When we left our hero, John the Baptizer, he was standing in the Jordan River that runs between present-day Israel and Jordan. John and his followers immersed people in river water as a symbol of their desire to repent of past sins (see ” ‘Wash Me’  – and a Whole Lot More”). There was more to John’s ministry than dunking people in brown river water (yes, I’ve been to the region and seen the Jordan River, and it’s as brown as the land around it).

His preaching urged people not only to seek forgiveness for their past sins, but to commit themselves to living in new ways more in line with the ten rules that scripture says God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews call these rules the Law; Christians refer to them as the Ten Commandments (the real thing, not Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner and a cast of hundreds).

Repentance was not new, because Jewish priests, prophets and sages had been promoting turning away from selfish, greedy, idolatrous lifestyles among their people for centuries. By the time of Jesus, there were thousands of interpretations of the Law by priests, rabbis and other learned men (yes, they were all men, as women were not included in scholarly pursuits at that time). However, Luke 3:3-6 likens John’s mission to one foretold in the book of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “

Whoa! That’s some serious imagery, isn’t it? But what does it mean?

As I said at the outset of this series, it’s hard to understand the mindset of people who lived thousands of years ago. For one thing, most of us in the 21st century live very urban lives, so landscapes don’t always capture our imaginations the way they did when the world’s population was mostly rural. Back then, people who lived in villages, towns and great cities like Jerusalem knew what it was like to travel down through valleys and up over hills and mountains. No planes, trains or automobiles to keep them detached from the physical world around them.

Yet to the Jews, Isaiah’s words had enormous significance beyond a staggering visual image. The text comes from Isaiah 40:3-5, in which God tells the people of Israel that they will be saved from their enemies. “Preparing the way of the Lord” can mean to perform the literal acts described in the passage, but it also has connotations of personal repentance, improving one’s own behaviors and those of the community. In other words, the balancing of geography described in Isaiah’s poetry also has been interpreted to signify the restoration of relationships between individuals, in society and with God.

Here’s where John’s mission turned dangerous, because Luke 3:7-20 speak of the Forerunner’s explicit preaching. John wasn’t the moderate, benign preacher of most boulevard churches; he was confrontational, and he didn’t care whose feelings he might offend. Listen to John preaching to those who came to him to be baptized (Luke 3:7-9, NRSV*):

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

 Boy, howdy, that’s some preachin’, as we say in Texas where I live. Can we understand today what he was saying? To some extent, yes, but only with a little effort. As we noted earlier, being washed clean from prior sins was only the first part of Baptism in John’s ministry. His exhortation to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” was a clear instruction that those who sought Baptism couldn’t get away with going back to their old habits. If they kept on cheating their customers and business associates, lying to their spouses, coveting their neighbors’ lands, and failing to care for the poor and helpless, then the effect of their Baptism was nullified, according to John.

What’s more, John told them, they weren’t protected from the consequences of their sins just because they were Jews, members of God’s Chosen People. As he goes on, John  gives specific instructions to certain groups of people on how to get right with their neighbors, and thus with God. He’s blunt about it: if the ritual act of Baptism didn’t affect the ways they lived as well, their effort was worthless.

Several meanings have been given to phrases such as “flee from the wrath to come” and “the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” In some cases, these predictions of a dire future have been given terrible anti-Semitic interpretations that have led to persecutions of Jews for centuries, thanks to the (horrible to say) Christian idea that Jews who rejected Jesus were collectively condemned to hell unless they converted. Recounting the millions of ways that Christians have sinned against their spiritual elder siblings, the Jews, would take another blog. Suffice it to say that, IMHO, John’s words should not be interpreted as a license for Christians to feel in any way superior to Jews (or anyone else, for that matter). Too often we forget that Jesus was a Jew, and saw his mission in a Jewish, not Christian, context.

So back to John the Baptizer. His powerful preaching had an immediate effect on his listeners. They begged him to tell them how to live, and John was quick to respond:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)

Think about this. Most of us have pretty good wardrobes, often including several sweaters, jackets and coats. Have we ever given our extras to people who have none? Have we even considered our abundance of clothing as “extra?” And what about our food? Many churches sponsor food pantries or contribute to food distribution ministries, and churchwomen for generations have taken food to sick, hungry and grieving people. Yet how often do we question why we continue to allow economic systems that force people into poverty and hunger?

Good examples of this idea are the “Occupy” demonstrations going on now around the United States and elsewhere.  Until recently, there was little evidence of faith-based support, but now that has changed. Churches and synagogues and mosques are on board with the Occupy groups because religious leaders have recognized that their primary aim, equalizing the unjust American economic system, aligns perfectly with their own religion’s teachings.

Most church members are uncomfortable with these kinds of witness because they require a personal stand. These aren’t the kinds of encounters that we can write a check for and feel we’ve done our charitable best. Knowing the needs of others, and our own responsibility for any social system that results in oppression, poverty, hunger and the like, requires that we know the people around us. We must establish relationships with people in order to know how we can serve them.

Awareness and actions such as these are the kinds of “fruits worthy of repentance” that John insisted should be the direct result of Baptism. These concepts weren’t unknown to the Jews; they can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible that we Christians call the Old Testament. However, their practice clearly had declined by John’s lifetime; otherwise he wouldn’t have called attention to them.

John’s call for other-oriented compassionate living in community has stuck to our understanding of Baptism ever since. Today, though, it seems that we practice it as erratically as it was practiced in John’s era. What’s more, preaching this understanding of the responsibilities of Baptism to American Christians has become as dangerous these days as it became for John. We’ll find out more about that in the next post.

All Scripture quotations on this blog are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Copyright 1989 by the Christian Education Committee of the National Council of Churches. Used by permission.

Photo Credit: Bumper Sticker from Northern Sun.