Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent 3, Dec. 11, 2011

John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord,' " as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
“He confessed and did not deny it. . .”  Startling words, indeed.  Not so much that John the Baptizer, as we once again encounter him, will make a good and consistent confession, we are, after all, accustomed to such things, but rather it is the content of this confession that is totally alarming.  You see, after having attracted a large and curious crowd out in Bethany, across the Jordan, out away from all the centers of learning and culture, not a place for the educated or sophisticated, John has finally landed himself on the radar of the powerful.  The opinion-makers, bloggers and talking heads have indeed begun to take notice of this strange man, his popularity more than passing fad, and so they send the interns out to do a little investigative work. 
And investigative work these priests and Levites do, knowing that they cannot return to their bosses without a satisfactory answer.  In accordance with their need to make sense of this strange man, this man whose charisma is directly affecting Temple worship attendance, and not positively one might add, the priests and Levites give John ample opportunity to present himself as something respectable, recognizable and palatable.  To present himself as something that they can stomach and understand, and life can then return to business as usual. And so the litany of questions begin, questions that seek not just to understand John, but in a certain sense, to control him.  To make of him something that they predict and manage.  And so they turn to their common religious heritage.   Are you Elijah, the prophet whose return is foretold by the Scriptures?  Are you the prophet, the one who will bring God’s reign close to earth, and throw off our oppressors?  Or perhaps even more unlikely, are the Messiah, the promised One of God?  And if you are none of these as you continually insist, who has given you the right, the authority, to baptize in the name of the God that we represent?  The subtext of this line of questioning, of course, did you clear any of this with the religious professionals before you began to preach and baptize? 
It is against this unrelenting stream of questions that John’s confession begins to take the most remarkable form.  For look at what this man, this man from God named John says to each question; “no” is his answer.  No, he is not the Messiah, no he is not Elijah nor even the prophet.  Even as the questions come hard and fast, John is, simply put, unwilling to relent, to back down, but his tactics are totally inverted.  For rather than grabbing a little credit, instead of finally ending this interrogation with a display of his ego, instead of shutting these interns up with a little alpha-male style angry strength, John will simply continue to refute any attempts at making him into something that he is not, and in so doing, he confesses, not confessing to his own spiritual greatness or piety, but rather to what he is not.
            What John is doing here is should strike us as something that is pretty foreign. Or to put it another way, I do not know that I would consult John for resume writing advice.  For turning down credit, ignoring recognition, even if it is recognition that we do not necessarily deserve, is by no means a common practice in our culture.  Instead, we as a people, are pretty intent on others noticing what we do, and making certain that credit is given where credit is due.  We want desperately to be noticed, to be received and understood for all the heroic work that we do day in and day out.  And how much more true is this of our religious lives?  For fear that God will overlook us lest we berate the heavens with our goodness, with our pieties, with our projects, we just cannot answer the way that John does.  Sure, we might give lip service to this, but we are finally too full of pride and fear to join this refrain of “no.”   We want God to take note of our goodness, we want God to love us for what we do, to turn divine love in a project that we can manage and control.  In this we  so desperately want to answer that “yes” we are our own messiahs, and we can storm heaven with our good works or correct opinions, or our proud theological heritages. 
            But the burden is too heavy, and this “no” will be squeezed out of us one way or another.  Life circumstances conspire and we realize that we are actually not in control, that life will grind down and beat up and any hope we had of producing our own salvation, our own meaning, is just not realistic.  There is no real security to be found in money, in status, in recognition or in preserving a mythical past that never really was, for the grave has little interest in what we have accumulated.   But in being forced, in due time no doubt, to answer with John that we are not messiahs, that we cannot save ourselves by any exertion of will or intellect or piety, please notice what happens.  An incredible burden is lifted, and Christ, the true Messiah who takes away the sin of the world, he is given rightful place.  To him is given the role that is his as the only one who can truthfully declare “I am.”   For with John, when we confess that we are not, we, too, confess that Christ is.  That Christ is the light of the world,  that it is Christ’s life, death and resurrection that makes you whole, and not all the paltry idols to whom we turn for security and satisfaction.  Yes, it is Christ alone that we confess, not ourselves, and in doing so, we know true freedom.  You know the freedom of a God who comes in the flesh, the freedom of a God who raises you from the burden of having to be your own god, your own messiah.   The freedom of a God whose coming spills over from age to age, and the freedom of knowing the God who promises to keep and guide you, even as the winters of our lives encroach with their stagnant grey.  Yes, it is the freedom of knowing the God whom St. Paul writes, will keep you sound and blameless, the God who in Christ, sanctifies you with his own body and blood that you may rejoice in all things, for Christ is present in all things. 
            So no, we are not our own gods, we are not messiahs, and please do revel in the relief that this brings you.  And in that relief, in that gospel-lightness, don’t be surprised when you are asked to also make the good confession.  Yes, do not be surprised if God prompts you to confess against yourself, to say to the world in both word and deed that your redemption, your forgiveness, your peace, your very identity has all been given to you by the God of cross and open tomb. Yes, Christ the light that breaks from eternity has named you and made you his own, has made you his child and his witness.  He has given you all that you need to go and bear his name to the world, to point to his sweetness and the joy of his love. And make no mistake dear people of God,  to live in his freedom will prompt questions; there will be those who want to know from whence your joy and peace comes.  Indeed, there will be interns knocking at the door asking you what all this is about.  And in these moments, all that needs to be said is this: “I am not, but I know of one who is.  And he, Jesus the Christ, is for you.”   In his sweet name, amen. 

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