Sunday, January 26, 2014

I, Nicodemus: A Sermon/ Monologue on John 3:1-21

"Jesus and Nicodemus" by Crijn Hendrickz (1616-1645)

Scripture can be found here...

Of course I came to him by night.

Can you imagine the repercussions if I’d walked out to see him in broad daylight?

I, Nicodemus.  Son of Gurion, a modest family, but one proud to know its sons were scions of the house of Judah.  I, a leader of the Pharisees, whose only hope was that we should honor and worship Almighty God in the best possible way. I, Nicodemus, going boldly by day to see the man who was at the center of the most scandalous disruption of the Passover our people have ever seen!

It was just two weeks ago. The Passover was drawing near, and Jesus went into the Temple, our holiest of places. And yes, the outer courts of the Temple were busy with buyers and sellers of animals for the coming sacrifices. And yes, the moneychangers were there, converting Roman currency to our own coins—we cannot let the Roman coins into the Temple, because they bear the face of Caesar, and call him “god”. Caesar is not God. Only the Lord Almighty is God.

But Jesus had no patience for the changers of money. And he had no tolerance for the buying and selling of sacrificial animals. They say he made a whip out of cords and drove everyone out, down to the last seller of the last cow. And then, he dared to say that, if the Temple were destroyed, he could rebuild it in three days. He dared to speak blasphemy, on that holy ground.

No. I would not go to see such a man by day. But after the seven days of the Passover festival, I went myself to pray in the Temple. I myself inquired of God. And, as sometimes happens, in my heart I heard the quietest of whispers. “Go. But take care.”

All was quiet in my house. My servants and my children were asleep, as was my wife. And even if she had awakened—my Chava—she was not unaccustomed to my walking in the garden at night. She wouldn’t be alarmed if I just slipped away for a time. And so I did.

Bethany is a short walk from Jerusalem, a gently sloping path that leads you, if you continue, up the Mount of Olives. But I had to go only as far as the home of the siblings, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It was well known that Jesus stayed with them when traveling to Jerusalem for any reason. As I walked the mile and a half, I found that I was worried. I worried that he would be asleep. I worried about how to find him without disrupting the entire household. I worried that I should have brought a servant to slip in and awaken him. I carried the worry in my stomach, like a bowlful of buzzing wasps. My worry was unnecessary. As I approached the modest stone house, off the footpath and to the left, I was greeted first by a fine fig tree, mature with great curving boughs, its tiny blossoms just budding. And then, even before I saw him, I heard his voice, saying just one word: “Nicodemus.” And there he was. Sitting beneath the flowering tree, a shawl pulled around him. Jesus.

And it happened to me, the same things that happened to the other men, the thing I heard Andrew and Simon Peter talking about, quietly, as they exited the Temple at the end of the Passover observances.  The sense of peace, combined with a sense of excitement—it’s almost impossible to describe. And yet there it was. Is.

I shook my head, as if to say to myself. Now, now. The way I would say it to one of my children, or to my wife, if she should become overly excited about something. Now, now. And I recited to him the speech I had prepared, just as I had rehearsed it.

“Rabbi,”—I called him “Rabbi,” as a sign of respect. How could I not? Despite his antics in the Temple, there were witnesses… many witnesses… to certain… actions he had performed. His followers called them “Signs.” Water into wine. A parlor trick? Perhaps. But the people who had attended that wedding were filled, not with wine, but with wonder. And healings. He had healed a woman. He had cast a demon out of a man. These are not parlor tricks. Our word “Rabbi” means “Great one.” I had no problem calling him “Great one,” in the face of these signs.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Not a word of it was untrue. I believed God was somehow working through this man, even though I was only seeing him for the first time.

I wonder now what I expected him to say. Perhaps I wanted him to argue with me—to tell me, “Only God is great.” Or, “It is the power of God, not my power.” I wanted him to… play the game with me. The game the holy men play. Those of us who are all too well aware of our power, and yet we must pretend not to be aware.

He looked at me quietly. He was reading me. Finally, he spoke. Whatever I expected, it was not this.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.”

I am not being cagey. I am using the Greek word, “anothen,” because… it was at the root of a misunderstanding. I replied:

“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Particularly, I added to myself, if her bones lie bleached and cold in a tomb.

I truly did not understand.

He spoke of birth. We have our understanding of birth. It is something of the realm of women, and when it is finished, God willing, a new life has come, and the rituals of purification are performed, and the family has grown. But it happens once. I cannot be born again.

He smiled. He was patient with me, more patient than I am with my students.

He spoke very carefully, but he was not condescending. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Ah, I thought. Water. He refers to his friend, the crazy one, down by the river, who pushes people under the water and calls them clean. But the Spirit… that is another matter.

He was still speaking, but his voice had taken on a kind of urgency. “…The wind—the Spirit!—blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

As he spoke, a memory came to me, very old. I was a small child, and we were gathered around the table for the Passover meal. All the adults were there—my parents, and my grandparents, an aunt, an uncle—all gathered closely around a table. I noticed then for the first time something odd. An empty place at the table, with a cup that was the most beautiful, the oldest and most precious in my mother’s collection. There it was, at that empty place. But all the important people, the most honored ones, were there. No one was missing. Why was the most beautiful cup being wasted on an empty space?

I looked to my father and saw him smiling. He’d been watching me. He knew my question even before it was on my lips, but I asked anyway.

“Abba,” I said, “why is Amma’s beautiful cup at the empty place at the table?”

My father’s eyes brimmed over with joy. I couldn’t understand then, but I understood later. I understand now.

“My son,” he said, “It is Elijah’s cup. We save a place at the table for the prophet, should be grace us with his presence. And one day, he will appear, and he will answer all our unanswered questions.”

As I sat with the young Rabbi, I remembered the stirring in my soul when my father told me we were waiting for—we were expecting—the great prophet Elijah, last seen as God took him to heaven in a fiery chariot. We were expecting him at our table! A delicious shiver ran down my spine as a small child… and it still does, each and every time I remember that moment.

And now, as Rabbi Jesus spoke of being born of the Spirit, I felt it again: the bracing audacity of my father’s expectation. The thrill of his hopeful and smiling face. The recognition that we—our family, not a family of wealth or honor—that we could expect to be in the company of God’s greatest and most faithful servants.

I had been lost in my memory, the image of that Passover table as bright as a full moon. My breath caught as I heard Jesus’ words to me:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God loved the world… It was as if my heart broke open on hearing those words.

I… I who had committed my life to study, to learning, to searching the Holy Scriptures in order to know how best to please God. In order to know how best to honor him by our gatherings at the table. To knowing what was sinful and what was not.

I was now confronted with the astonishing notion that God loved the world. That same world that had rejected God, again and again!

Scripture taught it. I could recite the verses from memory. The steadfast love of God for Abraham; for Jacob, for Joseph. The psalms singing of the steadfast love of God for his people Israel.

I knew it. I knew it. So why did it feel completely new? It was as if the young Rabbi’s words themselves had washed the world, with me in it, and everything was fresh, as if we had all been…yes! Born again.

We talked long into the night and almost until the breaking dawn. In the end, we were silent together, even as the sun slid over the crest of the mountain and broke upon us. My mouth was silent, but in my heart was a chant, over and over, one that started in stillness, but which grew as I walked down the path to my home in Jerusalem. It went, “The love of God. The love of God. The steadfast love of God.”

I looked back over my shoulder, and saw that young Rabbi Jesus had vanished. But I knew we would meet again.

I took with me his gift. The love of God. The love of God. That I, Nicodemus, should know... that we all should know... the steadfast love of God!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Guest at the Wedding: A Sermon on John 2:1-11

"Wedding at Cana" by Nicholas Markell

 Scripture can be found here...

If you were an avid reader of the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence,” you would have the impression that it was rare to find a wedding where something DIDN’T go wrong. Just a few examples from her column:

There are the brides whose demands for multiple showers and expensive taste in bridesmaids’ dresses threaten to bankrupt their wedding parties.

There are the angry divorced parents who threaten not to show up if the other party is invited.

There are the friends or relatives whose inability to either hold their liquor or speak about politics with civility regularly makes social gatherings a nightmare.

The whole thing makes you want to shake all parties involved, and ask, what is a wedding supposed to be about, anyway? Read enough of these letters, and you will start quietly advising the couples you love to go to city hall with their best friends and call it a day.

One day, Jesus was at a wedding, and something went wrong. The wine ran out.

We are once again picking up exactly where we left off last week. Jesus has gathered a few disciples around himself—five in total, just a handful of men who are interested in being learners and followers of this still enigmatic rabbi. And on the third day after last week’s part of the story left off, they are all guests at a wedding. And Jesus’ mother (who, in the Fourth Gospel, is never called Mary) is a guest, too. We don’t know exactly where “Cana” was, though there is a village (known today as Kafr Kanna) that’s a distinct possibility. It’s a little more than four miles northeast of Jesus’ hometown.  A few scholars make the case that any wedding attended by Jesus, and his disciples, and his mother, might just have been Jesus’ wedding, that he was the bridegroom. To which others reply, in a small village in first century Palestine, the likelihood of absolutely everyone being invited to a wedding was pretty high,  so this doesn’t sound that unusual. But hold that thought. We may wander back to it.

Jesus is at the wedding, and when the wine runs out, his mother speaks to him. I love their exchange, because it reflects a fairly classic (and, evidently, timeless) exchange between parent and child when the parent wants the child to do something, but is reluctant to give a direct order or make a direct request. “There are still dishes in the sink,” “Your college applications are due tomorrow,” and “I can’t see the floor in your room,” are all splendid examples of the kind of indirect communication I’m talking about.

The mother of Jesus says, “They have no wine.” At a wedding in first century Palestine, this would be a fairly catastrophic turn of events. Hospitality is an enormous cultural value in the Middle East to this day, and to run out of the drink that symbolizes abundance and celebration throughout scripture would be a humiliating situation for the hosts and the couple. The mother of Jesus seems to be speaking out of compassion for her neighbors: she doesn’t want to see them shamed. She also seems to be speaking out of a hunch that her son will know what to do.

There is no way around it: Jesus’ response to his mother sounds to our modern ears like a verbal slap. It isn’t, really: Jesus uses the word “woman” in this way regularly, and it is a respectful form of address. What he says next—“…what concern is that to you and to me?”—is actually a Semitic saying that is not about coldness or callousness in the face of suffering, but a real question. Why should this concern us? Should we intervene? Can we be of help?

And then: “My hour has not yet come.”

We have to face it sooner or later. You can hardly travel a single sentence in the gospel of John without running into words that are heavily coded and deeply symbolic. In the Fourth Gospel we’ve already run into Light and Word and Messiah and Water and Lamb and Seeing and each and every one of these words falls into this category. Here, the word of the hour is: the Hour.

The phrase “my hour” or “the hour” is used throughout the gospel of John to point to the time of fulfillment of Jesus’ saving work, a time also called his “glory.” It is understandable that we might fast-forward to the end of a story we already are familiar with, and assume that Jesus’ “glory” would be the moment of resurrection. But for this gospel, the hour, Jesus’ glory, encompasses Jesus’ arrest and suffering, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.

When Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come,” he means the moment that points to his glory. And it becomes clear as we read through this gospel that no human being—not even his mother—is able to say when this will occur. It is a moment that is entirely in God’s hands.

And then the mother of Jesus is speaking to the servants, perhaps with a knowing little smile, and saying, “Do whatever he tells you.” She has a hunch.

As it happens there are six enormous, stone water jars standing right there, jars used by good Jews in their purification rituals. Jesus instructs that they should be filled with water. Now, it may be obvious, but I’ll mention it anyway. There is no hose available. There are no spigots, or indoor plumbing in this village so small it promptly fell off the map sometime during the honeymoon. The filling of these jars with buckets of water drawn from a well will be the work of servants, in the Greek, diakonois, a word that may sound familiar to our deacons following last week’s training. It’s the word from which we get “deacon” and it’s also often translated “minister.” And this language nerd finds its etymology is fascinating:  it comes from two words that mean “to hurry” and “dust,” and it means, one who hurries so much in their tasks, they are kicking up dust.[i] Depending on how many diakonois there were at the wedding, the task of bringing water totaling between 120 and 180 gallons from a well to this wedding reception will take considerable time and effort. But it is done.

The miraculous change of water to wine happens without our seeing… it is mentioned almost incidentally, “the water that had become wine,” as the steward who tastes it has no idea where it came from. But the servants know. The diakonois who were running around kicking up dust as they sought to do what Jesus told them to do. They know.

The steward makes a pronouncement: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

And there’s another one. A word, a weighty, symbol-soaked word: Now. Because, as it turns out, Jesus’ hour has come. And we have confirmation in the very next verse: Jesus did this, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.

And all this might prompt us to wonder, and even ask: Really? Wine? In a world filled with hurting people? People in need of cures, and the restoration of their sight, and the ability to walk, and release from oppression? Into that world Jesus comes, and his very first public act, the first sign pointing to his mission and manifesting his glory, is to make sure no one is bothered by the lack of wine at a wedding? It’s so strange, on the surface, that one scholar calls it “the gratuitous generosity of God.”[ii]

What is a wedding supposed to be about, anyway? Isn’t it supposed to be about love? Well, yes. And what could be a greater sign of love, of the gratuitous generosity of God, than Jesus’ death on the cross?

The gospel of John has a view of the cross that is unique in scripture. John sees it as the manifestation of Jesus’ glory. This can be very hard for us, and something the other gospels don’t embrace in the same way. In the other gospels, God transforms what is a truly dreadful, evil act of execution into something life-giving and glorious. John sees the crucifixion itself as glorious, because it tells us of the lengths to which God is willing to go to save lost and suffering humanity. For John, this is the fullness of God’s love revealed.

And what is a wedding supposed to be about, if not love?

And so John bookends his gospel with these two stories, because the miracle of the wine, at the wedding feast in Cana, is dripping with foreshadowing.

The mother of Jesus appears exactly twice in the gospel. Here, at the wedding, and later, at the cross.

Jesus transforms water into the most excellent wine at the wedding feast. Before Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit, he’ll drink sour wine held to his mouth in a sponge.

Jesus’ first sign is given at a wedding, an occasion for joy and celebration. And it concerns wine, which Amos tells us, will flow on the mountains on the day of God’s salvation. And the wine is connected forever with Jesus’ blood, which flows from his side as he hangs on the cross.

And about that idea of Jesus as the bridegroom… well, he is, except probably not in the way those scholars claim. Throughout scripture we find key passages like this one in Isaiah, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). God, in the moment of saving God’s people, is described as a bridegroom. And in the other gospels, in Matthew and Mark and Luke, Jesus refers to himself as bridegroom: ‘Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”’ [Luke 5:34]. Jesus is the great bridegroom, and all those who follow him, and listen to him, and kick up dust as they hurry to do what he tells them—they, we, are his bride. And, as John told us from the first words of the first chapter, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

This is a story of what the poet Richard Wilbur called in a wedding toast he composed for his son, “sweet excess”:

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

This first sign in this gospel of signs and symbols and weighty words makes no earthly sense. But it makes sense from the vantage point of earth and heaven bending together, as they do in Jesus. The sign points us towards God’s extravagant love and gratuitous generosity. God’s love chooses to bless us. And the blessings brim, and overflow, and never run out. We see it at the wedding, we see it at the cross: they are both all about love. And we see it at every moment in between, where there will be healings of eyes and legs and relationships. But the first sign we receive is a sign, if nothing else, of love, flowing, overflowing, enough, and more than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Strong’s Concordance G-1249: diakonos.
[ii] Kathryn Schifferdecker, in “I Love to Tell the Story: Narrative Lectionary Podcast 111: Wedding at Cana.”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Come and See: A Sermon on John 1:35-51

"Calling Disciple" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

At first, it feels like people realizing there’s a celebrity in their midst. Or maybe, this is high school, and the nerdy kids finally have a brush with the really cool kid. But there is more, much more.

As today’s passage begins, John the Baptist sees Jesus again, and he calls out: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And for just a minute, he does sound a bit like the captain of the math club who sees the varsity football star and wants to be a part, even in a small way, of his glory. And even though life as we know it has taken its toll on that biblical metaphor, and most of us are far more likely to associate that word, “Lamb,” with something we enjoy occasionally for dinner, the fact remains that the name John has assigned to Jesus has incredibly troubling overtones. In its first appearances in scripture, the word “lamb” is associated with wealth—barter, purchase. After that, the lamb appears as a sacrifice to be offered to God to atone for sin. To call Jesus the Lamb of God this early in the gospel is to make an entirely anachronistic claim about him—how could John know? How could he guess? How could he imagine? That in Jesus would be the capacity to purchase something. That through Jesus a sacrifice would be enacted.

But I am getting way ahead of myself

Two of John’s disciples (a word that really means, “learners”—the people who have been learning from John) see Jesus, and they hear John call him “Lamb,” and decide to investigate. And so they start following him around, and Jesus—who is not, in fact, playing the “cool kid,” he is far too welcoming for that—turns to them and absolutely cuts to the chase. “What are you looking for?” He asks. They respond with a question that sounds kind of bizarre, the sort of thing you say when you don’t have the nerve to say what you really want to say. At first, they use the title of respect given to teachers of holy law. “Rabbi,” they ask, “Where are you staying?” Jesus answers, “Come and see.” And then they go and hang out together, all afternoon.

What if they could have really heard the full implication of Jesus’ question: What are you looking for? What if they could have asked what they truly wanted to ask?

What if they could have said, “We want someone to guide us.”

Or, “We want someone to serve as a still point and sure foundation in a frightening and changing world.”

Or maybe, “We want someone to be with us, someone we can lean on when life gets hard.”

Or even, “We want someone to help us see the big picture, to give us a sense of where we are in the grand scheme of things.”

But are not able to ask for what they really want, and so instead they have a tour of the place Jesus is staying—my money’s on Bethany, he really likes this one family there. And whatever happens that afternoon, whatever words are exchanged between them—we don’t know, it all happens offstage—whatever Jesus shows them, or tells them, or awakens in them, it’s as if a match is lit. One of the two, Andrew, hurries to see his brother Simon. He tells him, “We have found the Messiah.”

And in that moment we know. They entered trepidatious. They entered wary. They were respectful—they called him Rabbi. But now they call him Messiah—Anointed one. Leader. Savior.

And then we get a taste of what it might have been like for Andrew and the other one, the one whose name we never learn, hanging out that afternoon.

Jesus meets Simon, and says, “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m going to give you a new name now. I think I’ll call you Rocky.”

Then he meets Philip, and tells him, simply “Follow me.”

And then there’s Nathanael. Nathanael, who sits under a fig tree—symbolic of his interest in holy things, the knowledge of good and evil—and whose interest in all these things has given him the heart of a skeptic, and also some geographically-based prejudices. Nathanael, who hears about Jesus and all but rolls his eyes, saying, “He’s from WHERE?” Until Jesus claps eyes on him, and reads him like a book, and he all but falls to his knees, stammering, “You are the Son of God!”

It is all very unsettling. No one leaves an encounter with Jesus unchanged. No one comes away from his searching gaze without being stirred up, read-like-a-book, re-named, and issued an invitation: Come and see.

It is unsettling, because these people who have suddenly found themselves in Jesus’ orbit have received answers to longings they didn’t even verbalize—they have received THE answer.

They wanted someone to guide them.

They wanted someone to serve as a still point and sure foundation in a frightening and changing world.

They wanted someone to be with them, someone they could lean on when life got hard.

They wanted someone to help them see the big picture.

They found all this in Jesus. And more.

Except that guy (or gal?) in verse 39 whose name we don’t know. Who is that unnamed disciple, that anonymous learner?

Actually, it’s you. One of the beautiful and haunting features of this telling of Jesus’ story is the way in which it leaves a space for us, the readers of generations to come. Through the unnamed disciple we too are invited to see how an encounter with Jesus can stir us up, leave us feeling we’ve been read-like-a-book, re-named, and issued an invitation. As you read along in the gospel of John and find traces of the unnamed disciple, go ahead. Insert your own name in there. Take the ride. Go and see.

Yesterday, eighteen Jesus-followers, all called by this church to be deacons and elders, gathered together for a retreat. In that time of learning, we shared what our faith in Jesus has meant to us.

Our faith is a guide, shows us a path.

Our faith is a sure foundation in a sometimes frightening and ever-changing world.

Our faith is a source of strength and consolation when life gets hard.

Our faith gives us a sense where we are in the grand scheme of things.

And now, eight of the eighteen will come forward to see how service in his church will surprise them, transform them, and challenge them. Get ready, R, M, J, C, C, B, M and J, because Jesus will stir you up. He will read you like a book. He will give you a new name. He will keep issuing this persistent invitation into deeper relationship with God: come, and see. Come and see! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Who Are You? A Sermon on John 1:19-34

St. John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Scripture can be found here...

Who are you?

It’s a great question, and depending on the context, one that we can choose to answer in different ways. For example, when we are pulled over because we were driving just a hair over the speed limit, and the nice State Trooper asks for our ID, the question is implied. Who are you? Are you a habitual speeder? Are you a criminal? And of course, no matter what the truth is, we want to say, “No, officer, of course not officer, I was just… distracted.”

How different from the question at, say, a holiday party, when you are hovering on the outskirts of a friendly conversation, festive beverage in hand, and someone turns to you with a smile to ask, “And who are you?” And the impulse is to say, “I’m Peg’s friend from church!” Because, here, we want to say something affirmative, not who we’re not, but who we are, and more specifically, who we know, the name of the person with whom we want to be identified. And if we say we know Peg, well. Then we’re in.

Who are you? We are still at the threshold of John’s gospel this week, and as the story of Jesus unfolds we are first introduced to someone else: John, who we learned last week was sent by God to testify—to give evidence, to tell the truth about—Jesus. But, as often happens when someone stands on a proverbial soapbox to share their sense of what God has told them, people who have worked to acquire some credentials in that particular arena start asking questions. John gets a visit from the religious authorities.

And they ask him: Who are you? And he affirms—he does not deny, but affirms: I am not the Messiah.

John tells us, first, who he is not. For our purposes, as people who will be reading this gospel together for the next four months, I want to do the same thing. The “John” who figures so prominently in the first several chapters of this gospel is not the person for whom the gospel is named. He is also not the person who wrote the gospel (who may or may not have been named John). He is not one of the twelve, Jesus’ inner circle of disciples.

Also, he is not the Messiah.

Our passage uses Messiah. In Hebrew it’s Mashiach. In Greek it’s Christos. We commonly hear it as Christ. All these words mean, literally, “the anointed.” But for Jews in the first century, ‘Messiah’ carried layer upon layer of meaning. The kings of God’s covenant people were anointed. The priests who served in the temple were anointed. Leaders chosen for particular service—such as the judges—were anointed. Thanks in part to the judges, the word came to carry the meaning of ‘savior’ along with it, and so the Persian king Cyrus the Great was called ‘Messiah,’ because, as a somewhat more benign conqueror, he defeated the Babylonian empire and allowed Jews to return to their homeland.

By the time John answers, I am not the Messiah, Jews had come to understand it as referring to a savior who would come to definitively release God’s people from all oppression. It was assumed that such a savior would be a military leader, a politician, a king. 

Who are you? the religious leaders asked John. I am not the Messiah, he answered. Well, are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? they asked him. No. He said. NO. Who are you? What do you say about yourself?

Who are you?

At the threshold of the Jesus story, we are confronted with this question. It’s not a question we entertain in depth every day, of course, though certain life experiences may bring it to the forefront. Our “Thoughts to Ponder” contains lyrics from the song that opens the TV show “CSI” every week, a true story of the moment when Pete Townshend, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Who, found himself confronted by the question. One morning in the late 1970’s he really did awaken from a night of binge drinking in a doorway in what was at the time one of the seedier districts of London. Who are you? the song repeatedly, insistently, asks. For this world-known celebrity and rock star (famous enough to be recognized by the police officer who found him and sent him home), the song alludes to another answer. An alcoholic? A drug addict? Certainly, someone in trouble.

You don’t have to wake up from a bender to know that you don’t exactly have… a handle on things. We can be swept away from a sense of self, who we really are, who we were created to be, by our jobs, our responsibilities, our internet use, or our circle of friends as easily as by addictions to alcohol or drugs or gambling or food.

Who are you? Not the Messiah, that’s for sure.

Maybe the first step towards wisdom, towards the light, as our gospel described Jesus last week, is knowing who and what we are not. Maybe we only begin to understand who we are, in light of the clear and liberating reality of who we definitely know ourselves not to be.

I am not the Messiah.

Then, what do you say about yourself?

John says, I am a voice. A voice, crying out in the wilderness. A voice like Isaiah’s, saying Clear a path, because the Lord is coming, and all I know about him is this: it would take a better man than me to untie his sandal.

Do you notice that the religious authorities ignore this statement? And it’s only here that we learn one of the key things about John—that he’s the one we know as John the Baptist, he’s that John. John has been offering baptism, which, for both Jews and Christians, was (and is) a sign of embracing a new way of life.

John offers baptism, a chance for everyone to begin again. And five days into the New Year, still at the threshold of 2014, we all know that this is the time when, traditionally, people at least talk a little bit about the possibility of trying to embrace a new way of life.[i]  But before we can know what (if anything) we want to change about ourselves, before we can have a sense of how we might improve, or what fresh start we might want to embrace, we have to come face to face with the same question that John answers and doesn’t answer. Who are you? And we have to give serious consideration to his non-answer: I am not the Messiah.

Faith begins when we recognize that we are not God. Of course, we Christians affirm that God created us in the divine image; that we are members of the mystical body of Christ; that the Holy Spirit is present and moving in the world and in the church and in us. In the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament we are about to share, we enact that conviction in a tangible way: we are reminded that God’s life and our lives are joined as we eat the bread and drink from the cup. But the reality of life in a broken world—even a post-Christmas, God-Is-With-Us world—is that we are broken too, beautiful and broken children of God, and that in our brokenness, we recognize, we are not God. Only God is God.

John the Baptist, our first guide as we enter into the story of Jesus, shows us by example how to prepare for our encounter with Jesus.

We ponder who we are, and recognize who we are not.

We consider our baptism, and wonder how to embrace again, anew, the way of life shown to us in Jesus.

And then we listen: listen for that voice crying out in the wilderness, whether it is the voice of a prophet, or maybe even the voice bubbling up from a deep and forgotten place in our own heart.

Who are you? You are one who has prepared a way for the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] The three most common New Year’s resolutions: Losing weight, getting organized; saving money.