That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: John the Baptist

What are you looking for?

lamb

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector of Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

What are you looking for?

That’s the question Jesus puts to those disciples of John the Baptist who follow him in this morning’s Gospel.

What are you looking for?

It’s a reasonable question to put to a churchful of people on a chilly January morning. No one comes to church by accident. Did you know that? You may think you’re here because your mother made you come, or because you simply show up out of habit week after week. But no one comes by accident. Whether we recognize it or not, we have all been brought here–assembled here–for a purpose. We are all here to seek, to search, and to find.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that can, ultimately, be put to all humankind. For the truth is, we are creatures made to seek and search; to yearn and hope; to quest and to find. We are men and women made to look for something–for Someone.

What are you looking for?

The cosmos itself poses the question. This world of beauty and complexity and pleasure and delight urges us on: “Keep looking!” All the good things of this life have been given to us as gifts–as love letters from the Giver. The glories of our earth–glories given to us to explore and enjoy–are meant to spur us in our quest; to whet our appetite for their Source. We are meant to be looking. We are meant to find.

But something has gone wrong. The long story of the human race is the story of our turning away from our ultimate Destination and settling for the signposts pointing the way to him. It is the story of our turning away from the Creator to find satisfaction with his creatures.

That is, perhaps, the simplest definition of Sin. Not sins, plural: the many individual “things we ought not to have done” that you and I do each day–or the many good things we fail to do. Those are sins, plural. But Sin, singular, is the sour source of them all. It is the rejection of God for the things God has made. It is the attempt to end our seeking too soon. It is the vain effort to sate our hunger for the eternal with the temporal and the corruptible.

And corruptible they are. The good things of earth cease to be good when we make them ends unto themselves. The delights of this life become dust and ashes in our embrace when we hold onto them alone. The pleasures of existence become pain and suffering and shame when we seek them with all our heart.

What are you looking for in those corners of your life of which you are ashamed and afraid? What are you looking for in your endless seeking after wealth and worthiness? What are you looking for in your quest for status and significance? What are you looking for in your web searches and your eating habits? What are you looking for in your self-medicating and self-loathing? What are you looking for?

John knew. John the Baptist knew what he was looking for. He knew because he had been readied. He knew because he had been given the sign. He knew because he was a prophet fulfilling the work of a prophet. He knew because the Lord had told him, “The One on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

John was looking for the Lamb of God: the Creator become flesh for the sake of his lost creation. John was looking for one who would take away the Sin, singular, of the world: who would submerge the people of God in the Spirit of God so that their hearts would never again settle for anything but God. John was looking for the Anointed one who would save his people, and all people.

And when John saw Jesus he declared to his disciples: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

What are you looking for? It is here in his embrace. What are you looking for? It is found in his gift of himself. What are you looking for? He holds it out to you in his Word and his Sacraments, as he stokes and sates the hunger of his people, calling us to go beyond the gifts to continue seeking after the Giver.

“What are you looking for?” Christ Jesus asks it of you, today, as he asked it of those disciples of John long ago. And as he invited them, he invites you too. Stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross, the Source and Summit of all our longing bids us, “Come and see.” AMEN.

 

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“Christ, when for us you were baptized…”

the-baptism-of-christ

(“The Baptism of Christ” by Giotto, c. 1305)

A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany:

The Baptism of Our Lord

January 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, SC

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Forget everything you think you know about baptism. Set aside the mental image of beautiful babies swaddled in heirloom lace smiling, or screaming, or looking up with shock and alarm as a priest pours a little water over their heads. Put away the sight of smartly-dressed parents and godparents bravely attempting to juggle Prayer Books, lit candles, wet infants, and bored older siblings, all while trying to answer strange questions about Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. Forget everything you think you know about baptism.

For today we commemorate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if we are to understand what this day means and why it matters, we must banish from our brains everything we usually associate with the word “baptism.”

I say this not because our normal associations and images of baptism are bad or wrong. The baptisms that it has been my privilege to perform are among my greatest joys in ministry, and the many meaningful traditions woven into those celebrations are good and holy. But the fact of the matter is that we will utterly and completely miss the point of the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John if we weigh down that event with any of our customary associations; any of our accumulated images; any of our cultural expectations for a baptism.

For as we go today in heart and mind to the banks of the river Jordan, we find a scene very different indeed from an ordinary baptismal Sunday at Trinity Cathedral. St Luke carries us to a time and place that is tense, dangerous, dusty, and dirty. As we hear again the preaching of John the Baptist, we find ourselves in the midst of a crowd fraught with expectation—with hopes, and with fears. What we find today when Jesus goes out to be baptized is a tangled mess of politics and theology—a thicket of national expectation and longed-for personal transformation.

So I say once again, let us forget everything we think we know about baptism. And then let us wade, deeper and deeper, into the muddy waters of the Jordan.

What we notice first of all is the rampant speculation that suffuses this scene. “The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”

Why? Why this eager expectation? Why this wondering about John’s identity and purpose? The practice of baptism—of ritually washing away sins—was not something that ordinarily associated with the Messiah. There’s nothing uniquely Messianic about baptism.

But by baptizing the penitent sinners who came out to meet him, John was doing something that the people expected the Messiah to do. For the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, was to be the one who would purify the nation of Israel—the one who would turn the hearts of the people back to their God—the one who would renew and restore God’s covenant with his chosen.

And to many people, it seemed that this was precisely what John was doing. Because he was calling the people to repentance—because he was openly castigating the spiritual and political leaders of the time—because he was plunging his followers into the waters of the Jordan as a symbolic way of washing away their sins, people assumed that John himself was God’s instrument for the restoration of the nation of Israel. And so, ruled and ridden by their expectations, they willingly readjusted their hopes and reinterpreted God’s promises to fit the facts in front of them.

“Perhaps this business of baptism was what God had promised all along!” they mused. “Perhaps all God meant had been a symbolic restoration for Israel: a spiritual cleansing.” Perhaps some of the crowd listening to John recalled the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” and said, as they watched John plunging people into the river, “Maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for and longing for and looking for.”

After all, Jewish rituals often called for a washing. Surely John’s baptism was the greatest of washings! Jewish tradition told the story of the people crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Surely John’s baptism was a new crossing over, a new arrival into the Promised Land! Jewish hope and longing was fixed on a coming savior—One on whom God’s favor would rest, One who would set their nation free from the bonds of foreign oppression and from the exploitation of their own corrupted leaders. Surely John’s baptism marked him as the man! Surely this must be what God meant when he promised a Messiah!

John wastes no time demolishing all their faulty speculations.

“I baptize you with water: but One who is more powerful than I is coming.” You see, in their eager expectation, the people were willing to settle for the opening act. In their desperation for deliverance, the crowd was ready to accept something that was merely preparatory. In their consuming certainty that the time was fulfilled, and that the Messiah had come at last, the nation was busy shrinking down God’s intentions to fit within the scope of what they could see and understand.

But John, the faithful forerunner of the Lord, will not allow the expectation of the people to turn him from the fulfillment of his true mission. “One who is more powerful than I is coming…and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s great work simply lays the foundation on which the ministry of Jesus will rise. Neither John the Baptist nor the God he serves will settle for the silly speculations of a shortsighted people.

For God’s purpose is not less than what the people had been expecting, but infinitely greater. God’s plans do not require a downsizing from real-world, practical deliverance to mere spiritual cleansing. On the contrary, God has something greater planned than what any of the people dared to ask or imagine.

Jesus’ ministry will not be concerned with the restoration of the visible, political nation of Israel. But instead Jesus’ ministry will create a new nation, a new chosen people. Jesus’ baptism will not be a ritual washing with water to restore some notion of religious purity. But instead, Jesus’ baptism is a soaking—an immersion—in the Spirit of the Living God, the power of the Living God, the will of the Living God. Jesus’ anointing as the Messiah, the holy deliverer of Israel, will not be inferred from his deeds or interpreted out of his preaching or conferred by the acclamation of the crowds. But instead, Jesus’ anointing comes from the Holy Spirit himself, and his identity as the great deliverer of God’s chosen people—and indeed of all people—is confirmed by the voice of God the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, this is the work that he inaugurates. When the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form as a dove, this is the work that he seals and strengthens Jesus to do. When the Father rends the heavens and speaks his words of blessing and love on the Son, the fullness of divinity embraces the fullness of humanity, and a new union between earth and heaven is begun.

And that is where we come back into this story. For when we baptize here at this font, it is not with the baptism of John. That was an outward baptism—a sign and a symbol only. But the baptism with which we baptize—the baptism with which, by God’s grace, we have been baptized—is an inward baptism. It is a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and indeed with fire.

The baptism with which we are baptized carries, through water and the Spirit, the whole ministry of Christ. The baptism with which we are baptized is a baptism, a plunging, into the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus. The baptism with which we are baptized is a forge, and in that forge we are remade. The baptism with which we are baptized is a furnace, and in that furnace we are cleansed forever.

When we come to the font for baptism, whatever our outward age, inwardly we are infants. We come helpless, to receive what we could never earn; to be immersed in depths we could never reach; to die a death we could never face; to rise to a new life we cannot imagine. In baptism, God reveals a plan and a purpose—for each of us and for all of us—that exceeds our grandest expectations and surpasses our wildest hopes. For in baptism, we are made members of the Body of our Risen Lord. In Baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that today we must set aside every image and expectation we have of baptism. That is not entirely accurate. What we must do, in fact, is to allow this day to work backwards into every baptism we have ever seen, and forwards into every baptism we will see. We must allow this day to work back into our own baptisms.

This day, this celebration of the Baptism of Christ, calls us to glimpse in every baptism the unseen work of the Holy Spirit. This day calls us to give thanks that in baptism we follow the footsteps of our Lord. This day calls us to remember that in baptism we have died with Christ. This day calls us to rejoice that in baptism we have been raised with Christ. This day, at last, calls us to hear again those words spoken to Christ, and to know that by God’s grace they are spoken to each of us as well: “You are my son; my daughter; my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

AMEN.

“One who is more powerful than I is coming…”

Rembrandt_-_Preaching_of_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Gemäldegalerie_Berlin

(“The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist”, Rembrandt, 1634/45)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Well what do you think of John the Baptist’s “good news”? That’s what St Luke the Evangelist calls the strange, disturbing passage we’ve heard this morning.

At the end of John’s tirade, Luke tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

I’ll ask again: what do you think of John’s “good news”?

His words are harsh words—words of judgment, words of condemnation, words of wrath. He calls his listeners snakes, counts them no better than scattered stones, compares them to unfruitful trees, and commands them to change their lives, utterly and completely, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Most startling of all, John warns that his whole ministry—his ranting and his raving and his baptizing out in the wilderness—is merely preparation for someone else who is coming: and from John’s description offered here, that someone else seems, if possible, even more unsettling and terrifying than John himself.

And all of this is called “good news” by Luke the Gospel-writer.

How can that be? How can this difficult, troubling Gospel passage actually contain a joyful, life-giving Gospel message—an announcement that is truly Good News?

If we would find the Good News in our passage this morning we must begin where John begins: with the possibility of repentance. The key to understanding this passage lies hidden within the very concept that causes us to squirm. For if John’s call to repentance is what makes us fear him and want to turn away from him, John’s call to repentance is also an announcement of great Good News.

The possibility of repentance is always Good News, if only we can hear it. For wrapped up in the summons to repent is both an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong and an opportunity to set them right again. The exhortation to repent is always a word of both justice and mercy—both the stern warning that the path we are pursuing will lead to destruction, and the loving invitation to turn around, to turn back, to turn again and escape the fate we have made for ourselves with our words and deeds.

The call to repentance is hard news, because it confronts us with the justice of a God who cannot abide evil. But the call to repentance is also Good News, because it comforts us with the love of a God “who desireth not the death of [sinners], but rather that [we] may turn from [our] wickedness and live.”

Repentance was John’s mission and message. He proclaimed to the people who came out to him and the wilderness—and by all accounts a great many did come out to him in the wilderness—the possibility of change: of living in a new and better way.

When the crowds—crowds including hated tax-collectors and cruel soldiers—came to him in fear and trembling, knowing that they had made messes of their lives and yet desperate to set things to rights, John could actually give them something to do.

“Live lives of humble generosity!” John said. “Don’t take advantage of your power and position!” John said. “Dwell content with what you have been given!” John said.

In John’s call to repentance, we hear a message of hope; an announcement that things can be different; a promise that people need not live forever in the weary wickedness of their old, warped ways. In John’s call to repentance we hear the beginning of Good News.

But it is only just the beginning of Good News.

For if John brings the assurance that change is possible, he also forces us to ask, plainly and honestly, whether change has occurred. What happens when we set the possibility of transformation alongside the record of our human reality—either our individual realities or the reality of our world? What happens when we widen our focus from looking merely at the invitation to live better, fuller, more faithful lives, and turn to see how and when and whether that invitation has been accepted?

If repentance is possible, then why haven’t we done it?

For you and I know that we are called to share of our goods and resources with which God has blessed us. Why then do we guard so fiercely our material wealth and the security it brings us?

You and I know that we are called to sacrifice our own advantages—our own power and privilege—for the sake of lifting up the lowly and the least. Why then do we cling so tightly to our positions and pretensions?

You and I know that we are called to live lives of contentment and satisfaction. Why then do we grasp so greedily and strive so relentlessly and work unendingly and worry unceasingly after the things we do not have but for which we lust and crave?

Over all these things, John the Baptist has spoken a word of judgment this morning. Have you heeded his warning? I confess that I often ignore it.

John has set before us the mercy and patience of a God who waits for us to return to him. Have you seized that opportunity? I fail to each day.

John has called us to repentance. Have you borne fruits worthy of that call? Beloved, in the light of this morning’s passage I look with shame on the bare branches of my heart and find myself tempted to despair.

For if the possibility of repentance is all that John the Baptist has to proclaim, then indeed our initial suspicions were right: there is no Good News here at all.

But John himself does not end his message with merely a call to repent. The possibility of repentance is not all that John has to proclaim.

For while John’s mission and ministry was all about repentance, repentance was never an end in itself.

Yes, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s justice and mercy. But he did so in preparation for a new and more startling expression of that justice—for a new and better working out of that mercy.

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone is coming, says John, who can do more than symbolically wash away the sins that cling to us so closely. Someone is coming, says John, who has the power to wash us and purge us and cleanse us within. Someone is coming, says John, who can remake us and renew us by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Terrifying as this sounds, beloved, this is the best news we hear this morning!

John does not leave his hearers—John does not leave us!—scrambling and struggling for a repentance that we can never fully achieve. But John announced then and John announces now that God himself is coming to complete the work that we cannot even begin without God’s help.

God is coming to effect the transformation we know we need but cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

God is coming, and he will sift us as wheat is sifted: breaking away that which is useless and worthless from each individual grain, and preserving for his use that which he has given for his good purposes.

For the full extent of John’s Good News this morning—the full extent of the Good News for all time, dear people—is that the God who cannot abide our sin has come himself to bear the penalty of our sin. The God who calls us to repent is working in us to bring about the fruits of repentance. The God who made each of us for a purpose is coming to fulfill that purpose in each of us and all of us.

“Our hope and expectation,

O Jesus, now appear!

Arise, thou Sun so longed for,

above this darkened sphere!

With hearts and hands uplifted,

we plead, O Lord, to see

the day of earth’s redemption,

and ever be with thee!”1

AMEN.

1-Verse 3 of “Rejoice! rejoice, believers”, Hymn 68, The Hymnal 1982

Who are you?

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014

by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Who are you?

That’s the deceptively simple question posed by the priests and Levites in today’s Gospel passage. They have come down from Jerusalem—down from the precincts of the Temple and from the carefully ordered life of the Holy City—into the wilderness. They have come down to ask John the Baptist that three-word question: “Who are you?”

But the very fact that they have come all this way—the fact that they have left the seat of their own power and prestige to interrogate a wild prophet in a wild place—shows just how important the question is, and how much is riding on John’s answer.

“Who are you?”

Perhaps for some of them it is a hopeful, expectant question. Will John reveal that he is the long-awaited Messiah, the long-awaited redeemer of the nation of Israel, the long-awaited rescuer of the people of God?

“Who are you?”

Surely for some of them it is an anxious, fearful question. Will John challenge their authority as the religious leaders of the nation, upending their orderly traditions and taking away the power of their privilege—the prestige of their position?

“Who are you?”

So much is at stake in that simple, powerful question. Their future, John’s fate, and the destiny of God’s chosen people all hang on John’s reply.

Two thousand years later, that question has not lost its power. “Who are you?” is a question that you and I face frequently, sometimes with the direct accusation heard in the voices of the priests and Levites, and sometimes subtly, quietly, implicitly. It is a question we hear from others who want to understand us better, and it is a question we pose to ourselves in the quiet of our own hearts. It is a question we answer constantly, both through our words and in our deeds—with our priorities and by our decisions.

“Who are you?”

The question comes, and I might answer with a nod to my national identity, saying simply that I am an American, a citizen of “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

Or I could answer with respect to my education, pointing to the schools and institutions that have molded my mind and shaped my character.

Or I could answer with reference to my family, defining myself through the long line of those who came before me (which, I’ve come to realize, is a very popular choice here in South Carolina) or by the great web of those now living who mean the most to me.

Or I could answer by describing my work—the satisfaction I derive from my labors, the self-esteem I gain through the faithful use of my gifts.

“Who are you?”

There are so many ways to answer that basic, essential question. And yet, in these final months of 2014, what we find is that many of our safe, standard answers have begun to crack and crumble.

“Who are you?” comes the question, as this weary year draws to a close.

If we answer by citing our identity as Americans—by pointing to the values that define us as a people and to the commitments we hold most sacred—then surely the last days and weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and Washington, D.C., and all across our nation must give us pause. Can we still claim to be a nation with liberty and justice for all? Do we still recognize ourselves amidst the swirling turmoil of racial unrest, and in the face of serious questions about the fairness and equality of our justice system? How do we understand ourselves and our principles in light of the revelation this week that the use of torture in the War on Terror—torture done in my name and in your name—was far more widespread than we first realized? Those of us who claim the name “American” must surely now begin to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

Or what about the schools and institutions that shape our lives? The last month has been filled with news of disturbing allegations about student behavior at one of our nation’s most prestigious universities. Whatever the veracity of the claims that lit this conflagration, the firestorm of pain and betrayal burns on as each day as and more and more women and men from more and more schools come forward to tell how they were victimized and exploited in the very environments where they hoped to grow in knowledge and deepen in wisdom. Do we still recognize ourselves when we are forced to consider the dark side of bright college years? How do we understand ourselves when we learn of disgusting abuse and inadequate oversight in the places we trust to safeguard intellectual integrity and develop sterling moral character? Those of us who have been formed by the gifts and culture of academia must find the courage to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we?Who am I?”

Or consider the state of your relationships this holiday season. As the drive to acquire infects each aspect of our interaction with spouses and friends, with children and with parents, how do you understand your place in your own family? Do you still recognize the bonds that tie you to those you love and care for? Those of us who feel ourselves neck deep and near drowning in the rising tide of consumerism and crass consumption—who find ourselves alone with technology even in houses full of people–who chase after a security and a satisfaction that we know our stuff can never bring—we must beg the grace to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

Or at last, beloved, as we come to the end of another year, look to the work to which you have given yourself in the twelve months now almost gone. Has you striving brought you peace and pleasure? Has your toil guaranteed you goodwill? As you look back over what you have accomplished—over the way that you have spent 365 days that cannot be recovered—do you find yourself confused and frustrated, demanding of the reflection in the mirror, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”

The stresses and strains of this fall and winter have show how all of our ordinary answers to that simple question are feeble and fragile. All of the answers that look to what our work has made us or what our family has told us or what our society has decided for us or even what we ourselves most desire deep within us cannot bear the weight of that basic question: “Who are you?”

And this is why John the Baptist’s exchange with the religious authorities matters. For the truth is that all of the anxieties and uncertainties present when we ask ourselves the question “Who are you?” are present, too, for the priests and Levites interrogating John. And all of the various, ultimately unsatisfying answers available for us are available, too, for John.

“Who are you?” comes the question, and John could respond with his national identity as an Israelite, or point to the heritage of his forebears.

“Who are you?” they ask, and John could answer with the work that he has accomplished and the way that he has gone about it.

“Who are you?” they demand, and John could claim for himself a title of importance or a position of significance or a place in the life of his people that would strike his questioners dumb with terror and with joy.

“Who are you?” they cry with desperation, and John turns to answer them.

But John’s answer to the great question flows not from his background or his accomplishments or even from what the Pharisees want and fear him to be. Rather, John’s reply points beyond himself–beyond what he has done, beyond what his people long for and fear–and points instead to the One who sent him, the One to whom he bares witness.

“I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ as said the Prophet Isaiah.”

“I am but the fulfillment of prophecy. I am but a voice in the wilderness crying. I am but the forerunner and messenger of One greater than I.”

John’s identity depends not on John, but on Jesus. John knows who he is not by what he does or by what others want him to do or to be, but because of who God is and what God has called him to do and to be. His identity is not founded upon the yearning of his people or the anxiety of the leaders or even on the self-determination and self-resolution of John himself. But for John the Baptist, everything—everything—stands on the promises and purposes of God.

For John is the fulfillment of what Isaiah professed and prophesied when he told of how “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Isaiah, both in his own ministry and in expectation of John the Baptist, paints for us a picture of a human being fully alive, a human being most fully himself—and behold, that is a human being whom the Lord has claimed and consecrated wholly and completely.

“Who are you?” comes the eternal question, and from the lips of Isaiah, and John, and Mary the mother of Jesus comes the ready answer, “I am the servant of the Lord—and so I am free. My whole being exults in my God—and so I am truly myself. I am the Lord’s—I know myself only because he first knew me, and all my hope and my confidence are in him alone.”

So what about for us, beloved?

“Who are you?” rises the accusing cry to nations and institutions—our nation, and our institutions—whose actions cry out for God’s just judgment.

“Who are you?” cuts the incisive question into lives and hearts—my life and heart, and your life and heart—that are not as they should be; not as we would have them be.

“Who are you?” comes the demanding query in a time when the very foundations of our facades are quaking and the categories we once relied on are tottering and we find ourselves exhausted by the question itself.

What will be our answer in that day when the question comes to us? How will we define or excuse ourselves? Will we rest our hopes on the roles which our social place and status have thrust upon us? Will we stitch together our identity out of the passing fads and catchphrases of popular spirituality and self-help manuals?

Or will we, with John the Baptist, point only and always to the Living God at work in us? Will our deepest identity be not a monument to our own wealth and workmanship—our own insight and enlightenment—but, like Isaiah, will it be a marker, a signpost, a witness to the One who has called us to his service and who has empowered us for his work? Will our hearts, with Mary, sing the story of what God has done for us? Will our eyes show the joyful strain of watching for his return?

Dear people, our hope for renewal in our nation and in our homes—in our institutions and in our own hearts—lies not in our own power and striving but in the promise of this season. For we, with John the Baptist, have become witnesses to the true light. We have heard the announcement of the Word made flesh. We have seen the power of the God who came down to stir up the muck and mire of our existence—to bear our griefs and to carry our sorrows.

Our hope is in the promise of Advent: the assurance that the God who came once in great humility will come again with power and great glory to judge both the living and the dead, and to set this world to rights. Our hope is in the promise and the prayer that between the first and the second coming of Christ, God has not left us comfortless.

But by grace and with great might, he is still at work among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he has come “speedily [to] help and deliver us.” In his love and mercy, he knows us, and transforms us, and so he is making us truly ourselves.

“Who are you?” comes the question. May we ever make our ready reply: “I am the Lord’s, and his alone.”

AMEN.

“I just want an answer!”

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

 -Matthew 11:1-15

“I just want an answer,” moaned the man at the airline’s customer service desk. The tone was uncanny: a terrible blend of demanding, pleading, and keening. Sitting in the first row of the waiting area at a crowded gate, I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation with the airline employee. He had been stuck in Charlotte for thirty-six hours. Snowstorms snarled the whole middle of the country, and this poor man found himself trapped in North Carolina. Each new itinerary the airline produced was almost immediately rendered irrelevant by worsening weather. Every flight he got on soon got cancelled. The young woman working at the desk tried to remain upbeat and helpful. But the man had no more time for her evasions and phony assurances. He was beyond anger, beyond frustration, beyond worry, beyond hope. He just wanted to get home. He just wanted an answer.

Sitting in his prison cell, John the Baptist knew he didn’t have much time left. He had defied Herod the king. Worse–much worse–he had upset Herod’s wife Herodias by calling into question the legality and morality of their marriage. (Herodias had divorced her first husband in order to marry his half-brother Herod. And you thought your family was dysfunctional…) His execution would come soon.

As a prophet and a servant of the Lord, John was not afraid of Herod’s wrath or Herodias’s spite. But before he died, John just wanted an answer. John wanted to know whether his work—his life spent as “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”—had been successful. John’s special task, a task for which he had been set apart since before his birth (before his conception, even) had been to make God’s people ready to receive the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. When his cousin Jesus came to him at the River Jordan to be baptized, John knew that he had at last seen the One for whom the people of Israel had been waiting—the One for whom his whole life had been given in service as a forerunner, a messenger, a preparer. When his arrest and imprisonment finally came, John could embrace suffering knowing that his work was finished, that he had see the Messiah, the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth.

But now, reports about Jesus’ ministry had reached John in his cell. This man from Nazareth wasn’t behaving like a Messiah. He wasn’t acting like the Anointed King of Israel, raising an army and making ready to rid his realm of Roman occupiers. Neither was he fulfilling his role as the great prophet-priest, preaching strict repentance, as John had, and purging God’s people of the unworthy, the unready, and the unwanted. Jesus wasn’t living into the Messianic identity that John and everyone else so cherished. And so from his dank dungeon, John sent messengers with the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s time was drawing near. His ministry was already ended. He just wanted an answer.

Notice how Jesus responds to his query. He doesn’t engage in a dispute with John’s disciples, shouting at them, “You’re looking for the wrong Messiah!” Neither does he appeal to John’s own experience, relaying the sarcastic message, “Well, you were there that day at the Jordan when the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended as a dove. What do you think?”

Rather than answer John’s question with his words, Jesus responds with his works. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus invites John’s disciples and John himself to set aside their expectations and notions about what a Messiah should be, and says “Look! Look and see what I am doing. I am indeed opposing the powers that oppress my people: the powers of sin and sickness—the reign of sorrow and death. I am indeed cleansing the children of Israel: purging their hearts and making ready their lives—announcing the Gospel, the Good News, to the poor and the lowly. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What answers are you searching for this Lent? Prayerfully consider whether you are asking the right questions, or whether the strength of your own expectations has shut your eyes to God’s promises and purposes. Though even prophets ponder the meaning of his words and works, still Christ Jesus commands us in our wonder: “Let anyone with ears, listen!”