Articles, Essays & Sermons

The Baptizer’s Bargain

A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent

by Ken Sehested,
Texts: Luke 3:7-18; Zeph. 3:14-20; Phil. 4:4-7

            The text and sermon for this week is a continuation of the story from Luke, and Joyce’s commentary last week: the story John the Baptist. Or, more properly, John the Baptizer. (John really wasn’t a Baptist—although, one summer during college I worked as a youth minister in a church whose pastor believed that Baptists can trace their history back to John. If that were true, that means there were Baptists before there were Christians!)

            Before I read the second part of the text from Luke 3, let’s review the first part.

            •Luke begins with the most improbable political scenario: The word of God bypassed the president, the governors, and the pope to rest on a hillbilly preacher stuck out in the wilderness of the farthest backwaters of the empire. At the edge of the known universe. John was a wild one. The other Gospel writers describe him as someone who lives on locust and wild honey, dressed in a camel-hair tunic and leather belt. Respectable people probably thought of him as a nutcase. And the same of those who tromped out into the wilderness around the Jordan River to hear him preach. Some of those—which later would include Jesus—waded out into the river when John performed what the text calls “a baptism of repentance.” (He probably would have had more volunteers if he offered to just sprinkle their heads with water. But I’m just speculating here.)

            The crux of his sermon was drawn from Isaiah, where the prophet said “prepare the way, make straight the paths, predicting that a great transformation was on its way, when valleys will be filled and mountains brought low . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

            Truth is, these initial chapters of Luke’s Gospel are filled with some of the most explosive texts and most improbable predictions in biblical history:

            •a pair of humble women—one described as “barren,” the other as “virgin”—giving birth to key actors in the New Testament’s drama;

            •of angels crowding the skies—it was a busy season—appearing in succession to Zechariah, John’s father; to the shepherds in the fields; and to Mary, the mother of Jesus;

            •of Mary’s song of praise—a song that also includes some of the most politically subversive language anywhere in the Bible;

            •of Anna, described in the text as a “prophet” herself, an 84-year old woman who virtually lived in the Temple.

            With this review, let’s pick up the story from Luke 3 (7-18). [read story]

John’s baptism was not simply a ritual act of cleansing of the soul; it simultaneously indicated a socially-transformed life. Not just an act of obedience to God, but also a commitment to justice.

            Bear fruits worthy of repentance, John told his listeners. Repentance is not sorrow; it’s not feeling guilty; it’s not an immersion in self-abasement. It is a transformation of character.

            Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Or, to put it in another way, in the immortal words of Tammy Wynette: “Don’t come home a’drinking with lovin’ on your mind.”

            It was the call for repentance that got Roger Williams expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Williams, founder of the very first Baptist congregation in this hemisphere, was found guilty of four charges by the Massachusetts Bay Colony courts, the last of which was Williams’ contention "that we have not our land by patent from the king, but that the natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving of it by patent."

            Repentance was not just saying to God: “Sorry!” Repentance involves commitments that transform the body politic. Repentance involves a spiritual encounter that reorders and reframes the way we engage the world of flesh and blood.

            Our notions of repentance have largely lost their teeth. I intentionally chose the artwork on today’s bulletin for this reason. At some time or another most of you have seen a “get right with God” sign along the highway; and chances are you thought to yourself, “what biscuit-sopping lowbrow put that up?” But the bulletin cover art shows a line of civil rights marchers in the background. The context is what gives significance to “getting right with God.” During the Civil Rights Movement, repentance meant that people who benefited from racial discrimination needed to relinquish their fears and forfeit their privilege. It comes at a cost.

            And it also meant that people who suffered oppression needed to relinquish their settled second-class status and march to freedom’s disrupting tune. This, also, comes at a cost.

            All of us here in this Circle sometimes experience oppression, and sometimes act as oppressors. A key job of this community of faith is to help each other figure out which is what; and then encourage each other to the risky job of doing the kind of relinquishing that needs to happen so that the social fabric can be repaired.

            Some of you probably noticed the news on Thursday that a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. congressional leaders went for high-level talks with Cuban authorities. It’s the most significant such initiative since the start of the embargo of Cuba in 1960.

            There’s been very little communication between the U.S. and Cuba since the embargo started. And what little we hear comes from the right-wing Cuban American community who left after the revolution.

            On my first trip to Cuba, in 1990, I preached one evening at a special service in a Havana church. There were several Cuban media present to cover the event. And the next day, someone on the street recognized me. I found out I’d been on TV the night before. But when I came back and told that story, one listener called me a liar. “There’s no freedom of religion in Cuba.” When I asked that same person where the Guantanamo U.S. Marine military base was located, he had no idea it was on Cuban soil. Or that the U.S. essentially wrote the Cuba constitution following the Spanish-American War in 1898, inserting a clause stipulating that the U.S. had the right to intervene militarily.

            To be sure, there was repression of religious communities after the Revolution. The dominant church of the time was the Roman Catholic Church, and they were thoroughly aligned with the wealthy classes. But during the last 15 years the churches in Cuba have experienced extraordinary growth.

            Let me tell you one of my most unusual story from my trip back to Cuba in October. One evening I attended the 50th anniversary service of the William Carey Baptist Church in Havana—the same church where I preached in 1990 in front of a Cuban TV camera. The place was packed and the crowd spilled out into the adjoining lobby and hallway.

            The same pastor is there—Rev. Estella Hernandez, though her co-pastor husband died several years ago. Because of our friendship, she had me sit down front, on the second row, and found someone to translate for me. Sitting across from me, on the first row, were three ranking members of the Communist Party in Cuba. They didn’t have a role in the service—they were just there to pay their respects.

            But what makes this story really odd is that just a few feet away from where they were sitting, just around the corner in the lobby, is a prominent plaque, in English, thanking the Women’s Missionary Union of North Carolina for their assistance in constructing the church building. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

            My principal reason for going was to participate in a conference for progressive Baptist theologians in the Caribbean region. Some of you know I spent the previous 18 months raising money for the conference, which 38 registrants, from 8 different countries. Many of them didn’t previously know each other. We were meeting in the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, founded in 1987 by Rev. Raúl Suarez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is next door to the King Center. (By the way, Raúl was the first Christian admitted into the Communist Party, and the first Christian elected to the Cuban National Parliament, in 1992. Raúl, a pacifist, was wounded at the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion by the U.S. He was a volunteer ambulance driver for the Cuban army sent to repulse that invasion.)

            Anyway…what transpired at the conference was far more significant than the formal presentations, the Bible studies, the singing (and there was lots of singing). I’ve seen it happen before, when people who feel like they’re illegitimate children suddenly discover they have all these aunts and uncles and cousins! Most of the people there are renegades in their own communities in Nicaragua, in Panama, in Brazil and Mexico and Costa Rica. In fact, the sponsors of the conference—the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas—the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba—began in 1989 when one of the Baptist conventions in Cuba expelled three churches, for much of the same reasons churches here get kicked out of their denominations.

            Jonathan Pimentel, president of the Baptist Seminary in Costa Rica, summed things up nicely when he said:“Life in the Spirit and life in the world are intimately connected.” In other words, to refer back to the prophet Zephaniah in our opening litany, the fruits of repentance will aim at canceling the shame felt by the lame and replacing it with joy. The fruits of repentance will gather the outcast and make them welcome. This is what it means, in biblical terms, to get right with God.

            After the conference my friend Paco (Francisco Rodés)—former pastor of the Baptist church in Matanzas and now a professor at the Evangelical Seminary—took me on a long car journey about two-thirds of the length of the island to the city of Camagüey, where our sister church, Iglesia Getsemani is located. Along the way we stopped for short visits at several other churches—most of them small, meeting in someone’s living room, and most pastored by women. Kiran, Joy, Greg Yost, Will—you remember the itinerary we took last year. This trip was very similar.

            (By the way, I did get a job offer while I was in Cuba. When Paco found out I could drive his 20-year-old car, he was happy to do so and begged me to come back to work as his chauffeur.)

            Finally, we reached Camagüey and the open arms of our friends at Iglesia Getsemani. It was as if it were last week when we were there, instead of last week. One woman in the congregation told me she could remember my sermon from May of 2005. I chuckled, thinking she was simply being polite. But then she began to summarize the story I told about Elisha and how his house was surrounded by the King of Aram’s army, and how Elisa prayed and the whole army went blind, and then how Elisa led them directly into the walled city where the King of Israel wanted to kill them all; but Elisa said, NO, but instead, bring out tables because we’re going to have a banquet!

            The logic of repentance is driven by a kind of transformation that converts us away from the way the world normally does its business—through intimidation and deceit, through exploitation and hoarding, through violence and the force of arms. And repentance directs us to a whole new set of values and priorities and strategies that foster what the Jewish Talmud calls “tikkun olam,” the repair of the world. To repent means to be immersed in a different social vision; bound to different political loyalties; committed to different economic values.

            I know it’s a little odd to do an Advent sermon and tell stories about Cuba. But the fact is, the whole country of Cuba is experiencing Advent. Will there be political chaos? Will the U.S. decide it’s a good time to invade? The threat of violence and the prospect of redemption are all bound up together.

            Let me close with a poem I’ve just written about John, entitled “The baptizer’s bargain.”

John.
Such a tame name for a man
born to inhabit the wild side
of heaven’s incursion.
You startle children with
your leather-girdled, camel-haired attire,
hot breath bidding the devout
into Jordan’s penitential wake,
the same waters that marked
the boundary of beneficence: of the Hebrew
slaves’ long march from Pharaoh’s provision
(hard, to be sure, but also secure)
to Providence of another, riskier kind,
though laced with promise of milk and honey
What drove you to this scorched abode,
abounding in wild beasts, hostile foes
and scarce sustenance?

John.
The shape of your profile
was cockeyed from conception:
born to parents long since impotent and barren;
your father stunned speechless by
the angel’s approach;
your future yoked with that of Elijah,
ancient antagonist to royal deceit.
(And you paid with your head.)
What was it in Mary’s voice that prompted
your recoil in Elizabeth’s womb
And why the abandonment of familial legacy
in the choice of your name
What incredulous politics is this that the
Word of God would bypass
lordly Tiberius and Pilate,
princely Philip and Lysanias,
priestly Annas and Caiaphas,
to locate you, of honey-smeared beard,
amid such remote and wayward landscape?

John.
Spirit-drenched baptizer of repentant flesh,
exposing shameful inheritance to the Advent
of mercy and an anthem of praise.
Lonely minstrel of pledged Betrothal,
announcing dawn’s infiltration
of destiny’s dark corner,
scattering death’s shadow with
the footfalls of peace.
Witness to dove’s descent, reversing heaven’s
flooding threat with lauded applause
to Mary’s assent and Messiah’s demand
for hills’ prostration and valleys’ upheaval.
Speak, John: Roar the Complaint against every
crooked and cragged thoroughfare.
Should the elect resist, the stones themselves
will produce heirs worthy of Abram’s fealty.
Echo the insistent Refrain: revive, return, repair.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The baptizer’s bargain is this: Enter these
waters at the risk of self-absorbed survival.
A certain drowning is needed for lungs to receive 
Breath From Above on wings of the dove.

 Vipers, beware! The baptized prepare.

Circle of Mercy Congregation, 17 December 2006
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org