Sunday, December 17, 2017

resting at the close of advent three...

On the third Sunday of Advent, as I prepare to head out for another quick retreat with my friends at L'Arche Ottawa, I found myself reflecting on the tender aspect of John the Baptist. For nearly 40 years I have been listening to these texts but never once realized that St. John's gospel never speaks of John as the Baptist - always the witness.  In my worship notes, I put it like this:

One of the most beautiful affirmations in the Christian tradition is the Angus Dei: the Lamb of God. It enters the Christian imagination early in St. John’s gospel, when Jesus traveled across the Jordan River to Bethany, where his wild man of the desert cousin, Yohanan, was ritually purifying people in a sacramental bath, symbolizing the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

· We know him as John the Baptist, but St. John’s gospel never gives him that title. Rather, in this story, John is the witness – the martyria in New Testament Greek – the one who always points to the Messiah. His testimony is clear: he is not the Savior, not the Lamb, not the prophet, and not Elijah. No, Yohanan was a witness, a voice crying out in the wilderness with his whole being that God’s light was shining by grace even in our darkness.

· John’s Hebrew name is one clue: Yohanan literally means “Graced by Yah” one early Hebrew word for God – or as we would put it: “God is Gracious.” Another is his description in this gospel as a witness. We get our English word, martyr, from the Greek root martyria meaning one who stakes his or her life on some-thing as true. It is used 45 times in 21 chapters in St. John’s story of Jesus – yet another clue by emphasis, I think – asking us to pay attention to this witness who publicly yet humbly gives over his life so that we might pay attention to the grace of God in Jesus.

“Behold,” observes John the first time he meets Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” On this Third Sunday of Advent, I think there are three questions for us to consider. First, is our witness to the world as people of faith public or merely private? Second, is it clear, certain, something beautiful and compelling or is our commitment to Christ fuzzy, hackneyed or habitual? And third, do we live our commitment to Jesus in humility rather than belligerently or even punitively? The story St. John’s gospel gives us of John the Baptist is a model for how we might live into the light of grace in the world. One writer put it like this: “Like the man whose name was John, the church is sent into today's world as a witness. Focusing specifically on the texts for Advent 3, let me characterize this witness as public, certain, and humble… three qualities that are in tension with the spirit of our age.” (Working Preacher, Mark Allan Powell, December 14, 2014)

How many times have you heard something said out loud about Christianity that you have found offensive, stupid, embarrassing, untrue and/or mean-spirited? There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think to myself: how in God’s name can ANYONE who loves Jesus – the man for others – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by grace – do or say that!?!

· And by THAT I mean any of the vicious nonsense that haunts contemporary Christianity: giving our elected leaders a pass on sexual harassment or predatory acts played out upon children. Pandering to white supremacists – fear mongering against Muslims – demonizing the GLBTQ community – proposing tax policies that pauperize the poor, victimize our vets, bleed the working middle class and line the pockets of already rich folk with tax breaks? I understand this ideologically, but NEVER in the name of Christ.

· It strains credulity – to say nothing of grace – to hear Christians equate hatred and greed with the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! Beloved, that testimony stands in opposition to the very words of the Lord’s mother who sang: my spirit rejoices in God my savior for… the Lord has looked with favor upon the humbleness of his servant… scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away.

It has never been true, but now more so than ever before for those of us in the USA who trust in God through Jesus Christ, to confess that our faith can never be treated as merely private affair. It wasn’t a private matter for John the Baptist. It clearly wasn’t a private issue for Jesus or the prophet Isaiah or the Blessed Virgin Mary. So why do we believe that our faith must be held quietly within and never offend, question or challenge the status quo? 

 I read the perfect summary of what our silence has created: training our children never to speak about religion or politics in public has created a culture where NOBODY knows how to talk civilly about religion and politics with another. With prescient clarity, 75 years ago Gandhi presciently said that: “those who tell us that religion and politics don’t mix have no understanding of either religion or politics.” What do these words from the prophet Isaiah sound like to you?  “The Lord has anointed me… to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… I the Lord your God love justice and hate your robbery and wrongdoing.

I know that many come to worship seeking only comfort and joy - and I believe that comfort and joy are essential - at the same time arrogant, belligerent and ugly acts of religion only protect the privileged. So what does our public life of faith look like?  Roy Moore and his bravado? Or the humble witness pointing to Christ Jesus?  The sneering and brash fundamentalist Press Secretary for the current regime, Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Or the mother of our Lord and her Magnificat?

Jean Vanier put it like this in his commentary on the gospel according to St. John. Jesus needed one to prepare his way because people would never have expected to look for the Messiah in the form of a poor, peasant baby or a homeless, itinerant rabbi: "Jesus did not come in power and majesty but as a lamb, in humility and littleness… Jesus was not spectacular. He dressed simply. He did not live in the desert of the prophets nor the mansions of royalty, but in an obscure village with ordinary people like us… further, Jesus came into the world from out of the womb of a woman who some thought was tarnished… an ordinary woman who shared with him her presence, her love, her warmth, even the nourishment of her breasts… "

Humility matures in community, beloved, making mistakes, by falling down, by getting it wrong and asking for forgiveness, by carrying one another’s burdens, by being silent when we want to shoot off our mouth, by learning that we must decrease so that Christ might increase within and among us in community. May your witness and mine be one that honors the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

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