"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
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
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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