Putting on St. John the Baptist's Rose-Colored Garment of Joy in Christ
A Sermon by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Sunday, December 12, 2021 – Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday
Today is the third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday of Rejoicing – derived from the Epistle-based Introit for today’s Mass: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.” On Gaudete Sunday, it might be difficult to imagine Saint John the Baptist as a particularly joyful person. From the earliest Orthodox Icons to modern depictions of him, we see God’s sometimes winged messenger-prophet, John the Baptist as an unkempt desert saint, barefoot or in makeshift sandals, with wiry, sun-scorched limbs, raggedly clad in camel’s hair, bits of half-eaten locusts and sticky wild honey tangled in his scraggly beard, an intense glare in his eyes, and in some icons, opposite that threatening ax at the root of a fruitless tree we heard about in today’s Gospel, his severed head lies on a platter: a gruesome reference to his martyrdom at the hands of Rome’s puppet-king Herod.1 Jollity is not what we immediately think of with this imagery of John the Baptist in mind. So, today’s sermon explores God’s Joy in John the Baptist’s prophetic, tragic, and extraordinary life. Much like this morning’s distinctly rose-colored Advent candle invites us into Christ’s joyful light – may John the Baptist’s wild joy inspire us to be agents of God’s reconciling love for each other and anyone who needs a little dash, drizzle, and dab of rose-colored goodness, truth, and beauty in this tragic and beautiful mystery called life.
Researching today’s sermon revealed to me that Joy does indeed infuse the life of John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke when the Angel Gabriel appears to John’s father Zechariah we read:
… the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at [John’s] birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… even before his birth [John] will be filled with the Holy Spirit.2
When Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist in her womb, her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits her, and we read that:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”3
I believe that the Joy of the Holy Spirit present in John in Elizabeth’s womb is the same leaping joy that infused John’s charismatic and prophetic witness to Christ. I believe that it was John’s infectious joy that drew crowds from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside into the wilderness; to the banks of the Jordan.4 John’s joyful magnetism is affirmed by theologian Paula Fredriksen who observes that in Jesus and John’s lifetimes, John was actually the more popular leader.5 Fredriksen goes on to say, “what sealed John’s fate was not his message per se, but his message combined with his personal popularity. Such a preacher of such a message, with a committed following, could at any moment ignite a revolt.”6 John’s witness to the light of Christ by radical truth-telling posed so strong a political threat to Herod’s power that John, like so many prophets, was beheaded for the sake of preserving the Roman colonizers’ oppressive status quo.7 An astonishingly bright and beautiful light was snuffed out by a tyrant intoxicated with fear, greed, and the idolatry of imperial power. Nevertheless, John’s joyful witness lives on in Jesus’ words who proclaims in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist that, “[John the Baptist] was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.”8 How did John, beset by the crushing oppression of Rome, manage to keep the Holy Spirit’s light burning within him, and let her light shine with such infectious joy and charisma? To answer this question, I turned to two of the most joyful prophets in the world today.
In their co-created work, The Book of Joy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share the Holy wisdom they have garnered during their long, faith-filled lives. Their co-writer Douglas Abrams writes,
Their joy is clearly not easy or superficial but one burnished by the fire of adversity, oppression, and struggle… They offer us the reflection of real lives filled with pain and turmoil in the midst of which they have been able to discover a level of peace, of courage, of joy that we can aspire to in our own lives… Suffering is inevitable, they said, but how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.9
John’s response to the Roman colonizers’ oppression and occupation was to know who he was and who he was not. When plagued with questions, expectations, and shadow projections that attempt to cram him into a category or fix him to a label, John refuses all of that coloniality. John disrupts and disobeys the expectations put upon him to be a priest of the temple like his father Zechariah. And no, John is not the Messiah. No one can tell John who he should be because he takes joy in being authentically himself. God’s humble witness testifying to God’s beloved dream of light who is Christ in the midst of a terrifying political nightmare. A thrilling voice of Truth that cuts through the din of lies spun by those in seats of power. A prophet of Realness. Like the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ community in New York City’s ballroom culture memorialized in the documentary film Paris is Burning10 and in the TV series POSE,11 John is unafraid to “read oppressors for filth” or to “throw shade” on tax collectors and soldiers and anyone else in that “brood of vipers” who exploits, extorts, and exterminates the poor, hungry, homeless, and powerless.
So, how do we join John the Baptist in joyfully responding to the adversity, oppression, and struggles in our own lives? In this season of Advent, perhaps you are struggling with grief, or loneliness, or your heart is aching to simply feel God’s Joy again. Perhaps you are longing to know your authentic self again – who you really are and who you are not. In the tradition of John who baptized anyone who desired to return to living a genuine life of goodness, truth, and beauty, the prayer of consecration on page 308 in the Prayer Book from our liturgy of Holy Baptism reminds us who we are. By water and the Holy Spirit, God has given us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.13 This is who we are. In that life-threatening wilderness John invited the people of God to turn away from the lies, fears, labels, and deceptions of Empire; and to return to being our true selves again; to make our fragmented lives whole again by turning to God’s Grace, to become who we really are again14 as we prepare to welcome with Joy the Christ who baptizes us with the Holy Spirt and fire.
Take the postcard inserted in your service bulletin home with you. Put it on your Christmas tree as a visible reminder of how the power of God’s Joy is stirred up and stirred into John’s tragic and infectiously authentic life. As Hieronymus Bosch’s John the Baptist in the Wilderness shows us, we too can choose to put on the rose-colored garment of Christ’s Joy in the midst of life’s wilderness and seek out the Holy One John points to on the other side of life’s earthquakes: God’s meek, and tender, and powerful Love Incarnate – the Lamb of God who takes our distorted relationships with ourselves, our neighbors, with God and all of Creation and joyfully reconciles us into right relationship. Ponder those images of John the Baptist and remember to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”15
- Linette Martin, Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2002), 173.
- Luke 1:13-15.
- Luke 1:41-45.
- Mark 1:5.
- Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, 2nd ed., Yale Nota Bene (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 98.
- Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus, revised and expanded edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 595.
- John 5:35.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016), 3, 7.
- The Book of Common Prayer, 308.
- John H. Westerhoff, A Pilgrim People: Learning through the Church Year (New York: Seabury Press, 2005), 82.
- Philippians 4:4-7.