Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
December 10, 2006
"THE NARROW GATE OF PEACE"
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-5 and Luke 3:3, 7-20
We are reading Luke together this year. Today we fast-forward
from John the Baptistís birth to his actual preaching.
John was not the type you wanted to get stuck with at a party. He
would mutter under his breath: Impeach Herod! Or, Away with the high
priesthood! He scoffed at fine clothes. While others drank their
Scotches and eggnog he carried his own bottle of water. Printed on
the bottle were the words, Save the Jordan!
He had not gone to the finishing school for clergy called
Seminary, where they teach you how to preach and pray and not
offend. He was schooled in the wilderness, he alone with God, no
spiritual props, no social insulation. Alone with the Holy One.
He may have spent some time in the Essene community of the Dead
Sea Scrolls, but he belonged to no school, no group. He was a
one-man reform movement in first-century Judaism.
He was baptizing in the Jordan River. "A baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins" is how the text puts it. Repentance:
Metanoia in the Greek, a change of mind, heart. The great Hebrew
word behind the Greek is Shuv: Return. Return to God.
Johnís message was closest to the Hebrew prophet Malachi. Through
Malachi God said, "You have turned aside from my statutes....
Return to me, and I will return to you." The Lord is "like a
refinerís fire," said Malachi, purifying you as silver and gold are
purified in the fire.
John preached the coming judgment of God as a refinerís fire. And
he said to some, "You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the
wrath to come?" Can you see a brood of snakes wiggling away to
escape a fire?
Martin Luther, who for all his brilliance and spiritual truth
bore the anti-Semitism of his age and culture, cited this passage
and called all Jews a "brood of snakes" - - as have many other
Christians caught in a hatred of our spiritual mother. But Johnís
charge was more specific - - and more general:
You come thinking a dip in the Jordan is all you need. What you
need is metanoia, shuv. A new mind, a return to the
ways of God. Itís a sharp message to our easy American religion that
wants baptism without repentance, forgiveness without confession,
wholeness without holiness, salvation without metanoia,
spirituality without the Spirit of God. Itís religion as a shopperís
delight: God R Us.
He said to them at Jordanís edge: You lean on your spiritual
lineage, saying, "We are children of Abraham; Abraham is our
father!" I tell you, from these stones God can raise up
children of Abraham.
Itís a sobering word for us children of Abraham: Jewish children,
Christian children, Muslim children. We all like to claim our
lineage, our chosenness. God belongs to us, fancies us.
John says, Your lives prove your lineage. You say you are
children of shalom, peace, salaam. But your actions do
not show it. A tree is judged by its fruits. An axe is laid to the
root of the tree. What doesnít bear fruit is cut down and thrown
into the fire.
Wendell Berry writes:
And now we are stirring up the question whether or not Islam
is a warlike religion, ignoring the question, much more urgent
for us, whether or not Christianity is a warlike religion. There
is no hope in this. Islam, Judaism, Christianity - - all have
been warlike religions.1
We all have holy war traditions and peace traditions in our
scriptures and histories. The question for Abrahamic religions today
is whether we Christian, Muslim, Jew can recover the peace
traditions within our own faiths, and whether we will disavow the
holy war, crusade, jihad impulses of our traditions and prove
ourselves true children of Abraham. If not, God will raise up
others, and our fruitless branches will go into the fire.
You may ask at this point. What is the good news in Johnís
preaching? Is there any gospel there?
Here it is - - and it is what made him a threat to both Rome and
Jerusalem, Herod and Herodís Temple: Anybody could be saved. Anybody
could come and be baptized. You didnít need to pay a temple tax to
the priests; you didnít have to be the right family, race, nation,
gender or class. It was like the Pentecostal movement in America
begun in the Azuza Street revival in L.A. Black, white, brown, rich
and poor, male, female, educated and uneducated, religious and not
religious: All were coming. The Spirit could fall on anyone. It was
falling on everyone. Just look!
And John didnít leave us with a one-sentence warning, Repent, Or
Else! He told us "How repent!" He showed us what metanoia
looked like. The crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" (There
had to be someone in the crowd who whispered, "Donít ask!") And he
said, Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.
(Maybe next week we should bring an offering of coats!) And
whoever has extra food must give to those who have no food. (Maybe
an offering of can goods! Bring them to the altar. Stack them higher
than the poinsettias.)
Even tax collectors came to be baptized! Half of you
should hear: "Even Democrats came to be baptized!" The other
half should hear: "Even Republicans came to be baptized!" The
Jordan was open to everyone. Still is. And the tax collectors asked,
"What should we do?" And John said, "Collect no more than the amount
prescribed for you." In other words, honest business practice.
Beware of greed.
Soldiers were there too, asking, What should we do? They
were probably Herodís soldiers: Jews who joined the occupying army
of Rome. Like Malikiís army in Iraq, Arabs soldiering other Arabs in
Americaís name. Not the most popular of people. And John said, "Do
not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. Be
satisfied with your wages." In other words, no plundering and
extortion. No misuse of power.
Johnís preaching was ethical living regardless of your
circumstances. When times get tough enough, painful enough, confused
enough its easy to say, "What the hell; it doesnít matter how I
live." But it does. Sir Thomas More put it this way: "The times are
never so bad but that a good man can live in them."
Thomas More, you may remember, stood against King Henry VIII.
Henry became obsessed that Thomas More, his Lord Chancellor, affirm
his supremacy over church and endorse his divorce and remarriage.
More resigned his chancellorship rather than be forced to support
the king. But that was not enough. More was asked to take an oath of
loyalty or lose his life. The playwrite Robert Bolt captures the
moment of moral decision in his play A Man for All Seasons.
Moreís daughter, Meg, begged him to take the oath, saying that God
would know his heart. More, now imprisoned in the Tower of London,
When a man takes an oath, Meg, heís holding his own self in
his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he
neednít hope to find himself again.2
More, like John, was executed by beheading. But he stayed true to
himself, to the best truth he knew.
John preached the narrow gate of peace. The wide gate is peace as
a sentiment, peace as a warm feeling and greeting card ideal. The
narrow gate of peace - - the gate that leads to life, as Jesus put
it - - is the narrow gate of personal integrity, of truthfulness and
honesty, of the refusal to exploit oneís power for personal gain. It
is the narrow gate of justice which looks out for the well-being of
all people and as the Hebrew scripture puts it, "judges with equity
for the poor of the earth."
Johnís preaching cost him his life. He was too critical of the
powers-that-be, religious and political. He criticized the policies
of Herod who wanted to be thought of as king of the Jews. He
denounced Herodís marriage to his brotherís wife. Herod could not
stand such truth.
But there was more to John than fiery prophet of repentance. He
came to prepare the way for another, to point to the Christ.
On your order of worship is a reproduction of the figure of John
the Baptist, a detail from one of the most famous paintings in the
history of art: Grunewaldís Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altar
piece. There he is pointing. It was painted for the hospital chapel
in the monastery of St. Anthony. Iíve reproduced a larger portion of
the painting a few pages on in your order of worship. He is pointing
to the crucified Christ. The figure of Jesus on the cross is painted
in horrifying detail. One can imagine the patients in that hospital
Ė victims of plague, disease and war Ė identifying with the
suffering of Christ.
Turn back to the cover. There is John holding the scriptures in
one hand, pointing to Jesus with the other, pointing with that
impossibly long finger to the Christ. Karl Barth had this picture in
his study. The churchís vocation, like Johnís, is to point to the
Christ. As Paul said, "For what we preach is not ourselves but Jesus
Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Christís sake"
(from II Corinthians 4:5). Pointing to Christ, becoming servants:
this is our purest calling.
Words are painted there between his face and finger. In Latin, "I
must decrease; he must increase" (from John 3:30). And painted at
his feet is a lamb with a copy, echoing Johnís words as Jesus comes
to be baptized: "Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of
John knew that his teaching was not enough. We needed more. God
sent more. People asked, "Are you the Messiah?" and he said, no, and
pointed to another:
I baptize with water; but the one who comes after me will
baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Wind and Fire. Spirit and Flame.
He is the one who will bring new birth by the Spirit of God. He
is the one who will purify us with fire as silver and gold purified
in the fire.
We cannot capture the wind, nor conjure the Spirit at will. But
we can pray for it and open our windows and doors to it. As Wendell
Berry prays in his poem "To the Holy Spirit":
O Thou, far off and here, whole and broken,
Who in necessity and in bounty wait,
Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken,
By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate.3
And Fire. He is fire too. John uses the image of the farmer
throwing his wheat into the air. The wind blows the useless chaff
away. The good grain falls to the ground. The one is thrown into the
fire; the other is baked into bread.
So we throw our lives into the wind of God, asking for the chaff
to be blown away, and the grain to be made into bread.
But the fire is also flame, the flame which brings light to the
world, the fire in our bones, the fire in our hearts which makes us
Godís instruments, Godís flame.
Annie Dillard, alone in a cabin in the Northwest, watched a moth
fly too near the flame of the candle on her desk. Its wings caught
fire and were consumed. Then its hollow body caught fire and
attached itself upright to the wax and became a second wick, a
second flame. This moth aflame became for her the image of the
artist, the saint.
There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world,
lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning,
who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But
the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life
without sacrifice is abomination.4
What more could we pray than for some moment we might be a candle
lit for the world? Not all the time, or even most of the time - -
how could we bear it? But here and there, now and then, by the grace
of God, the flame of God! Baptized in fire.
The desert mothers and fathers, immas and abbas,
fled the cities and went into the desert in the fourth century to
save their souls. What they found there was God, the compassion of
God for them and for the world. Then they returned to the cities to
be the compassion of God to others. Many stories have come from
their experience. Here is one:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as
far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray
and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my
thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and
stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten
lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become
1Citizenship Papers (Washington, D.C.:
Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003).
2Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, p. 140.
3Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press,
1984), p. 209.
4Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper and
Row, 1977), pp. 71-72.
5Joseph of Panephysis 7, Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The
Alphabetical Collection (London: Moubray, 1981), p. 103.