[Square & Compasses]

"In Search of St. John the Baptist"

Given on 6/18/99 by the The Rev. Jill E. Harvey, First Baptist Church of Lebanon, CT

by Jill Harvey

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

We have gathered together this evening for an annual celebration that is near and dear to the heart of Masons everywhere: the celebration of the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Now, I must admit, I was a little surprized to find that John the Baptist is one of the patrons of the Masonic order. When I think of the Masons, I'm more inclined to think of Solomon than John. And besides, Baptists like myself have always liked to think that we have the "exclusive rights" to this particular saint of the church.

With great curiosity, then, I delved into pages and pages of material about the connection between John the Baptist and this fraternal order known as "the Masons." And I quickly learned that there is far more material about what we don't know about John and the Masons, than there is about what we do know.

I don't profess to have any new answers to the old question of how John the Baptist came to be connected with masonry. It may even be that some of what I will tell you in the next few minutes will fly in the face of some of your own cherished beliefs about John. But it is my hope that we will all come away from this service tonight with a better understanding of just why it is that we gather on this, the feast day of St. John, to honor one of the celebrated patrons of Masonry.

The first question that must be asked is, "Did John the Baptist really exist?" On this score, we do have some definitive proof, for John is spoken of in all four of the gospels, as well as in the accounts of Josephus, a well-known 1st-century historian. John is perhaps best-known for being the man who reluctantly baptized Jesus, thereby inaugurating his earthly ministry. But aside from this, John was a significant figure in his own right... a Jewish prophet with his own message and his own band of disciples.

John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the descendant of devout rural priests. He lived in the wilderness. He preached in the wilderness. And he baptized in the wilderness. Why, you might ask, all this emphasis on the wilderness? The wilderness is an important point, because John's being anchored the wilderness is the key to our understanding of him, for it underscores the radical alienation of John from the society of the day.

As a country priest, John would have been disdained by the aristocratic priesthood of the great city of Jerusalem. The leaders of the priestly hierarchy routinely looked down their collective nose at their "country cousins," and John would not have escaped their scorn. Those at the top of the social ladder would not have mixed freely with a man such as John. And for his part, John probably wouldn't have sought them out either.

That John was a man who was separated from society was also apparent in the way he dressed. His clothing was made of camel hair instead of fine linen, and he wore only a simple leather belt around his waist. Even the food he ate served to illustrate how set apart John was from the social structures of Jerusalem. While the Temple priests dined on lamb and grains and drank fine wine, John lived on a wilderness diet of honey and locusts.

And then there was his preaching. John preached against the wealthy, against the powerful, against the leaders of society. He described them as a "brood of vipers." He called them repeatedly to accountability before God. John's in-your-face preaching and his unceasing repetition of his message would have only served to widen the gulf that existed between this prophet and "polite society." In all things, John was a man who swam against the current.

Now, here's where some potentially disappointing news comes in. Given John's alienation from society... given that he was an ascetic priest who lived and worked in the wilderness, away from the established structures of government and society, it is highly unlikely that John was ever a member of a Masonic order. John's life and work all point not only to a man who worked alone (despite the many disciples who followed him), but they also point to a man whose entire life was dedicated to one solitary purpose: the purpose of preaching the a message of repentance and renewed faithfulness to God. This doesn't really sound like a man who had any spare time to devote to social activities. Indeed, for the prophets of God, there were no other activities than the one to which God had called them in the first place.

However, as disappointing, and perhaps even shocking, as this declaration about John the Baptist may be, it in no way undermines the appropriateness of John's being one of the eminent patrons of Freemasonry. For there are even better reasons to claim John as one of your own than the presumption of membership in some ancient form of the order... far better reasons.

John may have been a radical. He may have dressed like a bum and eaten like some kind of 1st-century hippie. And yes, he was abrasive and even downright rude at times. John was definitely not the kind of man that you hope your daughter will fall in love with a marry some day. You wouldn't even want him to live in the house next door, not that he would.

But, despite all these seemingly unpleasant and even unsavory characteristics of the man we call John the Baptist, he is a man that we could all do well to emulate. For above all else -- beyond his rough way of dressing and his strange way of eating... beyond his in-your-face attitude and his lack of social graces -- beyond all this, John was a man of character and integrity.

John was a humble man, in the best sense of the word. He preached a strong message on behalf of a mighty God, but he never confused himself with the one who had called him. When Jesus approached John for baptism, John hesitated, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?" This was no show of false humility. John recognized Jesus , and questioned his own fitness as the one who was being asked to baptize the Son of God.

A man of false humility would have continued to protest, declaring his unworthiness in a way designed to elicit praise for such humble behavior. But John didn't argue with Jesus. He didn't protest. Instead, he quietly acquiesced when Jesus explained that this was proper and would serve to fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:13-15). John was a humble man, who was able to put his own interests aside when he saw that there was a greater good to be gained by doing so.

John preached a message of repentance. Now, repentance means more than just saying that you're sorry. The Greek word metanoia, from which the word "repentance" comes literally means "to turn around." John urged his followers to literally turn around and move in a new direction... to move toward God instead of away from God. And he urged them to "bear fruit" that was "worthy of repentance." In other words, mere lip service wasn't enough. John wanted his followers to live lives that showed their orientation toward God. And he preached this message not only with his words, but with his actions as well.

For John was a man who was devoted to God. His life's work was carried out in accordance with God's will and in response to God's call. Living life in this way didn't exactly make John a popular guy. He was an outsider from the beginning, and he stayed one right up until the end.

And we know from our own experiences today, that living in accordance with God's will and purpose is not always easy... is not usually the way for us to "fit in" with all that is going on around us. In a society that touts self-gratification and entitlement based on one's desires, devotion to God can mean swimming against the strong current of individuality. It means putting others before oneself, and giving up individual gain to benefit people who are often complete strangers.

Finally, John was a man who loved God. For it was from his love of God that all of John's devotion, and humility, and dedication to his call flowed. It was this love which sustained John throughout his life and throughout his ministry, right up until the moment of his death. Indeed, the love of God shaped John into the man we have come to know, a man whose reputation has remained unshaken throughout the centuries since he walked the earth.

John the Baptist was one particular man, who lived in one particular historical moment. And yet, his message of repentance, humility, devotion and love of God transcends time and culture. It is a message that is just as urgent and as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is a message that was illustrated by John's daily life. And it is a message that underscores so many of the values that Masons today lift up as ideals for the living of a moral life.

We may never know the truth about John's historical relationship with Freemasonry. We may never find out if he was a member of this fellowship, which has such a long and distinguished history. And in truth, it really doesn't matter if we do. For the man who has come to be known as St. John the Baptist was a man whose life exemplified duty to God through his faith, his religious practices, and through the very living of his life.

Joseph Fort Newton once said, "Righteousness and Love -- those two words do not fall short of telling the whole duty of a man and a Mason." And Masons around the world could do no better in their choice of a patron and a model for living than they have in John the Baptist: a man whose life continues to shine as an example to us all.


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