He was the stereotypical PK, preacher’s kid, pastor’s kid - whatever your tradition, the stereotype is pretty much the same, and he fit the bill. He grew up drenched in the life of the church – her highest highs with spirit-filled holiday worship and people of God coming together to serve the least of these in the local soup kitchen and on far away mission trips, but then also the lowest lows when conflict tore at the holy fabric of faith and tight budgets slashed outreach. He had seen it all from a different side, sort of the inside, sometimes the underbelly, and from what he had seen, now as a young adult, 18, 19, 20 years old, he wasn’t so sure this institution called “church” was all it was cracked up to be.
He wasn’t sure ANY institution was really all that worth his time, but rebelling against church, as the pastor’s kid, now that was a way to make a statement. When home from college for Christmas, he went to services because that’s what the family did, but when people asked him about the campus ministry, he saw it as an invitation to declare with righteous indignation, “The church is just an institution, an institution that just looks out for itself. It’s not DOING faith, just talking about it. It’s full of bureaucracy and obsessed with money. Hypocrisy is lurking around every corner. I’m spiritual these days; I’m just not religious.” You know. The kinds of things 18, 19, or 20 year olds can get away with saying, or at least they try to.
He was the stereotypical PK who had seen it all, and having seen it all he was deciding to do it a different way. He grew out a scruffy beard, and it wasn’t that long hair on his head was a problem because it was long, but it was just so unkempt. He came back from college a vegan, refusing to eat any animal products, even the honey-baked ham at the center of the Christmas dinner table. Mom and Dad didn’t force him into a shirt and tie for the 11 o’ clock candlelight service, but they did insist on the jeans with the least number of holes and a belt to hold them up around his actual waist. He certainly didn’t look like the rest of the congregation when he walked through the doors and with his nonconforming looks and his words, he took his role as prophet to the mainstream very seriously, calling them, he believed to a life of faith with congruity, a life of faith with integrity, a life of faith that does what it says it believes.
He was in good company. John was another PK, a priest’s kid. In fact, his lineage was sort of a double whammy in days when only men could be priests. His dad was Zechariah, of the priestly order of Abijah; his mother, Elizabeth, a descendent of Aaron, the first priest, Moses’s brother. Luke tells us they were both righteous; they lived blameless according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. They were the picture of faith, and, to a certain extent, the institution, if there ever was such a picture.
But John, John was a PK. He was out on his own, and he didn’t look quite the same as the rest of the family. (Matthew says he wore clothing of camel’s hair and leather belt instead of the usual woven cloth). He didn’t eat the same food. (Again, the other gospel says he ate locust and wild honey, nothing cultivated in the home gardens or meat offered as payment to his father, the priest.) He lived on the edge of the society in which he grew up, on the fringe of acceptable religious and political circles. He certainly wasn’t in the temple like his father. He lived and preached and baptized far from the world of the Emperor Tiberius, the governor Pontius Pilate, Herod and Philip, Lysanias, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. They walked in regal circles; John walked in the wilderness.
And in the wilderness, a righteously indignant young man, he called to task the religious people who came to him, voluntarily, speaking with an honesty that wouldn’t get a preacher too far in this day and age or that one - - “You brood of vipers!”
The words are harsh! Who wants to stick around and listen after an opening like that? Who wants to subject themselves to that kind of reprimand, to that kind of critique? Most days, I certainly don’t, especially from someone who has pretty much disengaged from the church life I hold so dear. Why should I listen to them? Why should I take that kind of talk - - the talk of people who don’t even walk through these doors, the talk of people who don’t even give all of this a chance, the talk of people who say they are“spiritual, but not religious” (as if my own religion is something
disdainful and less authentic than their spirituality) - - Why should I take that kind of talk, and take it seriously when they don’t know anything about me?
“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…’”
IN THE WILDERNESS.
Not the voice from Rome, nor the governor of Judea. Not the voice of the ruler of Galilee or the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Abilene. Not the voice of the high priests or the temple priest. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, that’s the voice God useswhen the way of the Lord needs to be prepared. That’s the voice God uses when the paths need to be made straight, the valleys need to be filled, the mountains need to be made low, the crooked ways made straight, the rough ways made smooth. That’s the voice, the voice in the wilderness, that God chooses when it is time for all flesh to see the salvation of God. The voice in the wilderness, the voices outside our church walls, the voices from beyond our membership rolls or the membership rolls of any church - - God is using those voices and calling US, calling those of us who will listen, to task.
Those voices will talk if you ask them, and even sometimes if you don’t. The people outside the walls of this church or any church, they will tell you why they won’t come through our doors if you really want to hear it. But get ready, because what they say may sound a harsh as John the Baptist’s “You brood of vipers” speech. “The church is hypocritical,” they may say. “You talk about how we should give to the poor, but you spend a lot of money on making sure your building is beautiful.” “The church is bigoted. You say that all people are welcome, all people are loved by God, but your membership list looks pretty homogenous in terms of race and economic class and sexual orientation.” “The church is irrelevant,” they may say.“Your organization is slow to respond when needs are immediate and the world changes so quickly.” “The church is out of touch,” they may say. “Your songs are 400 years old and use words that mean nothing to us.” “The church is judgmental,” they may say. “You look down on me if I don’t believe just like you, worship just like you, or show up dressed just like you.” Get ready; what they say may be hard to hear, but what they say is EXACTLY what we need to hear.
Theirs are the voices of people crying out in the wilderness. Theirs are the voices sending the news from the fringe, and the news is that we have work to do. We have to repent. We have to discover what it means to live faith with integrity, with our words and our actions and our beliefs and our budget and our attention all in alignment. We have to turn around and do what we do in ways that make sense to people other than those of us who are already here. We have to let the Spirit of God come in and transform us, so that the real good news, so that the real voice from heaven can be heard.
There are voices crying out in the wilderness, and we have got to listen not so we can strategically figure out how to “get them,” but so that we can figure out what God is calling us to be, so that we can ask the question the crowds who heard John the Baptist asked,“What then should we do?” We’ve done a lot of talking around this church about bringing in new members, about trying to attract new people to join us in what we are doing, but I think our focus is a little bit off.
What if instead of trying to lure people in, finding people who look like we look, like what we like, sound like we sound - - what if instead of waiting for people to come conform to exactly what we are, we went out to the wilderness, where they are telling us exactly what we need to hear, no matter how hard it is to hear it, and listened to the words of the Spirit speaking through unexpected people? What if we considered what it would REALLY mean to step into the water’s of John’s baptism, a baptism of turning in new directions, the baptism Jesus received himself? What if we set aside our judgment, our self-righteousness, our fear of admitting that someone else just might have a word from the Spirit that we needto hear, our fear of failing and just tried something new? What if we set it all aside, stepped forward in faith, waded into the waters of our baptisms, and followed God to unanticipated places? What if we let ourselves and our church be transformed into our best self, into exactly what God has created us to be in this exact time and this exact place? What if we dared to ask, “What then SHOULD we do?” What if?