Luke 3: 7-18
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
December 16, 2018
Leonard Bernstein was once asked which instrument in the orchestra was the most difficult to play. He thought for a moment and then replied, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s the problem.”
John the Baptist understood that he was second fiddle. He must increase, but I must decrease, John said when he saw Jesus. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals, he would say. That is undoubtedly the statement of a person willing to play second fiddle with enthusiasm.
We are all familiar with John the Baptist as sort of the wild man of the New Testament. He was not good at subtlety. He called his congregation a bunch of snakes. When he preached it was fire and brimstone every time. Shape up, he told them, or God would give you the axe. He told them that their pedigrees and their family trees meant nothing to God and that they better clean up their lives and be baptized.
John the Baptist has been considered the last of the great prophets pointing to Jesus. But today I want to point out that John the Baptist, while certainly a prophet, was also a priest. And since the priesthood was hereditary, he had all the rights and privileges of the Jewish priesthood. He had a certain hereditary status in Israel. So why does the gospel story tell us that John the Baptist preached outside the sacred precincts of the Temple? Why would he give up all the privileges of the priesthood to live in the wilderness on a diet of bugs and wild honey? His parents may have asked him that same question!
The answer can be found in an understanding of what King Herod the Great had done to the Temple. Herod the Great was born in 71 BC and died about four years after the birth of Jesus. He was declared “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate, not by the Jews themselves. He achieved his position by marrying well and also by the ruthless murder of anyone who stood in his way or threatened his authority. Witness the story of the murder of the innocents in Matthew’s gospel.
Herod is remembered by secular historians as a builder of cities and monuments, including a great restoration of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem that made it one of the wonders of the ancient world. With no moral scruples, Herod had presented himself as a kind of Messiah, the one person who could make Israel great again. In order to be a priest in Herod’s lavishly remodeled Temple, you had to buy into the veneration of Herod’s enormous ego, apple polish his pseudo-ethics, and ignore Herod’s decadent morals.
John the Baptist could not stomach that! He could have had a cushy job as priest, but he revolted against such sanctimonious piety. He was turning his back on the very priestly class of which he was a rightful part. He would have nothing to do with their hypocrisy, and he wanted nothing to do with Herod, who in his view was a fraud and had poisoned the well of religion.
If you are wondering why, on a Sunday that is supposed to be devoted to joy, we have this stern, rebellious, doomsayer of a preacher who demands repentance, here is the reason: he offered God’s love and forgiveness to the very people who thought they were outside the limits of God’s love and forgiveness! Look closely in the text! It was the crowds, the hoi polloi, the tax collectors, the Roman soldiers, for heaven’s sake! They were the ones invited into the family of God!
This wild man, this John the Baptist, did not segregate them by race or gender or illness or ancestry. He demanded one thing: repentance, metanoia in the Greek, which means a change of mind and heart. The great Hebrew word behind the Greek means return—return to God, not the ways of Herod. For the crowds, return to sharing with those in need. If someone is cold, share your cloak. To the tax collectors, be honest in business, he said. Don’t overcharge. To the soldiers, don’t extort money by threats. You have the military muscle, but don’t use that muscle to intimidate others. Use it to protect others.
This is not abstract, philosophical theology—this is an ordinary, everyday, ground-level theology of treating all people with respect and knowing that God loves you and forgives you, and therefore you can afford to love and forgive others. That is reason enough for great joy on this third Sunday of Advent.
But before I come to a close I want to mention a famous painting located in the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France. It is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünwald. Isenheim straddled one of the routes that led through the Alps, and in the monastery was a hospital and a hospice for the sick. It especially cared for people with skin diseases.
Matthias Grünwald completed the altar panels in the year 1515, and he used the panels to depict various scenes in the life of Christ. But the central feature of the Altarpiece is the crucifixion. Standing next to the cross in this painting is none other than John the Baptist, pointing with what Karl Barth would later call that “prodigious index finger” toward Christ on the cross. The words between his face and his finger say in Latin: “I must decrease; he must increase.”
One of the fascinating truths about this painting is that Grünwald knew that John the Baptist was not at the crucifixion. He was beheaded long before Jesus died on the cross. Why would he paint John the Baptist into the picture? He placed John at the scene because John symbolizes all of us who claim to follow the way of Christ. We, like John, are called to play second fiddle, to point to someone greater, to point to a hope beyond ourselves.
Historically, this third Sunday of Advent has been called “Gaudette Sunday,” which means “Rejoicing Sunday,” from the Latin word gaudere, to rejoice. It is a time of rejoicing for those willing to play second fiddle and point to the One who plays first violin in the human orchestra. He stands before us and plays the A string to get us all in tune.
If we can get that one note right, the rest can play in harmony. But it all depends on that one note. John the Baptist points to Christ like the star pointing to a manger in Bethlehem. We point to Christ when we light our candles for the light of the world. We point to Christ when we share our gifts. We point to Christ when we confirm that Christ is the Light of the World when the world seems to be falling apart. We point to Christ when we live lives of integrity and humility. We point to Christ when we stand for justice and compassion.
And even if we are pointing to Christ with tears in our eyes and a lump in our throat, we point with joy on this Sunday, for we are once again ready to celebrate the birth of the First Fiddle, the One who gets us all in tune, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.