“John’s Vocation” on Matthew 3:1-12 by Joe Ellis — Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2022
When you start down the road of exploring being a pastor, one thing you’ll come up against pretty quickly is people asking you if you feel called into being a pastor. It's not something that you can just say, “I don’t know, I just sort of wanted to try it out." Well, maybe you could say that if you were a beginning youth pastor, but you’ll pretty quickly learn that you need to have some story of how God is calling you into “ministry." I’m pretty on board with needing to feel called into pastoral ministry, but I might push back on the special attention pastoring sometimes get as one of the few vocations that people think needs a call from God. As if a calling is something only pastors should need to figure out what God is calling them to do, and the rest of us can do what we want. Each one of us has a particular call on our life.
God calls all of us. For some of us, our calling may be really tied up with what we were paid to do —someone might say, “God has placed me in the Post Office to be a light shining to our community as people come in and out every day for their mail.” For some of us a sense of call is to a particular line of work. For others, God’s particular calling might not have anything to do with a pay cheque — maybe the pay cheque is what enables you to live into the particular calling God has for you. “I work so that I can be an artist, and that my music can in some way reflect God’s light out into the world." Or “My particular calling is to these kids. God has called me to show His warming light to these little ones while they’re in my care.” Or “God has called me to help warm up this neighbourhood with love from the loneliness that is so rampant.” God has a particular calling for each of us. For some of us we’re wrestling with what exactly that call is — we’re in the throws of trying to figure that out, we’re going to school, or asking questions and having conversations about our calling. Some have a growing sense of God’s call and are trying to do everything necessary to prepare for the calling. For others, we are in the middle of our calling, occasionally wondering if we’ve made a mistake. Maybe asking, “Should I have been a High School English teacher?" Still for others, the work of one’s calling is coming to a close. Maybe that comes with disappointment, maybe with relief, maybe with celebration — and now you’re looking at what’s next.
More so than any other person in the New Testament beside Jesus, the story of how John worked out his call runs throughout his entire life — from before conception, to birth, to death. Did you notice the line in the passage we just read that described John as wearing a camel hair shirt and a leather belt around his waist? That particular choice of wardrobe was in the making long before John was born. Today, we talk so much about free choice and individual expression, yet let’s consider that there are factors far beyond our control that influence our call. Each of us is born into a story that’s ongoing, and part of our life’s work is to discover our part in this story that is unfolding around us. John’s role in the story was assigned long before he was born. In the book of Kings, there is a prophet named Elijah. He was described as a “hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” Matthew describes John as going for the Elijah look. It may sound odd, but looking like Elijah was one way that John was living into His calling.
As I said, the factors influencing this calling were at play long before John was born. John’s Dad, Zechariah, was a priest in the temple. In Luke 1 it describes how Zechariah and his wife had lost hope of having a child. He and Elizabeth were well beyond child bearing years. But one day, John’s dad was serving in the temple when the angel Gabriel appears. He tells Zechariah that he will indeed have a son — and then Gabriel starts talking with Zechariah about the boy’s calling. The angel Gabriel says in Luke 1:15-17, “John must never drink wine or strong drink. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Even before John was born, God had a particular calling in mind for this little one.
You see, God's people were in exile. The people were under the rule of foreign king because of their Idolatry, their sins. Now, the people were waiting for this exile to end. They were waiting for the day when God Himself would return to His people in a powerful and personal way. You find promises throughout the Old Testament that this day would come, like in the book named after the prophet Malachi. There God promised that He would send someone in the spirit and power of Elijah to mend broken hearts and prepare the people for the coming of YHWH (that is the name of God.) In Malachi, God promised to return to His people in a very powerful way. Gabriel is drawing heavily from this prophecy in Malachi when He tells Zechariah about who his boy will become. This is a pretty significant calling. John’s job is to play the Elijah role. John will be the person preparing people’s hearts for when God Himself would return to His people and bring an end to their Exile.
Now, there were some unique circumstances leading to John’s call. Most of us don’t learn of our calling because an angel visited our parents before we were born. This probably enabled John’s dad to be a pretty helpful guide for his kid towards his calling — Maybe there was a period where John was really interested in hair styles and was considering becoming “John the Barber.” Maybe Zechariah said, “John maybe you can cut people’s hair on the side, but remember that word spoken over you by Gabriel?” I’m being silly, but what do you think Zechariah did with that information he got from the angel about who his son would become. As adults, we have a role in guiding young people into their calling. We can see gifts in our young people. We might have a sense of God’s calling on their life. We might see opportunities that are before them that they might not see. Part of our job as older folks is to discern how to use our wisdom and knowledge to help walk our young people towards God’s call on their life — and all that without coercion. Can we learn how to watch our young people closely and say, “From a very early age, I’ve seen that God has given you these special gifts and God has given you these sorts of abilities?” I wonder how Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth guided their child into being the person God was calling him to be.
All of us need all the help we can get because discerning your calling can often feel confusing, disorienting, and not just straightforward. This past week, I’ve been wondering a lot about how easy John’s sense of call came to him — playing the role of Elijah, announcing the New Era that God was bringing about. I’ve wondered how much John, himself, understood His calling. In the passage we heard this morning, it almost sounds as if John thought the person coming after Him would be playing the Elijah role. In the passage we read this morning, some of the ways that John describes the person who would come after him sounds a lot like what Malachi said Elijah would do. Maybe he thought his job was to prepare people for the coming of this Elijah character. It's possible he wondered if it was the one who was coming after him who was going to play the Elijah role. At times, John doesn't seem entirely comfortable with his calling as Elijah.
In the Gospel of John, we watch in John 1:19-23 as the religious leaders come and interrogate John about his calling. “Who are you?” they asked. John says, “I am not the Messiah.” So they asked him again, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not!” Are you the Prophet? He answered, No!” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us.” John instead quotes Isaiah 40: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
What do you think is going on here? Gabriel says explicitly to John’s dad that he will be playing the Elijah role for his people. John’s wearing the clothes he does, is meant to spark our imagination, to make us think of Elijah. But what was happening here beside the river as these religious leaders came to interrogate him? Why did he say “No, he wasn’t Elijah.” Some say that John was just saying he wasn’t literally Elijah, that Elijah was raised from the dead — but could it be that John wasn’t entirely clear? I don’t know if this was a moment for doubt, a moment for confusion that many of us experience — it certainly wouldn’t be the last time that John would experience confusion in his journey.
Later in his life, John would do a very Elijah-like thing and be imprisoned for speaking out against the immorality in the ruling class. He called out King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. In response, Herod threw John into prison. Then John has a new turn in his calling. He’s in jail, and it seems this throws him into a spiral of doubt. In Luke 7:18-20, John sends his disciples to seek Jesus out, asking Him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Do you hear the vulnerability in that question?” There he is in prison. He had been thinking that God’s Kingdom would mean the tearing down these unjust scoundrels in power. In our passage, John was announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom, but then later, he’s in chains about to be beheaded. “Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” Remember what John has seen and heard. During Jesus’ baptism, John saw with his own eyes the heavens opening and the Spirit like a dove landing on Jesus. Jesus is the one that God told John would go forth baptizing with the power of the Holy Spirit. But John’s calling as the forerunner seems to go sideways and he finds himself in prison, needing a word of assurance — “Are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we wait for another?” In our adversity we can easily forget what we’ve seen on the mountaintop.
Like John, we live out our calling in the supreme ambiguity of life. It's easy to wonder, “Is this my calling, or am I just nuts?” We will have moments of profound doubt regarding what previously we held with such certainty. That doubt is certainly a certainty. Yet in John’s doubt, he reaches for Jesus. Jesus says to John’s disciples in Luke 7:22, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” His disciples came back to John in prison and gave him this word of assurance.
We cannot live out our calling on our own. We need the faithful around us to help us see what sometimes we’ve lost eyes to see and to hear what we have lost ears to hear. We need faithful brothers and sisters to assure and remind us that God is at work, even when the world has turned upside down. John did not emerge from prison. His head was cut off by the despot Herod. He remained faithful to the end. Jesus’ epithet over John after his death in Matthew 17:12-13 was this: “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased… Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.”
Whether it's with doubt, confusion or certainty, we see John faithful to his calling. His calling had at least two aspects. Remember the prophet I mentioned, Malachi? He was one of the main people who talked about someone playing the Elijah role, the role that would be so instrumental in this new era that God was bringing about. This meant that John’s calling, regardless of how John understood it, was to help prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord. That’s what John was doing when he was baptizing people. The people were coming in droves — John was inviting those coming out to reenact God’s story of the Exodus. The story where God first brought the people of Israel from slavery out of Egypt through the Jordan River to enter into the Promised Land in hopes of life with God. Just as John dressed up and played the role of Elijah, he’s having the people play their roles from Old Israel. To reenact the day when the people came through the water to enter the Promised Land. In their reenactment, the people John baptized confessed their sins, repented, and prepared their hearts in order for the coming of God Himself. As they walked through the water, maybe they imagined dying to their old life and preparing for the new life in God’s Kingdom. This part of his calling likely gave him great joy.
Think of the parts of your calling in life that fill you with joy, the parts where you feel most yourself when you get to live into them. The parts where you would do what you find joy in doing for free. For most of us, that’s an essential part of our calling. God calls us based on who we are and what gives us joy.
But there is often another side to our calling, a darker side. Those are the days where you might think, “They can’t pay me enough for this." God said through Malachi in 4:6 that this Elijah character would come and “Turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse." There is a dark warning there. If the people are not repentant, disaster would come. Enter the Pharisees and Sadducees at John’s baptism. There is not a repentant bone in their body. They are coming not to be baptized, but for entirely different reasons. John meets them head on, saying that if they continue in their destructive ways, they will find destruction. In fact, John’s warning is very similar to the warning that we heard Jesus say when he talked about the national disaster that’s in wait for those who are hell-bent upon bringing about God’s kingdom through violence. The destruction of Jerusalem that happened in 70 AD. John did not mince his words and gave those Pharisees and Sadducees a strong warning. This warning had a huge measure of urgency.
The second, darker part of John’s calling is jarring to our ears, because we don’t have the same sense of urgency. We don’t have John’s sense that national disaster will come on these people, the Pharisees and Sadducees, if they don’t change their ways. That’s what’s behind John’s words in Matthew 3:7-8 when he says, “You brood of vipers!! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That’s what’s behind those words when he says the one coming after me will baptize with fire — John is warning that destruction will come unless they have a change of heart, that John is speaking with a prophetic urgency about a worldly cataclysmic event that would come unless they repented and changed their violent plotting against Rome. If the Pharisees continued on this path, and if the Sadducees continued on their cozy corrupt relationship with the leaders of Rome, national disaster was soon to follow. This was the darker side of his calling.
Sometimes, when we listen to John’s words we crinkle our forehead, because we don’t quite get why he says things the way he does — he sounds like a crank. We don’t get his strong sense that disaster will come if hearts don’t change radically. We don’t fully understand his calling. Regardless of whether people got him, or rejected him, we see John being faithful to his calling.
That’s the underbelly of our calling, to be true to it even when it hurts. John’s faithful when are flocking to him in support, he’s faithful when people are folding their arms in criticism, and he’s faithful when they are resisting change. How are you challenged to remain faithful to your own work that God’s called you to? How are you called to be faithful regardless of approval or rejection? How are you called to be faithful in the big and small ways? How are you called to be faithful, regardless of whether you’re understood, or rejected or ignored? How are you called to be faithful regardless of whether you see clearly or feel lost in the fog? — How are you called to be faithful in this particular moment?
As we’ve been talking about John’s calling being shaped by Scripture, their are two passages that we’re talking about. We mentioned that passage in Malachi, but no less significant is that passage in Isaiah 40 that says John is “the Voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” These passages aren’t about preparing for the arrival of the Messiah. These passages are about the arrival of God Himself. That was the expectation that was at the heart of John’s calling — He was preparing the way for the arrival of God Himself. John would be faithful to his calling to prepare people’s hearts in the imminent expectation of the arrival of YHWH his God.
We are invited to live out our calling under the same expectations. God is going to show up! That’s what we wait for, that’s what we expect as we endure through God’s calling along with those moments of joy in our lives. God will show up. John waited. He was faithful. And God does show up in a very mysterious way — in a way John did not fully appreciate. Later on, as John was going about his work baptizing, Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan River, to be baptized by him.
As we wait for God this Advent, we wait expectantly. As we go about the work that God has called us to, whether it's big or small, whether we are confused or clear about it, whether we are understood or rejected — may we have eyes to see and ears to hear the great and beautiful coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus, the Messiah, the embodiment of YHWH, God himself. May we stay steadfast as we wait for the Lord and Saviour to come again.