John, the wild outsider and the gift of being yourself

This post was originally written as part of Diverse Church’s month long study of Luke’s Gospel in August 2014.  It is based on Luke Chapter 3, which you should read first, and have open beside you as you read the post. 

We know about John the Baptist, don’t we? He’s the one who prepares the way for the adult Jesus to come on the scene and do his thing. He’s the one with a troubling message about repentance; he’s a bit fire and brimstone. He’s the one who seems a little outlandish, existing on the strangest of diets and bringing dark messages.

Strange indeed. He certainly wouldn’t fit any of the boxes of the day, nor those of today. What a calling he has. After decades of prophetic silence, the word of God comes out of a clear desert sky to a long-haired itinerant locust eater (v2). That word is one that points the way at what’s now no longer far-off, no longer a distant possibility, no longer longed for. Messiah is coming, and all had best prepare or be found wanting (v4-9).

Like all preachers, he’s asked the ‘yes, but how?’ question (v10). First it’s the rich and privileged in the crowd who ask (v11), as if already sensing that the Messiah won’t quite be what they were expecting; the answer they get certainly confirms that. From there, the net widens to include those so often counted-out: the dreaded extortioners in the name of government (v12-13) and soldiers of the occupying force (v14). Aren’t they the types the Messiah is meant to be overthrowing? Jesus’ ministry of justice and subversion is being prophetically anticipated.

The result is disarming. John tells his listeners that he only exists to point away from himself, that the baptism he offers is only a hint or taste of the direct connection with God Himself that Jesus will bring (v17-18). Not that this stops John from going further, antagonising the powers-that-be with such dangerous explosiveness that he’s locked away where he can’t be heard any more (v19-20).

John’s calling is a dangerous, troubling one that ends up with him in terminal trouble. It’s explosive in that it detonates a hole in the expectations of the religious for the real Messiah to walk through. It’s prophetic in that in doing so he lays foundations for Jesus’ addiction to gravitating towards those on the outside; the rejected, hurt and ignored.

I’m an evangelical church leader, of a charismatic flavour. That’s my theology and practice; I don’t like everything that people put in those boxes, but it’s the box that’s closest to fitting me. I also have an ongoing wrestle with my own mental health. I’ve suffered three bouts of depression since starting as a church leader; at times I’ve toyed with suicide. I’m still in the midst of one of those bouts of depression, with some post-traumatic anxiety thrown in for good measure. That’s a result of having lead my church in Cape Town through the murder by terrorists of one of our number who was also a close personal friend. Clinically depressed and dealing with my own grief as well as the community’s, I had to handle a nation’s media and run a funeral broadcast on live television which was attended by Desmond Tutu. Eleven months on I’m still reeling.

I don’t fit. These anxious, black-dog hounded parts of me which increasingly seem to be my daily reality do not fit the box of the charismatic evangelical. They don’t fit the take-it-to-the-cross, ecstatic worship which seems to characterise much of my tribe. Not that I’m crticising that, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to fit.

Yet. The more I talk, the more I try – and occasionally succeed – to talk about this, to testify to this reality, the more it seems something explodes around me which allows a real Messiah to walk through the smoke and rubble. A Messiah who does allow us and enable us to be ecstatically joyful; but who also sweat drops of blood in anticipation of trauma and who wept at gravesides. Who died as well as rose.

The detonation isn’t my doing; in my better moments I’m just trying to be myself and describe that self to sisters and brothers. That seems to be explosive, to draw the outsiders in. I find when I talk, others respond; they come out a little bit further into the blinking light of reality and recognition. It’s very scary, and not all the reactions are helpful. However the Messiah I’m creating a space for has been there first.

Not only does He choose to identify with me (v21-22), which is mind-boggling enough in itself; but He models such an approach. He lives a life of bringing it out in the open in such a way that must be part of the reason that so many of those on the outside are sucked into His orbit.

Look at that genealogy (v23-38). No really; look at that genealogy! These were His credentials. These credentials mattered in the Middle East of the first century. David – a man after God’s heart … and an adulterous, lying murderer. Adam – the one who ate the fruit in the first place, for goodness sake! Yes, there’s some heroes in there. There’s also some people who’d be better kept out of the public eye for the sake of reputation. Further than that, there’s a whole load of people in there of whom I can’t even spell the name, yet alone have any idea what (if anything) was special about them.

What shall we say, then; what shall we be? Just ourselves. Say and be ourselves. In all our broken, not fitting, unvarnished, tarnished glory. For in the hands of the real Messiah, that’s explosive.

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