Monday, June 25, 2012

John the Holy Forerunner

A Sermon for the Feast of John the Baptist

         John the Baptizer hardly ever gets his own attention. It seems like we hear quite a great deal from him in Advent and then at Jesus’ baptism, but we hardly ever talk about him. In Advent, the discussion is more about Zechariah’s, his father, lack of faith compared to Mary’s trust in God. After Jesus is born and grown, the actions focus on who God is in him and what God is doing. John is a footnote to that story as well.

            This week when I asked for questions about John the Baptizer, only one person dared to ask anything and they sent the question in a message, rather than in any kind of public forum. The question ran along these lines: Do you think John ever wondered if he might be The One? Did he always know he was the forerunner? What was it like to always know that you were second?

            I had to think about that for a while. John would have grown up hearing his own birth narrative and that of his cousin, Jesus. He was probably raised in a very particular way, given his father’s priesthood and the specificity of his dedication to God. He may have even been a Nazarite with strictures on cutting his hairs, touching dead bodies, sexual practice, and eating. In fact, the camel’s hair clothing and the locust and honey diet are supposed to help us understand that he lives the life of prophet- like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.

            Given the way that John is depicted, as such an obvious bridge between the promises of the Messiah and the advent of the Messiah, it is hard to think that he ever thought that he might be the One Who Is to Come. Yet, don’t you think every little boy of the time thought he might be the Messiah? If your stories of God’s anointed are of David to the tenth power, when you and your friends played Roman invaders versus Holy Warriors, don’t you think one kid always climbed on top of the rock and declared himself “The Messiah”?

            Would John have thought that might have been his name? Names were important as we saw in today’s reading. People did not speak the name of God and the names that were bestowed on children carried weight and power. And in other Christian denominations, John receives much more serious treatment and gets other names. He is the Baptizer, the Forerunner, a prophet among prophets. As the Holy Forerunner, his entire work is pointing to the One Who Is to Come. Given the seriousness of his nature and his focus on his work, I’m not sure I would blame him if he had occasionally wondered if he might be the One. Somehow, I doubt it though. Once Jesus appears on the scene, John knows him and is inspired by God to understand who and what Jesus is. Still John wonders and eventually asks, “Are you the One Who is to Come or are we to wait for another?”

            And there it is, folks, the doubt of the Holy Forerunner. The question of the ages… Jesus, are you it? Who among us hasn’t asked that question? And has anyone hear fulfilled their own call with what appears to be the certainty of John the Baptizer? He lives into what he believes and still dares to ask… Are you the one? He’s AT THE BAPTISM… and he dares to ask… Are you the One?

            What was the work that John was doing again? What does his father prophesy that he will do: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77) John prophesies at the side of the Jordan- telling people that the times- they are a’changin’. He is offering a baptism, outside of the temple and separate from the culture of sacrifices, for the forgiveness of sins. He speaks truthfully of sin and separation, of false truths and false leaders. He speaks of transformation, of lives altered by an experience of God’s promises and trust in their truth.

            In a time of permanent Advent, John says the Light is coming and you better be ready! And the message he brings attracts people. John has disciples. John is condemned by the temple leaders. John gives the ruler, Herod Antipas, serious indigestion. And it is not because John is saying that “I’m all right, you’re all right.” It’s not because John is saying, “God is love.” It’s not because John is saying that the Messiah will bring joy.

            People are coming because of the promise of new life. People are attracted because it seems like this is something to give them hope. People are coming because they are being told that God has not forgotten them. That God is still acting. That the voice of God in the world has not been silenced. That God is speaking to them about the expectation of changed behavior and the reality of promises fulfilled.

            People wanted to hear the message that John was preaching. People want to hear the message that John was bringing. In truth, I think we ask ourselves “What would Jesus do” because it seems easy. You can either tell yourself, “But I’m not Jesus” or you tell yourself that Jesus welcomed and care for all kinds of people. Both of these things are true, you’re not Jesus and Jesus did minister whole-heartedly to all kinds of people. But we are not baptized into Christ for an easy life or for comfort or for consolation. We’re baptized into a life as co-workers in the kingdom and what if our work is supposed to look a little more like John’s?

            What if the work to which we are called is political, like John’s- calling out injustice against women, children, men- all races, all nationalities, all faiths? What if our task for the kingdom is to call out leaders who bend the rules for their own benefit, but ignore the possibilities of their power to bring justice and change? What if our work is theological, like John’s - not be Jesus, but to point to Jesus, to explain who Jesus is to us and to the world? What if our work is prophetic- affecting what we eat, what we wear, where we live, with whom we are seen? What if our work is revolutionary, like John’s - to call for change in hearts (including our own), in minds, in churches, in communities, in governments, in the world?

            And what if we are called to this work at the very same time we ask the question, “Jesus- are You it? Are you The One?” Keep in mind, John asked that question through his disciples, while he was in prison for doing the work to which he had been called. He knew he was the Forerunner, he knew he pointed to the Light. He was just checking, one more time, to be sure Jesus was it. And then he kept going, right to his death.

            We wait. We wait for a new heaven and a renewed earth. We wait for the kingdom where justice and peace are at home. We are Easter people, resurrection people, living in the second Advent, waiting for Jesus to return (Jesus- are You it?) In a world that lacks justice and peace, where people commit the same sins over and over again… maybe in this perpetual Advent- the world needs a little more John, a little more promise, a stronger expectation of change, a demand for righteous action, and an unambiguous pointing to the light.

We too are holy forerunners, pointing to the One Who Has Come and Will Return. God shapes us into the people the kingdom needs for our particular time and place. Occasionally, when the world is dark and has great need, the Holy Spirit is equipping us- not to be like Jesus- but to be like John.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It's A Mystery (Sermon, 6/17)

2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

            When I was back on the East Coast a couple weeks ago, I went to visit my maternal grandparents’ grave. I went by myself and took flowers and water. I brushed off the stone, pulled the dead grass from around the edges, and then sat for a while and talked. My grandfather has been dead for just over eight years and my grandmother, for not quite four.

            I miss them frequently. When I was sitting at their graveside and talking to them through my tears, I kept thinking about what I was doing. If I believe they are resting here until the last days, why have I occasionally perceived them with me? Or if I believe that they are now in the presence of God, why is it so much more meaningful to be here in the place where I last saw their bodies?

            Somewhere in the mix of experience and emotion, in the tangle of reason and hope, somehow I hold to be true that my grandparents are resting in God, cheering me on, and waiting with all until the time of judgment. Yes, I realize some of those things seem contradictory, but they are all part of the presentation we receive in the written Scriptures about the life after death.

            Paul exhibits that same mix of future hopes in the passage from 2 Corinthians that we read today. 2nd Corinthians is pieced together from at least four or five letters that Paul wrote to the community at Corinth. If you read it straight through, it feels a little disjointed and Paul’s emotions and examples seem all over the map. In this section, he’s talking about how God calls the faithful into different kinds of ministries. That sounds like familiar Pauline stuff- the different gifts or different members of the body.

            He is also saying that all people receive help, through the Spirit, for the ministry of hardship and the ministry of reconciliation. Regardless of what your other gifts may be, Corinthians or Anchorage-ites, you will come to learn that there is struggle in the life of faith, but that you are never alone in that struggle (ministry of hardship). As we are learning to live and to die in and with Christ, we are also equipped for and brought into the work of sharing his message with those around us (ministry of reconciliation).

            Paul is writing so vigorously about these things that he points that out that he only sounds sane when he’s making the effort to talk to people. Usually, he’s just crazy for God. (“If we are beside ourselves, it is for God. If we are in our right minds, it is for you.”) As Paul writes furiously, he comments, “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.”  What is Paul saying about the body here? And about when we return to Christ?

            When Paul talks about the body as treasure in clay jars or that being in the body means being away from the Lord, he is not lamenting that somehow our physical existence separates us from God or from God’s love in Christ. (Think Romans 8:36-38.) Paul does not believe in the immortality of the soul without the body. In the same way that he trusts in God’s resurrection of Jesus in the body, Paul trusts that this will happen to all those whom God has redeemed through Jesus.

            The struggle for Paul, in part, is that the degradation of the body in this life makes it hard for us to do all the work to which we have been called. By the time Paul is writing his 8th, 9th, 10th letters to the Corinthians, he’s older. He’s been beaten and jailed. Things are not quite as easy as they were. While this might not take a toll on the faith of his heart, the literal walk of faith has become more of a stretch for him. Paul laments to the Corinthians that the breakdown of our physical bodies in this life can make it hard to perceive or to dare to hope for (or to desire) their resurrection in the next.

            The other issue is that Paul expresses here, in one sense, the expectation that the dead are immediately in the presence of the Lord. This is an immediate hope. Elsewhere, in Philippians and in other letters to Corinth, the judgment and the life eternal are far off- a future hope. When we combine Paul’s own lack of timeline with other parts of the Bible, we can have a confusing landscape of expectations. Hebrews talks about the cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on in our race. Revelation talks both about the saints who are already around the throne and the judgment that is to come. Part of understanding what Scripture says about the life of the world to come is to consider who is writing about it and what their purposes are. The separate books and authors that make up the Bible are working together with Spirit to assure us, regardless of details, that our life begun in God remains in God forever. But the mechanics of what happens after what we know for sure are a mystery.

            This is part of the ministry of reconciliation that Paul talks about and to which we are called. The love of Christ urges on to this work- to loving and serving our neighbors, not to insure our future, but because we trust that it has been insured by work that is not our own.

            That’s the heart of the parable from Mark that Jesus spoke to his disciples. The sowing, the growth, the harvest is not ours. We’ve been called into the work, but the success of the kingdom is God’s work and God’s secret work. What we are called to do is obvious. What God does is mysterious. We have to learn to live with the mystery, the parable, and to let it go enough so that we can do the obvious to which we are called. If we refrain from feeding, from visiting, from healing, from teaching, from companioning until we understand everything… nothing will ever get done. The tasks we have from Jesus are plain; everything else is a mystery.

            This mystery is most certainly true about the life that is to come. I had a professor in seminary whose his first wife died of cancer when they were both young. When I talked with him about grief I was experiencing, he was very helpful. He also emphasized what we know and what we don’t. He talked about how he wished both of his wives knew each other, though he knew that was not possible right now. He also talked about wanting to know that his first wife was happy for him. He noted, to me, that he did not know that she wasn’t.

 All of my grandparents are dead. I wish that they could see Daniel, my son, and know what he’s like and how he’s growing. But I don’t know that they don’t know. I hear them speak to me sometimes. Maybe it’s that I really want to. Maybe it’s because they are encouraging me or advising me.

I have no idea what comes next. All I know is what I believe is true and I believe what Jesus says is true, not because I want immortality, but  because of what I have experienced and encountered through reason and Scripture through the Spirit. That God sees all people through the eyes of Christ and that we am called to do this too. That this is the life in which I am in now, and you too, and whatever comes next is beyond my control (and yours). That I have body that’s not what it once was, but is also not what it will be. That there is a new creation since the resurrection- a creation of reconciliation, healing, and hope unlike any other.

And in the mystery that is the new creation, we all (even the pastor) walk by faith, and not by sight.
Now, but not forever.
And we do not walk alone.