Instead of keeping ourselves washed and pure while waiting on God to act (like John the Baptizer) or calculating the date of God’s Judgment Day (like Harold Camping), Jesus invites us to realize that, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” We need to leave behind “Left Behind” theology that is violent, fear-based, and riddled with anxiety.
Harold Camping, John the Baptizer, and Jesus:
We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
29 May 2011
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
There is an abrupt break between Matthew’s second and third chapters. Last week our scripture reading ended with Joseph and Mary ushering the boy Jesus out of Egypt and into a new home in Nazareth. Then at the top of chapter three in the very next verse, we find suddenly that decades have inexplicably passed and that Jesus and John the Baptizer are full-grown adults. The attentive reader is left with many unanswered questions about what happened during the intervening years: what was Jesus’ childhood like, how did Jesus decide to be baptized by John, and what happened to Joseph and Mary?
One reason Matthew may have skipped over Jesus’ childhood is simple ignorance: he may not have known any stories about the early period in Jesus’ life. However, intriguingly, biblical scholars have proposed that another reason Matthew may not have even speculated about Jesus’ childhood year is that this editorial decision was part of Matthew’s larger goal of paralleling the lives of Jesus and Moses. In particular, Exodus chapter two skips unexpectedly from Moses as a baby being rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter to Moses as an adult killing an Egyptian who was attacking one of his Hebrew kinsfolk.
For whatever reason, instead of hearing the drama of Jesus’ teenage years, we find ourselves in the wilderness of Judea with the camel-hair wearing, locust-eating, no-holds-barred prophet John the Baptizer. And although John was surely an imposing presence, he was allegedly quite popular. Matthew reports that, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
At first glance you might expect that John’s apocalyptic threat would alienate his audience, but both in the first-century and today that is not always the case as we have seen recently with the disturbing popularity of the false prophet and charlatan Harold Camping, who wrongly predicted that the rapture would occur first in the year 1994 and then erred a second time in announcing to the world through billboards, radio, and full-page newspaper ads that Judgment Day was coming a little more than a week ago at 6:00 p.m. on May 21, 2011 — all to much hype and no avail.
But if you think some of Harold Camping’s predictions about a rolling series of worldwide earthquakes was scary, listen again to the hyperbolic, apocalyptic language of John the Baptizer. Addressing the religious leaders of his day, he said,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance….. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s harsh tone and intense description does not sound much like the Jesus known for his love and compassion. But perhaps we can see where Jesus learned to occasionally lash out at corrupt religious leaders or to turn over tables in the Temple courtyard that had become dominated by selfish, manipulative business practices.
It was seemingly this hardcore style of John the Baptizer — replete with threats of a coming wrath, chopping down unfruitful trees, and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire — that inspired Jesus to join John’s Baptism Movement. As we read in verse 13, immediately after all of John’s apocalyptic imagery, “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”
The fact that all four Gospels record that Jesus was baptized by John is shocking. The Gospel writers all skip over so much of Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood, why not simply begin with Jesus’ temptation in the desert or the first teaching and healing of his public ministry? Why begin with the potentially awkward and easily misunderstood act of Jesus joining the crowds being baptized by John and confessing their sins. Many biblical scholars would conclude that Jesus’ experience of being a disciple of John the Baptizer was a significant part of his emerging self-identity and vocational discernment. Then after John was arrested and later killed, Jesus had to discern his own unique calling by God that was separate and distinct from the Baptism Movement of John.
To look particularly at the work of New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, there is an important distinction that can be made between the “Baptism Movement” of John the Baptizer and the “Kingdom Movement” of Jesus. John’s Baptism movement was quite similar in many ways to Harold Camping’s recent predictions: the end of the world is coming “soon, violently, and literally.” It is no coincidence, for instance, that John chose the famous Jordan River in which to focus his Baptism Movement. Indeed, Crossan rightly emphasizes the title “Baptism Movement” or “John the Baptizer” can be unintentionally misleading because the essential act of John’s Baptism Movement is counter-intuitively not baptism. “John doesn’t BAPTIZE in the Jordan. John baptizes in the JORDAN!” The most vital emphasis for John’s Baptism Movement is precisely on the highly symbolic Jordan River.
John’s Baptism Movement is all about a symbolic, ritualistic reenactment of the Wilderness Wanderings and Conquest narratives of the Hebrew Bible. After the all-important events in Exodus that freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the desert for years in the desert only to find the Promised Land of Israel already occupied by the Canaanites. And how did Joshua enter and conquer the Promised Land? By crossing the Jordan River.
More than 1,000 years later, as far as Israel is concerned the Roman Empire is like the worst of the Egyptians and the Canaanites put together. The Romans have essentially enslaved the Israelites through political control, military threats, and taxes (like the Egyptians). Moreover, the Romans have enforced this imperial state of affairs, not in the faraway land of Egypt, but in the Promised Land itself (like the Canaanites). And in the face Rome as the New Egypt and the New Canaan, John the Baptizer is inviting the Israelite people to join him out in the wilderness at the site of the Jordan River. But instead of conquering the Romans by military might as detailed in the book of Joshua, John hopes that a critical mass of people purifying themselves through baptism and confession of sin will convince God that Israel is worthy of God intervening to restore Israelite control of the Promised Land. In John’s worldview — like that of Harold Camping — the end of the world as we know it is hopefully coming “soon, violently, and literally.”
Also like Harold Camping, John’s predictions were a tragic failure. Not only did all of John’s baptisms in the Jordan and cultivation of purity in the desert not convince God to smite the Romans, John was summarily executed by Herod Antipas. In the opinion of John Dominic Crossan and other New Testament scholars, Jesus learned from John’s mistakes. In particular Crossan likes to quip that John the Baptizer’s failings are the reason that, “John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.” When John was beheaded, the Baptism Movement died with him. In contrast, Jesus never set up camp in one particular place. Instead both he and his followers were continually on the move: teaching, healing, and building community through inclusive table fellowship. And when Jesus was executed by Rome, Jesus’ “Kingdom Movement” of building the Beloved Community did not die as well, but expanded and has continued to evolve for more than two thousand years.
As we will see as we continue our exploration of The Gospel According to Matthew — especially in the upcoming chapters on the Sermon on the Mount — whereas John’s Baptism Movement hoped for an end of the word that was “soon, violent, and literal,” Jesus’ vision was much more collaborative, nonviolent, and hopeful for repairing this world not replacing or abandoning our current state of existence. Crossan writes that the move from John to Jesus is a shift of focus “from imminent divine intervention to present divine-human collaboration.” Or as he bluntly says elsewhere, “The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.”
Crossan and others invite us to consider that Jesus was showing us a way of partnering with God to transform this world through love and justice, compassion and peace. Instead of trying to keep ourselves washed and pure while waiting on God to act (like John the Baptizer) or calculating the date of God’s Judgment Day (like Harold Camping), the way of Jesus invites us to realize, as the old saying goes, that, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” Or, perhaps better, God has all along — until this very day — been waiting for us to us to partner with God in repairing this world through acts of justice and loving-kindness.
At my best, I try not to judge those like Harold Camping who lead others so tragically astray. My guess is that Camping is so deeply enmeshed in his own delusions at this point that he sincerely believes his own nonsense. Unfortunately, it is not Camping himself, but his naive followers that likely will be hardest hit for his irresponsibility. Of the many heart-rending accounts in a National Public Radio story interviewing some of Camping’s followers, the one I found most grievous was that of 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez, her husband Joel, and their two-year-old daughter. Adrienne is also eight-months pregnant with their second child. After converting to Camping’s lunatic worldview, they “budgeted everything so that, on May 21, [they wouldn’t] have anything left.”
In contrast, Camping has not divested his own savings, and has refused to return donations in the wake of his failed prediction. In his words, “We’re not at the end. Why would we return it?” — meaning that even though he was completely wrong about the Rapture happening in 1994 and then May 21, he remains unfazed in his conviction that the end of the world will happen on October 21 of this year.
Part of my sympathy — as well as part of my anger — at Camping and his ilk is that I am all too familiar with their particular brand of sheltered sectarianism. I still have a workbook titled Pack Your Bags, Jesus Is Coming! that was given out at a conference we attended as part of the youth group of my childhood church. Chapter titles include “Let’s Be Alert and Ready,” “Warning Signs of Christ’s Return,” “The Rapture,” “The Antichrist,” “The Great Tribulation,” and “Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.” Fortunately, I had disabused myself of his narrow worldview before the bestselling Left Behind series became popular — books that, like Camping, emotionally manipulate a naive public for obscene profits. As a young teenager I remember being bewildered by the teachings at this end-times conference. As I matured and studied more on my own, I was grateful to leave behind “Left Behind” theology that is violent, fear-based, and riddled with anxiety. As we continue our study of Matthew, we will see thankfully that Jesus has shown us a better way: a way of life and love and joy, a way of hope for a future in this world for ourselves and for all creation.
1 Matthew’s larger goal of paralleling the lives of Jesus and Moses: W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 37.
2 In my terminology and way of framing the contrast between John and Jesus throughout this sermon, I am highly in debt to the groundbreaking work of John Dominic Crossan. I have for the most part indicated particular words and phrases that I own to him in quotation marks. Perhaps the most accessible entry point to this aspect of Crossan work is his short book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now although I am also incorporating part of his work from other published material.
3 For the NPR story, see Is The End Nigh? We’ll Know Soon Enough.
4 The end of the world will happen on October 21: The New York Times, “Harold Camping Predicts October Date for the Apocalypse” (May 23, 2011).