(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, Sunday, January 10, 2016)
The thing that people forget all too often is that John the Baptist was a very big deal. The ancient historian Flavius Josephus, who is one of the few non-Christian sources about Jesus or John had been led the resistance to Rome in Galilee until he was defeated, and then became a historian explaining the history and customs of Israel to Roman readers. Josephus spends more time on John than he does on Jesus. (In fact, Jesus is described first, 2 chapters ahead of John, which could lead the reader to assume that Jesus died before John the Baptist.)
John’s ministry is described, as is Herod’s fear that John’s influence had grown to the point that the people might follow John in a rebellion and sweep away Herod’s regime. Josephus tells us of John’s imprisonment at Machreus (which we know was used as a prison at the time), and his death at the Herod’s command are also described. No Salome and her dance—just a cold calculation by a wily monarch willing to kill the innocent John on the off chance that he posed a danger to Herod’s reign.
Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the King Herod in the Christmas story, seeking to lure the Magi into betraying the infant Jesus’s location so that Herod could kill him. According to Josephus, the people believed that Herod’s defeat by Aretus IV in 36 AD was God’s punishment for murdering John.
Jesus gets a passage that is shorter when you take out the sentences that were obviously added by later Christian copyists. Jospehus, a Hellenistic follower of Judaism, was not going to write of Jesus: “He was the Son of God!” In the authentic passage, Jesus is described as “a wise man who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.” His trial under Pilate and crucifixion are noted, and the continued loyalty of his friends after his death. That’s it.
So, if we’re judging by a historian writing 60 years after they both died, John the Baptist is the slightly bigger name, the more important figure. His death is even avenged by God, unlike Jesus’s death. That’s how it looked at the time Josephus wrote—which incidentally is about the time that most scholars believe the last written gospel, the Gospel According to John was written.
But according to the Gospels, John knows better. Today, we hear Luke describe Jesus as “one who is more powerful than I” and even says that he is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” In the Fourth Gospel, John sees the Holy Spirit rest on Jesus at his baptism, and hails him as the Messiah. In all of the Gospels, , John knows that he is not the Messiah, but is here to awaken the world to his coming.
So John gets it. He’s the overture, not the main drama.
And unlike the historian Flavius Josephus, John gets it right. There is still a sect that claims John the Baptist as its chief prophet, the Mandaeans, but Christianity grew to be a truly world-wide religion.
Why? Why Jesus and not John the Baptist? It’s easy now to look at the question through the lens of Christian history and our own faith commitments, but what accounts for the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire like wildfire over a John the Baptist inspired call to repentance and good works? They both taught the same basic ethical lessons—John is described as teaching those who come to him for baptism to take no more than their due, not extort others, to show mercy—they both used baptism to mark the redemption of the initiate, the forgiveness of sins, and called sinners to repent and accept forgiveness.
So why did people choose Jesus?
I think it’s the fact that Jesus met people where they were. John made it hard, didn’t he? You had to go out to the desert to find him, and his welcome wasn’t exactly very warm. I mean, the Pharisees and Saducees make the trip, and he greets them with “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
What could be more cozy?
Jesus, on the other hand, sees Zacchaeus, a short tax-collector, who has climbed into a tree just to get a look at him as Jesus comes into town, and calls out to him, inviting himself to dinner. The crowd murmurs. After all, Zacchaeus is a notable sinner. But Zacchaeus is so overjoyed that Jesus wants to spend time with him, that he announces that he will give away half of what he owns, and give back 4 times any amount he has unfairly taken from anybody.
Jesus didn’t ask him to do that. He just came to dinner. He accepted Zacchaeus as a peer, a friend, and made Zacchaeus want to live up to Jesus’s estimate of him.
It’s the same way with the unnamed woman, described only as a “woman of the city” and a sinner, who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive ointment and dries them with her hair. It’s a shocking moment of intimacy even now when we first read it in Luke’s Gospel, but even more so when we consider that it occurs between Jesus and a woman who would have been viewed as polluting him by her touch.
Nobody confronts Jesus about it, Simon, his host, assumes that Jesus would know better if he were a true prophet. Jesus defends the woman, pointing out that her welcome made up for the deficiencies in Simon’s own treatment of him, and praises her for the great love she has shown, in gratitude for the forgiveness she has received—which she understands has been given to her without her even asking!
Jesus even points out the difference in his approach from John’s, in criticizing the crowd that rejected them both: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
I recently attended a two day workshop with the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. In one of the sessions she described herself as a “Law and Grace preacher.” By that she meant that she saw a very great danger in our tendency to want to prove ourselves to be good people by our complying with the law. She explained that the idea that we’re good enough that all we need is a handbook to follow would mean that we wouldn’t have to bother God with all the stuff about ourselves we’d rather not face. We could just be good. The problem is, Jesus doesn’t buy that. Nobody can live up to the law—it would mean being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. The law, Nadia said, is a lover who will never love us back.
That’s John the Baptist, in a way. John has been called the last prophet of the Old Testament, and there’s a lot of truth in that, because, although he offers a route to the forgiveness of sins, he carries the burden of the law. He expected Jesus to be like him, with his winnowing fork and with fire.
But Jesus set us free from that burden. Don’t believe me? That Pharisee of Pharisees, as St. Paul called himself, says just that in his letter to the Galatians: “we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
In my Roman Catholic boyhood, we used to keep a sort of moral score. Had we sinned badly enough that our venial (not all that serious) sins could add up to a mortal sin (uh-oh!)? Were our spiritual bank accounts overdrawn, or did we have a balance with God?
We don’t have a spiritual checkbook, of course. That’s not God’s way.
Jesus’s way is the way of Grace. Jesus met people where they were, and didn’t judge them—and by meeting them with love opened up new worlds of possibility for them. He changed how they saw themselves, and what they were capable of being. We don’t become perfect, but we meet love with love. And even our failures are transformed by the fact that we are free to love back, instead of trying to impress a strict legal guardian.
We can pass on that gift in our own way. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” isn’t just safer, it gives the people we interact with the chance to respond to us in a less defensive way, to see themselves through our eyes as people worth knowing and caring about as they are, not as we’d like them to be. That’s our part in grace. Pass it on. Love and forgive. And when we can’t, remember that God will do it for us until we can do it ourselves.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 Matt. 3: 7-8.
 Matt. 11: 18-19.
 Gal. 2:16.