfort is because we have heard it all before: screaming preachers on distant, chaotic radio stations, TV evangelists, pulpit-pounders. I have tended to associate John with memories of the countless “Repent!” sermons I heard as a kid and obsessive worry over whether I could ever make the grade. Whenever it seemed that I had repented, someone was saying it was time to repent again. And if I could think of nothing from which I needed to repent, then I needed to repent of that! This was all very confusing.

I grew up with revival services, which for me were a mixture of joy laced with terror. Have you ever been present during an altar call when everybody around you has gone up front and you are left all alone? It is only then that you notice with true clarity that the preacher’s eyes are burning a hole right through you.

Have you ever joined a new Sunday school class, prompting a visit from well-meaning members who recline in your living room and ask, “Can you tell us, if you died tonight, would you go to heaven? Because the Bible says if you are saved, you will know it.”

Long before politicians in the current election cycle started talking about phony theology, this mindset was with us: It’s not enough to say you are a Christian. Your Christianity better look like my Christianity, and you better be prepared to prove it to my satisfaction. This playing God is an old game that has had disastrous consequences, and it’s enough to make one repent of going to church at all!

But before you take that step, you might want to consider giving John a full hearing. It has only been in recent years that I learned that John had much more to say than I realized. (This is the great thing about studying the Bible for yourself. There’s stuff in there you’ve never heard about).

For too long, religious clutter caused me to hear only half the Baptist’s message – and even the half that I picked up seemed to be melded into a theological perspective that doesn’t do justice to the biblical text.

You see, there is much more to John than feeling bad about yourself. In fact, it’s not about feeling bad at all, but about turning around. That’s what repentance is. Yet notice in Luke 3:10-14 what John is calling the people to repent from, and what they are to do. (Hint: It is not to walk the aisle and make a profession of faith.)

They are to share their possessions and food with people who have need, adopt good, honest business practices, quit cheating others by threatening them and accusing them falsely, and start dealing with people fairly and squarely. Repentance in this biblical context is tied strongly to social justice, creating a better world for all God’s children.

It is about community.

Christianity is all about community.

Lent can be and is many things: a personal journey of reflection, 40 days wandering in the wilderness, realization of one’s mortality — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

On this day of my Lenten journey, I repent of my selfishness.

I will start looking around so I can see all the people who are with me, including those with different faith or no faith at all. And I will leave the judgments to God.

I will hear the voice of John, preparing the way.

I will stop spending so much time thinking about myself and start thinking about how I can serve others.

Is it possible that Lenten personal reflection can lead to repenting of too much personal reflection? Perhaps this is the truest meaning of denying oneself – finally opening yourself up to the world that God so loves.

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