December 14, 2014
Third Sunday in Advent
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
There is a famous piece of renaissance church art, the Isenheim altarpiece, which shows Jesus upon the cross. Mark Allen Powell points out that the terrible suffering depicted surely came from the Gospel of Mark. Interestingly enough it is also a picture of pastoral concern for its time. It was painted for the monastery of St. Anthony’s in Isenheim, which devoted itself to hospital work, including caring for those who have suffered from the plague. Jesus is not clear-skinned as we usually see him, but has the marks of plague upon him as well. He truly knows our suffering, is the message.
Next to the cross, John is standing, holding scripture and simply pointing to Jesus. If the image of Jesus is from Mark’s Gospel, the image of John surely comes from the Fourth Gospel, as we read this morning. John claims no credentials except that he is the voice crying in the wilderness, as Isaiah puts it.
His job is to witness. His job is to point to Jesus. But the religious authorities have never liked someone they could not categorize, so they try and pigeon hole him into the one of their labels: Are you Elijah? (Since the prophet was believed to need to return before the messiah.) Are you the Messiah? Are you a prophet?
He claims no label, no title, even though he is doing what the prophet had said. What he is saying is, “It is not about me.” Some have speculated that John’s Gospel places an emphasis on this to try and fix some rift in the church, some who gather around John and others who gather around Paul and other who gather around Peter. And we can imagine such groups forming.
But like the altarpiece which depicts Jesus with sores like those of the plague victims, even with some elements which may be about the time and place in which it was written, there is something more going on.
Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,
nor Elijah, nor the prophet?
The religious types want his papers and credentials. He is too popular to write off, so they need some way to bring him under their authority.
I baptize with water.
Among you stands one whom you do not know,
the one who is coming after me;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.
Here he claims nothing other than washing people, which has its roots in Jewish religious practice. “I am doing nothing more than what you see,” he explains.
It is interesting that he neither justifies or defends what he is doing. Not only does he say it is not about him, he lives it.
My mentor, the Rev. Dr. Boyd Carter, had a sign up in his office. I have recreated it in my own. It says, “Don’t take it personally.” When we find ourselves justifying or defending our actions, pretty soon our ego is putting on its armor and our mouth starts sharpening our tongue and we hunker down and think all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things about people, some of which we say, usually to our regret later.
Boyd used to say that there was a group of people who gathered for coffee early in the morning. They then divvied up the route from his home to the church, and decided who was going to cut him off at which intersection, and who was going to sit through a green light in front of him. And they were good. They managed to do a lovely job throughout the day.
Except that not only had they never met, he was not in their script. These were simply instances of “Life happens.” (Translate that however you need to for your own bumper sticker.)
I have the sign in my office for the same reason that Boyd had the sign in his: it is a reminder to me, a reminder I need every day. If you read it and use it, wonderful. But it is like the song Standing in the Need of Prayer: “Not the Deacon or the Preacher but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” God knows the preachers and the deacons of the world are also standing in the need of prayer.
But if John is standing there, simply pointing to Jesus, what does that have to do with us?
Well, we too are waiting. We are waiting for the fullness of God’s grace to break forth for such an hour as this. We too are waiting for the wholeness of God’s healing to make itself known. We too are waiting for justice to roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
So what do we do while we wait? Point to Jesus. If we do not know how, we can use the crib notes Paul gives us in the letter this morning:
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of prophets,
but test everything; hold fast to what is good;
abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;
and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Thanks be to God.