by Cathy Cavazos
God is crashing in - shaking up the neighborhood, in this passage. A miracle baby appears with a superhero destiny, a mute dad starts megaphoning God's word, fear sweeps through the neighbors...light dawns, truth unveils, and God's mysterious hero, John the Baptist, enters the wilderness. Adventure beyond his wildest dreams beckons beyond...as now you and I find ourselves in this remarkable journey, wondering, what will we become?
I have been going through this pre-ordination process with the Presbytery for four years now. And over the past four years of preparing and studying what it means for me to be a pastor, I’ve been asked over and over again to name my role models for the ministry. People whom I respect and admire for the way they use their gifts for the building up of the church. Of course, Shannon’s name has come up a few times, but also has some of yours. You who come here every Sunday and welcome people to worship, and who every week deliver meals to the homebound. I’ve named some of you who have silently dedicated yourself to service in the church. I have been blessed with many role models for the ministry, in my family, in colleagues, fellow pastors, and in professors, and in you.
As I studied this text from Luke, I added another name to my list of ministerial role models: John the Baptist. Luke and other Gospel writers portray John as one radical leader. Even from his birth John broke through tradition.
Neighbors and relatives all wanted John to be named after his father; it was the proper thing to do in their culture. But obeying the angel’s instructions, Elizabeth and Zechariah refused to follow tradition. The bystanders are stunned; this might have felt like huge disrespect to their customs and the parents’ families. No one was named John. “What’s wrong with you?” the neighbors asked. “No one in your family has that name?”
From an outsider’s point of view, Elizabeth and Zechariah had just been blessed with a miracle child and should be expressing their ultimate gratitude. Instead, they deny custom and begin their son’s life by labeling him as a nonconformist to his culture.
The naming of John is a powerful witness to the weight of labels. There is something so powerful in a name. Our names give us identity and make us unique and special.
Whenever I have been on-call at the hospital this summer, I like to go see the babies in nursery late at night. After spending my days ministering to people in grief and crises, I have found such refreshment in being able to hold new life in my arms. So, I’m often there when babies just minutes old come into the nursery for their first bath and admitting. I like to go hold their little hands as the mean ol’ nurses stick them with needles and rub them dry with soap. My first question is always, “What is her name?” In other words, I want to know, who is this? Tell me about this child. Is her father here to see her birth? Does she have any siblings? What do you think she will be like?
And sometimes when the parents have yet to name the child, the nurses make up names for them. For example, baby girl Nyugen became Gracie Win. Baby boy Beane became Jim Beam. We know each other first by our names. Our name gives us structure and assurance of our individuality.
Luke assures us of the individuality of John in this drama of his naming. From his very entry into the world, John was special. He was distinct. His culture or his family no longer defined him.
Reading this text made me more and more intrigued with the person of John the Baptist. I read of his growing up in the wildernesses of the Middle East, wearing camel’s hair, and eating locust. He was a Biblical Hippie. A free spirit. And he followed his calling to prepare the way of Christ by preaching, pastoring, and baptizing. Right up until his martyrdom, his life was about standing out from society and standing up for the Lord. John the Baptist lived his entire life the way God wanted him to, not the way culture insisted upon. He followed his call to extremes. He lived on the margins of society, with one foot in the world and one foot dangling in Heaven, being simply whom God had called him to be.
What a fascinating role model for the ministry, I thought. After spending time in poor urban settings and third world countries, I have gained a passion for fighting social expectations, class hierarchies and oppression. I imagined how I could name John the Baptist the next time I was asked for my role model for the ministry. I would advocate his courageous bold personality and eccentricity. I would say how all people should live (at least somewhat) like this man—with more care for God’s calling upon their lives than on tending to societal pressures.
I considered the many social justice implications for ministry that could be modeled after John the Baptist. I thought how ministry in homeless shelters is often seen as scary dangerous territory—a place that should be avoided, but really when you think about, John lived a scary dangerous life—in the wilderness. He was rugged for Jesus.
I wondered how I might encourage all of you to be like John the Baptist.
I imagined I would end my sermon by encouraging all of you to Be Johns! That is until my junior high humor jumped into remind me that that didn’t sound very appropriate.
Over the week, I carried this thought with me into my pastoral visits at the hospital and in group work with my fellow chaplains. I arrogantly thought about how my vocation as a chaplain and a pastor matches the role of this Jesus Hippie. I over proudly associated my calling with John’s. Like Zechariah’s prophecy says about John, we both help bring light to those who sit in darkness. At the hospital, I’m constantly surrounded by people struggling to get through the dark valley of the shadow of death. And my function as chaplain is to simply go there with them, to hold their hand, and walk with them to help them visualize God’s constant presence. My ego swelled as I pictured myself as a modern day John the Baptist.
But something just wasn’t connecting. And once I realized what it was, it was so simple: my name is not John. Profound, huh? I do not lead a rugged life in the wilderness, well I guess that depends on your image of Atlanta. I do not wear camel’s hair. And I promise you I do not feel called to eat locust.
After spending days glorifying John the Baptist, I realized that this passage really isn’t a campaign for John. Our pastoral ideal shouldn’t be John for he too was a human. He wasn’t the light to those in darkness. John was not our suffering Savior. All this talk about John is actually focusing us in another direction. The one we serve is not John, we serve the Lord.
This work that I’m doing this summer, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, is all about forming our own pastoral identity. As a pastor, I am not called to be John, but to join John. To participate in preparing the way of the Lord using my own unique gifts and skills.
This message is not just for paid Christians, but for all people: you were named by God at your birth to be you. We are each created as unique, distinct persons, like John, but we are all given different tasks, different skills, different passions. We should be working with John, not to be John.
Remember that awkward preteen time when you spent all your days desperately trying to figure out who you were by imitating other people? As much as I’d like to claim that we have outgrown that stage, we’re still in it. We sometimes look to other Christians as idols, and instead of simply learning from them, we try to be them. We hear in the media that the perfect Christian is one who only votes conservative. We stereotype the best Christians as those who are white, middle class, dress well and are always well groomed. We uphold the ideal image of most dedicated disciple as the one who attends seminary, marries the church, and never makes a mistake. I heard one well known and successful Christian author claim that he reverse tithes—he gives 90 percent and keeps 10. He then charged all the audience to follow his pious lead.
But that doesn’t work for everyone. Those styles of piety may apply to some, but they definitely don’t apply to all. And the example of John the Baptist may work for some, but it is not for everyone. We were all created unique. It would be ridiculous for me to charge everyone here to be like John.
Being the most dedicated, most successful disciple you can be is simply being who God called you to be. And then you may discover the freedom of having one of your feet dangling in the heavens. The electricity of finding your own superhero destiny.
So, bless your rareness. Embrace your unique passions and gifts. Don’t be John; The old clichéd maternal advice is still true: Be yourself. For God has called you by name.
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptist
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