Some Pointers

In my preaching class at seminary, one of the first texts on which I had to preach dealt with the ministry of John the Baptist.  The text was Luke 3:7-18:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

In composing the sermon, I was troubled by a number of things, both inside and outside of the text.  First, I was troubled by that which Luke called “good news.”  Specifically:  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  There is good news in this preaching, but there is also some very big troubling news, and given Luke’s presentation of the Good News in general, I felt as though there was very bad news in store for myself and many of the people who live in North America.  For me, that was the trouble in and with the text.

The trouble that came from outside of the text was rather minor in comparison, but it still bothered me.  It concerned what I should call John.  He has been called John the Baptist in every church of which I have been a part.  Some modern scholars, however, call him John the Baptizer, presumably so that those who are unfamiliar with the Christian tradition don’t confuse John with a particular denomination.  In the Orthodox Tradition, John is often called the Forerunner, which is a name that I like for John but which presents in a problem in that many people in the West aren’t very familiar with this particular title.  What would I call John?  What would I call him?

I got bogged down in so many things.

Furthermore, what aspect of John’s ministry, if I wasn’t going to talk about unquenchable fire, was I going to focus on?  There is, in comparison with many other characters in the Gospels, an awful lot of information on John.  There was the manner of his life, the preaching that he did, and the course that his life would take.  Where would I go with the sermon?

I won’t tell you how that sermon turned out…

Now, however, I wish that, in those moments with those questions and those thoughts, I had seen this icon of St. John the Forerunner:

St. John the ForerunnerIn this icon, several parts of John’s life and ministry are present.  The saying about the ax being at the root of the tree is represented in the bottom right corner, providing substance for reflection.  The figure of John is surrounded by the wilderness, portrayed as a rocky and barren place with a few, sparse, gnarled trees.  John himself is disheveled and somewhat haggard-looking.  It reminds us that John’s way of life was a rough one; it reminds us that he was a strange instrument for the Gospel.  The black wings on his back are also fascinating.  In the Middle Ages, iconographers started giving John wings.  In this particular rendition of John the Forerunner, the wings have blackened.  John is a messenger, an angel, but he’s a particular kind of angel, not your cliche sort of angel.  He is somehow set apart from every human being and every angel.  Finally, in the bottom left corner, there is a foreshadowing of the earthly end that awaits John, his beheading.  Even in this dishonored state, however, the halo around John’s head shines on.  Was John really defeated?  The halo suggests that he was not.

There is a lot going on in this icon.  One could focus on so many things about and around John.  Many things can be said about it.  Yet, it should be noted that John himself is only focused on one thing, Christ.  John has a sort of tunnel vision.  He doesn’t look to the root of the tree, the ax, the rocky and barren wilderness, or his own fate.  He stares out and points up and over to Christ.  That is the whole point of John the Baptist’s life.  So much around and about him could capture our attention.  But – as for John, he has chosen the better part, to focus on the one who comes after him, the one whose sandals he is unworthy to untie, the one who gives that halo to his head while in a dish.

John does one thing, really:  he points ahead to Christ.

Maybe it is that we should call him John the Pointer to Christ.  I assume that John would be honored by that title, though it may take so much of the spotlight off of him.

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