In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming with a booming voice that commanded undivided attention, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and honey, and with every election cycle, he could be relied upon to vote for the most conservative candidate on the ballot. It’s a shame that John never ran for office on the conservative ticket, as he dynamically embodies the values and virtues needed to build a life and a world on a solidly conservative foundation. I would have gone out to his rally to hear him speak, because he gives voice to a deep-seated part of me that believes in stepping up, especially when things are their toughest, and doing what needs to be done.
That admirable ethic was instilled in me from exposure to another booming voice that commanded my undivided attention, Mr. Reinke, the headmaster of an elementary boarding school where I took up residence from ages 8 to 10 years old. That was a time in my life, and that of my two older brothers, when our parents’ marriage unceremoniously fell apart and so relatives of our extended family made the hard but loving decision to place the boys in a traditional, educational, boarding school community, whose motto is “YOU CAN IF YOU WILL”.
Now Mr. Reinke wore clothing of square, gray suits with a white shirt and a maroon tie around his neck. His food was nitroglycerin, very expensive per tablet. His haircut was military style, square, like his suit and glasses. He had been headmaster from the beginning of time and ran a tight ship. On his ship, we woke early to a nasty, loud bell, washed and dressed quickly, made our beds with hospital corners, and were sure to be at our desks in the grand study hall in time for morning roll call before heading off for breakfast.
Little did I know at that early age that I was being taught to be highly self-reliant and orderly in all things worldly. We were rewarded for having our house in order, for doing our chores, for dusting under our beds, for wearing a belt and a pair of socks that matched. All this commitment to law and order would serve me well in years to come. It could also be rather fun: e.g. dismissal for dinner with Mr. Reinke.
Sadly, there is little recorded in the annals of history testifying to the figure of Mr. Reinke. But we do have these scriptures this morning through which comes the booming presence of John the Baptist who knows how to apply the medicinal properties of fear to make us sit up and take stock of our lives. John is preparing us for what lies ahead, the demands of Jesus. He warns us to be ready. Jesus is not what you might imagine. He is not a liberal, as many an Episcopalian might claim. He is not wishy-washy. John knows this and so demands that we clean house, put all things in order, eliminate clutter, make our beds, pick up our clothes, do our homework, write those thank you notes, eat our spinach, and call our mothers. Or, yes, there will be hell to pay when Jesus arrives with his Holy Spirit and fire and will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Does that sound like any liberal you know?
For all the fire and brimstone, and fleeing from the wrath to come, that rises like heat waves off these words of scripture, there is also something here we love and would not wish to live without. We are rightly drawn to figures like Mr. Reinke and John the Baptist for their impatience and intolerance of time and effort wasted, of our lives in danger of being left on a shelf, of our coming and going across the stage of life, fretting, worrying and signifying nothing. WE WANT OUR LIVES TO COUNT FOR SOMETHING. WE WANT OUR LIVES TO MATTER. WE WANT THOSE WE ADMIRE MOST TO HOLD OUR FEET TO THE FIRE. TO MAKE US REACH DEEP AND FIND THE STRENGTH TO DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE. TO PUT OUR LIVES IN ORDER EVERY DAY AND THUS BE READY TO SERVE WHEN THE CALL COMES TO SERVE.
John baptizes with water. John uses water to cleanse our lives of clutter and of self-pity, and of low self-esteem by getting us to do what simply needs doing. But not as an end in itself, as the Pharisees and Sadducees were hoping. They take pride in showing the world they have it all together, and yet refuse to lift a finger for others. They will find themselves swept away like chaff into the unquenchable fire. It is required, but not enough, to live a moral life. “I did not come to break the law,” says Jesus, “but to fulfill every letter of the law, and offer still more.” That is how love works. Love meets every requirement, then gives us more. John gets our house in order; Jesus uses our well-ordered lives to pour excessively liberal amounts of love into the world.
“You can if we will,” says the booming voice of Mr. Reinke and John the Baptist. “You can if you will make straight your life as the way of the Lord.” To these arch conservative words of wisdom come the arch liberal words of grace from Jesus: “You can if you will keep on loving, beyond what is rightly asked of you – even in in the toughest of times…with God’s help.” Our happiness, or our salvation by another name, comes not as a goal achieved, but as a consequence of making our lives the means by which we give love away.