I imagine if I lived in the wilderness and dined on insects and honey, I would probably be irritable, too. The garments made out of camel hair probably didn’t help a lot, either.
John the Baptist had plenty of excuses to be generally cranky. Scratchy clothes. Meals that would be pretty stark even for the most ardent fan of the paleo diet. We’re not told what he slept on, but I think it’s a safe bet that “comfy” wouldn’t be an accurate description. Given that I get touchy if it gets too late in the morning before I have my coffee, I’m in no position to criticize John’s overall irritability.
But nobody would describe him as “civil.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t only his lunch or his tunic that made him so strident. It was the society he saw around himself.
He saw how those with power had come to love that power more than the righteousness that gave them their authority in the first place. He saw how those with influence and prominence in his community had neglected those on the fringes, whose welfare they had been commanded by God’s law to protect.
So when those same authorities came to him in the wilderness to make a show of hearing his message, basically nothing more than a publicity stunt, he had no time for them. And he wasn’t shy about saying so.
“You brood of vipers!” is pretty unambiguous. John the Baptist was not happy to see the Pharisees. His fiery rhetoric made that plain.
It’s easy to feel that heat ourselves. To see all the hypocrisies and betrayals that play out in our own society and feel deeply aggrieved. To want to call out those who we feel are doing harm to those around them, particularly if they pretend otherwise.
It’s infuriating. I know it’s infuriating. I know it’s infuriating because I feel that way often enough myself.
And there are yet more layers to that feeling. I wouldn’t feel that way if I weren’t convinced deep down inside that I am… well, that I am right. That it’s right to feel the way I do, because the things I find so maddening are themselves so wrong.
In fact, I’ll go even further. Not only do I feel like I’m right about issues like injustice, but I think it’s also wrong to say nothing. That not being angry and vocal about it is yet another way of failing to do what’s right.
Whew! That’s a whole lot of righteous anger I can generate!
On the one hand, I’m getting a little into glib territory. I’m laying it on a little bit thick here now, and gesturing toward a point. Righteousness can be a self-reinforcing feeling, and can be used to justify a lot of frankly unpleasant behavior.
But on the other hand, there’s something I truly believe within those somewhat overheated words. There’s genuine injustice in the world. It’s right to be roused to anger when we see it. It’s right to call it out.
It’s the example we see in John the Baptist, and we hold him up as one of the greatest examples of holiness in the Bible. He had no time for polite little niceties. He was too busy getting the world ready for Jesus. Really, can we choose a better example to live by?
John was, we believe in our tradition, a prophetic voice. He was a prophet whose own existence fulfilled yet other prophecies. A prophet yelling “repent” from the wilderness whilst having been prophesied himself is…. a lot. There was a whole lot of prophetic stuff going on with John the Baptist. And that was before he started eating locusts.
We’re not all called to wear garments made of camel hair. Which probably comes as a relief to many of you.
There’s a real, important role for something John the Baptist had neither time nor need for. There is also a role for civility.
We’re in a difficult time in our country. Perhaps it feels more difficult for some of us than it will end up being as life goes on. I truly wish that will be the case. I wish that the fears many share end up being unfounded.
Yet however difficult things may or may not be or become, there’s a role for compassion. There’s a place for wanting to see in people who disagree with us a desire for good. There’s value in civility.
We haven’t arrived at the moment where I’m going to let my kids fiddle with the poisonous snakes in the reptile house at the zoo. That world Isaiah foretold where lions snack on hay (which makes me wonder if they’ll have different teeth in heaven) hasn’t come to pass. Wolves and lambs should still be kept separated.
Even so, we hope for a world where all are reconciled to each other. Such a world will only arrive if we work for it. Reconciliation requires effort. It requires intention. It requires good will.
Righteous anger has its place. I have no doubt I will call upon it in the time ahead of me. John the Baptist was foretold for a reason. He needed to do the work he did, and we honor him properly.
But there are other paths to walk, and other ways of being.
Today we begin a program at St. George’s dedicated to civil discourse. We’ll be turning to the task of loving our neighbors, even in disagreement. It’s work that is worthwhile. It’s work that I commend you to. It’s work that is truly Christian, too.
We are also in the season of preparation for the birth of Christ. Like those who awaited the coming of the Messiah, we don’t know what will happen next. We may have hope for a better world yet to come.
Whatever is to come, though, let us walk toward it together. Let us recognize that it is the same road we all walk down. Let us hold out our hands to each other as we walk, even in the midst of our differing opinions, to give each other strength for the journey. Amen.