Jane and John the Baptist – Mark 1:1-8
"The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'”
I had some time to kill last Sunday night, between a cancelled meeting and an 8th grade basketball game, so I was working on some things at the Panera up in Castleton. I was scouring YouTube, actually, trying to find the movie clip from Home Alone for last Wednesday night’s midweek worship service. So I had my headphones on and was staring at my computer when I sensed a commotion somewhere behind me. It was one of those things I felt, in a strange way, before I noticeable saw or heard anything. There was a strange kind of emotion and awkward tension in the room.
And then I saw that the handful of people at the tables in front of me were all looking in the same direction, so I did too. But it was awkward and uncomfortable, because there was an obviously upset, unsettled woman in disheveled clothing with some belongings in a few plastic grocery bags. She was talking loudly enough that now I could hear her, even through my headphones. She was complaining – out-loud to herself and to whoever would listen – about something unfair that had happened at the counter, and apparently at a local Starbuck’s and Dairy Queen, too.
It doesn’t matter what she was complaining about. She was obviously mentally ill. And I felt bad for the restaurant manager who had to ask her to please be quiet, and then when she wouldn’t – or couldn’t, I would say, calm down – felt compelled to ask her to leave, which I also understand, I think. And the woman left, yammering on as she gathered her things and walked out the door.
But as she went, other customers laughed – to themselves and at her. They rolled their eyes and they shook their heads. The woman… who I’ll call Jane… stopped to say hello to some strangers at one table where another woman told her she was being obnoxious and that she should just leave.
None of it sat well with me. And it made me think about John the Baptist, in some ways that might need some explanation.
See, when I think about John the Baptist – this guy, crying out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, dressed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist – I kind of think he might not be all that welcome at the Panera on 82nd Street. I’m not suggesting that this woman at Panera was a prophet or that John was mentally ill – there’s no reason to suggest that. But do I think his personality and his prophesies were enough to drive him out into the wilderness – to the outskirts of town – under the bridge, maybe – to the other side of the tracks, perhaps – away from the powers-that-be, if you will – beyond the presence of polite company.
And so what’s surprising and impressive, to me, about John’s story is that all those people were drawn to him, anyway. “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” the gospel tells us, were driven out into the wilderness to be baptized by some guy named John… in the river… repenting and seeking the forgiveness he promised. Can you imagine?
In order to imagine it, it helps to know a little more about what he was promising and proclaiming in the first place. See, John the Baptist was preaching the words of the prophet Isaiah, which so many Jews in his day would have recognized as the ancient promises of God for their ancestors way back in the days of their exile in Babylon. They were a lost people, then. Refugees. Strangers in a strange land. They had been taken from their homeland. They had been separated from their families and their friends. Their identity as a people – their identity as God’s chosen people – had been threatened, if not stolen from them, in many ways.
And this would have resonated with the people in the days of John the Baptist. They weren’t in exile any longer, in the same way at least. But they were under a different sort of occupation, at the hands of the Roman Empire. And, more importantly, perhaps, they were as spiritually lost as any of God’s children have been … before or since. So John the Baptist’s words spoke to them about the deep and abiding need we all have as people on the planet for something new and better for our lives that we can’t accomplish on our own.
John was promising comfort and restoration. He was calling for repentance and letting them know how to find forgiveness. He was hoping and anticipating – just like the prophet Isaiah had – that something new, someONE new was on the way who could change everything. He was speaking to a hunger that people were open and honest and humble and in need enough to recognize in themselves.
And this is why John the Baptist reminded me of what happened – or didn’t happen – with Jane, at Panera last Sunday night.
People sat and watched, from a distance. People stared and laughed. People shook their heads and wagged their proverbial fingers. People, in their comfort and privilege; in their clean clothes and with their full bellies; in their self-righteousness and in their blindness couldn’t see or find compassion enough to acknowledge that this woman was simply ill. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze a bunch of strangers I’ve never talked with, but it seemed clear to me that everyone in that restaurant was missing something: this woman was as needy as the rest of us, just in a different, more obvious sort of way.
And I think we forget or deny just how in need we are of God’s good grace and abiding love in our lives. And I think we forget or deny that that need simply shows up for each of us in different ways. And I believe, for most of us here a lot of the time – and for those of us at Panera last Sunday – our abundance and comfort; our safety and stability lull us into a complacency, at the very least, or into a spirit of self-righteous judgment and neglect at the other end of the spectrum. And when this happens, we can’t see – or we forget to look for – the need that surrounds us out there in the world and the need we all have for God to come among us; to come for us; and to come through us, for the sake of the world.
As I sat in Panera Sunday night and watched that poor, sad, lonely woman get the boot, all eyes in the place unapologetically watched her make her long walk of shame on the other side of the plate glass windows that run from one end of the restaurant to the other. It was a long walk, indeed. At least one table of adults – grown-up people! – snickered and pointed and shook their heads one last time, as her scarf slipped off her shoulder and landed on the sidewalk, behind her. She was too busy still talking to herself, whispering into the wind, and wrestling with her grocery bags to notice. For a moment, I felt like she just might have been the loneliest woman in the world.
It took me a few minutes – and longer than it should have, I’m embarrassed to say – but I believe what made me pull out my headphones, pack up my computer, and pick up that ratty, tattered, dirty and stinky scarf and return it to that lady up the road a ways was the same thing that drove all those people out into the wilderness to listen to and to believe in and to be changed by the wild rantings of John the Baptist.
The realization for me – and John’s invitation for all of us, I believe – is that we are all lost and in need. We are all refugees, in some way: lost to our sinfulness... in need of repentance and forgiveness… starving for salvation and redemption, even if we can’t feel the hunger pangs.
And it’s why we need John the Baptist to call us out of ourselves and into the wilderness. It’s why we need someone like Jane, at Panera, to remind us – if we’ll pay attention – about the need that surrounds us in the world. It’s why we wait for Jesus to fill that need in our own lives – whatever it is – and why we work to muster the faith to let God, in Jesus, do something to transform it – for us and for the sake of the world.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.