Rev. Vance P. Ross
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Look at the picture as read in the text. We have here an outsider. John the Baptizer is not in the system. Bizarre in his look, in his presence. Inexplicable. Unaccountable.
People showed up from everywhere! This is serious! This guy is nuts! Looks nuts! Sounds nuts! But people run to it. What have we got here? He has no allegiance to political groups. No adherence to major forums. Nobody knows what he is going to do. He looks like, sounds like, claims too strong to outclass and outshine, to upstage and eclipse. Friends, the pun is intended: Trump-John, not Donald. John.
Allow me to digress for a moment, in the 1980’s a brilliant history was written by Vincent Harding called There is A River. In that history he introduced a group of people he calls outliers. John Hope Franklin calls them maroons. These were Africans who escaped enslavement and he discusses them as resisters during enslavement. They escaped to the woods, to the forest. They found other Africans and Native Americans. They attacked plantations, challenged enslavement. They were not mainstream. They were change agents. They changed an entire genre from the outside. Outliers engage and disrupt for justice. They came prior to Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman and David Walker and Gabriel Prosser. They get little credit but, in no small way, they helped freedom to come to this nation, to this country.
I want to suggest to you that outlying faith is what John shows in this text. It is disruptive. It shows up, not about status quo, not about what has always been. It brings a new word that is in fact ecclesia, democratic in that it is for everybody. It levels the playing field. John comes with this outlying faith.
John comes as an outlier. There is a difference between an outlier and an out-and-out liar. Out-and-out liars tells you:
- Jobs are coming back that never will
- Brags about sexual assault conversation as locker room talk
- We’re going to make the country great again as if that happens when some are elevated at the expense of others
Out-and-out liars are different from outliers:
- Show up to give hope and challenge
- Come to disrupt what some believe should always happen at the expense of others
- Come into political church contexts and say there can be something different.
- Call out pro-life discussion teamed with pro-capital punishment as hypocrisy
- Wants the Kingdom for all, not for some at the expense of others
This Advent, another celebration of the coming Christ, looking to a new administration in federal government, we do well to attend to what happens in Matthew. It is beyond what is and it looks to the Kingdom of heaven. This text brings an outlying faith, a faith that calls us to get right, get real and get ready.
The first thing I want to suggest is that outlying faith calls us to get right. If you look at the text, John calls the people who have come out to hear him to repent. Repent of what? What had they done? What was their sin?
I want to say to you that sin is more than behavior. It begins in proximity to God. It is a call to turn around to the God of our salvation and liberation. It is a call to turn toward and to God, not from God. It is to be who you are in God and not to succumb to what status quo desires.
In 1979 I graduated from college. After graduation an amazing thing happened. A band called Chic came to the fore. They had a song called “Good Times.” It had this marvelous bass line. I loved it. It was fantastic. It played and filled dance floors all over the country.
Months later I heard it at another club. I was moved to ask someone to dance. Then a strange thing happened. The bass line was playing, but then someone began to talk. He was talking over the bass line. People kept dancing, but he kept talking! What is this? This was Good Times. This was a top 100 and top R&B song. This was Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers Song of the Year! This would get them hall of fame credit! What is this talking?
Here is what happened: In New York City, Mike, Hank and Master Gee changed it. Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards were master musicians who put this bass line together. Mike, Hank and Gee were not musicians in the same way. They took that song and made something else of it. They were not musicians but they found ways to take this music and become musicians through it. An entire genre of music—Hip Hop, Rap—has been afforded by the fact that they did not take it simply as it was. Rather, they did something new, something vital and something that came from who they were!
What is John saying? It is sin to accept things simply as they are when you have gifts to make them better, to make them right, to improve them. It is sin to be trumped, to be outdone, to be overcome by things just as they are. We are to look at things and be all that we are called to be in them. We are to create and re-create, to disrupt, to move and make something new, make something better. With this kind of faith, we can make change in this nation, in this country, in our world, in our community. We must be willing to repent, to turn, to get right. We can make a new genre of life, of faith. A faith relevant to those who have been pushed aside, away and marginalized. We must get right.
Outlying faith means we must get right and then get real. If you look at the text, you find that the next thing John does is he looks at the Pharisees and Sadducees and what does he say? You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath that is yet to come? What is he saying? He sees something in them that needs to be called out. It is phony. It is fake. Get real.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, and I quote: “where thanks for institutional freedom must be rendered by the sacrifice of freedom of preaching, the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.” In other words, if the church decides not to say what it needs to say—because of country, culture, color or creeds—then we are shackled. We are fettered. These Pharisees are people who only live by tradition, or better still, the status quo. These Sadducees come as those blessed with wealth by standing over and above others. John says to them “you brood of vipers.” You have a Word to say and you don’t say it because the status quo is good to YOU. You have a word to say to people who need it. You know they need it. You need to give it. Don’t be shackled. Don’t be fettered. Bring what you have been called to bring. Get real. Stop faking. This is the call to the church. Be true. Tell truth. Do as God asks and stop hiding so that you can have all things yourself. We do not fake and front. Get Real.
An outlying faith is about getting right, getting real and finally, about getting ready. He says one comes after me and I am not worthy to tie his shoes. I baptize with water. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. The genius in outlying religion is it speaks to what should be in God, to what is coming in God. It speaks from present conditions to the power of the coming Kingdom. Outlying faith calls us to get ready.
In the annals of our faith and our tradition, there is a song that goes like this.
Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep. Tell Martha not to mourn. Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea. Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep. Tell Martha not to mourn.
This song disturbed me for years. Mary and Martha had a brother. He died and later was raised. So it sings of hope. Death is not for always. Pain is not forever. The song says death is not always the way. That is good. That is the New Testament.
Here is my disturbance. It is also my good news. It connects to Pharaoh, to the Exodus and to liberation! They will not always have the last word. Governments will fall. Enslavement will fall. Meanness will end. They will not always overcome you. There will be a lifting. There will be help. Good will come, the Kingdom will come.
A trump will sound-of love
A trump will sound-a trump of peace
A trump for everybody, no matter your color, culture, sexual orientation, economic class; a trump will sound and it will lift us all. Oh Mary Don’t you weep, Tell Martha not to moan
Can you see a better day come?
I am not afraid of who is or is not open
I know the Kingdom of heaven is coming!
There is coming a love-filled revolution in this faith.
I BELIEVE IT. CAN YOU?
Rev. Vance P. Ross serves in the United Methodist Church’s Office of Discipleship Ministries as director of annual conference relations/annual conference strategist for vital congregations.