Lessons from Locusts and Wild Honey

Well, I told you Advent is strange, didn’t I? I’ve been at this for so many years, enough to know that Advent isn’t in sync with the culture around us, Yet still, I find its focus on John the Baptist jarring every time. John is jarring. 

He was the brash, garrulous desert prophet, who preached repentance to his followers. He baptized many of them in the river Jordan. He baptized Jesus when they were both adults, the act that initiated Jesus’ earthly ministry in all four of the Gospels. 

What stands out about John from an early age, if we were so lucky to have had children’s chapel or Sunday school growing up, was his attire and his diet: rough camel’s hair, and locusts and wild honey. 

I was told on my first visit to the Holy Land that “locusts” refers to a plant, not an insect. I think it was a carob pod that you find in that part of the world. Which may or may not be true, but I simply can’t accept it! People did eat locusts--still do, they’re good for you and good for the environment; high in protein and nutrients, with a low carbon footprint--and so we’ll stick with the obvious meaning: locusts are locusts.

In fact, I’m going to build the rest of this sermon this morning around John’s diet. I’ve never treated this as anything other than a colorful detail. But if we take every word of the Bible as carrying potential significance, which is a generous, and respectful way to view a sacred text, then details like this deserve a closer look.

One reason it’s important is that it suggests a link to the prophets of the Old Testament, especially Elijah, who likewise ate (and arrayed himself). John’s legitimacy comes, in part, from this connection to this very important prophet. John was like Elijah in external manners and appearance, but also because both spoke frank, sometimes harsh, words to people in high places. John is best known for speaking out against King Herod’s illegal marriage to his second wife, not unlike how, 500 years before, Elijah had railed against King Ahab’s marriage to the foreign Queen Jezebel. Both called out other, more serious, acts of moral failure. There are all sorts of connections like that between Old Testament and New, and these are particularly pronounced when it comes to the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist.

John’s diet also shows us his independence. He was his own man, owing no one anything. Foraging his food from the wilderness allowed him to speak freely of his convictions without fear of losing a meal, or a livelihood.   

Few of us can live so unobliging, and independent a life as John. We have clients, patients, customers, family, parishioners, to whom we’re beholden for our lives and livelihoods. We have to watch our words, perhaps pace and contain our inner thoughts and convictions.

But it’s worth examining whether our fears (real or imagined) hold us too much in their grip. Do we fear conflict more than speaking truth? Challenging power? And will we really lose everything if we speak our minds a bit more on things that matter? Probably not. John was so committed to his freedom to prophesy that he asked nothing from no one. We don’t need to be that extreme to reclaim a little of our moral voice. 

And then finally there’s my favorite interpretation of John’s locusts and honey diet. I just discovered it this week, and it goes like this: the foods, the locusts and honey, that went into John’s mouth represented what came out of it, in his teachings. But it’s all in how his message is received. Those who received his teaching to repent and change their lives heard his words as if they were honey. But for those who rejected calls for repentance and change, John’s words were received as a curse, like a plague of locusts. 

I thought that was so fascinating and true: that where your heart is determines in part what you hear from others. If your heart is hard (closed), a constructive criticism or a call to repentance is going to sting, or annoy. But if your heart is open, such a call will be a sweet invitation to Amendment of life. 

If your heart is hard, you can’t hear the good intentions and possibility behind another’s gentle admonishment. If it’s soft, you will, and you will become a better person. 

Many people back in that day heard John’s words and followed him to the river Jordan to be baptized and cleansed from their sins and make a new beginning. Even Jesus was baptized by John after hearing him preach. That’s what distinguished those who followed John to the Jordan to be baptized and cleansed, from those who didn’t: the open-hearted heard his message without feeling threatened, or pestered. They responded. Let’s be honest: We can all use--always--a little amendment of life when someone calls for it. 

So how is your heart this Advent? Can it accept what others, and maybe your own inner voice, are telling you needs to change? Or … Are you refraining from saying or doing something principled because you lack John’s courage, or fear the consequences?

Of all the people in the Gospels (aside from Jesus), it’s John the Baptist’s short life that offers up more lessons every time he makes an appearance in our Sunday readings. I never get bored of John. He speaks to our failures and our aspirations like few others. On this second Sunday of Advent, let us heed his call to make the most of our lives. We have only this, One Chance.