God’s grace and peace to all of you this morning, on the eve of yet another turning of the year.
Yesterday my husband Andrew and I saw a dream become a reality. Long before we met one another we each sustained a love of travel. I had special connections to Southeast Asia and Andrew to the old Soviet Block. Our life before children was characterized by frequent travel, domestic and international. And our life since having kids….well you can probably guess what that’s looked like. Not as much travel; and what travel there is usually includes a kiddie pool and a waterslide. And yet, from our earliest months of marriage we set a goal to travel often with our children. After actually meeting Olia, our oldest, and Ingrid, our youngest, we determined that each of us would take special, individual trips with each of our girls. And yesterday I saw my Andrew and Olia off, as they embarked for Moscow, Russia to reconnect with dear old friends and take in the magical Russian Winter Carnival.
And as it goes with any big trip there are many preparations. There is travel shampoo, visas, gifts for friends abroad, vaccinations, charger convertors, bubble-wrapping fragile objects, etc. Many of these preparations are to proactively avoid potential problems. It really can be something to prepare for a week-long vacation, even if you’re not going along!
After seeing my beloved family off yesterday, I returned to our passage in John and couldn’t help but think- why is it so easy to prepare for a trip, or for a season such as Christmas, but so difficult and elusive even to prepare for Christ’s coming in our lives? Why isn’t this preparation equally if not more urgent, more clear? And how would our lives differ for the better if we, like John the Baptist, believed the coming of Christ was near and earnestly prepared for it?
I think one of the answers to these questions is fairly straightforward. We don’t prepare because the familiar voice of what must be done today far outweighs the unlikely one from the wilderness– the voice of the lesser-known- that God uses in our lives to communicate God’s will. In short, we’re not accustomed to listening for the Johns.
And, to be honest, neither were those living in first century Canaan. John the Baptist was himself an unlikely spokesperson for the Divine. While we may now view John as a spiritual giant and note this family connection to Jesus, to those in the ancient near east he was just one more spiritual fanatic, living a separatist, isolated life in the wilderness so to prove his devoutness to the one and true God. This is likely why John is said to wear camel hair and be eating locusts and honey in the other Gospels- he was probably an Essene, or a cultic member of the Qumran community that prepared for the Lord’s coming through isolation. He had no notoriety. No stature. No authority. He didn’t even have basic hygiene, from what we can tell.
And so it’s fairly easy to see why the Jews (as the text refers to them), a group of Sadducee leaders and Levites responsible for overseeing the temple at Jerusalem, sent representatives to question John at Bethany. Who is this unlikely voice? And what is he up to?
The Jews, of course, were waiting for one of three things: a messiah, the return of the Prophet Elijah (who never died), or another prophet. And John declares that he is none of these, but rather a simple, lowly servant of the Gospel, one “unworthy to untie the sandals” of the Christ who would come after him.
Who are those people in your life? Have you slowed down enough to take notice of those who faithfully serve without fanfare or recognition? Have you taken time to consider where wisdom might be found in your circle of friends and family? Or perhaps more poignantly, outside of your comfortable circle? Take note, for the voices of wisdom are more than likely embodied in those around you who have suffered, those who know the ostracism and social stigmas John was so familiar with. We can recall here the resounding message of the biblical wisdom literature, which reminds us that the true wisdom comes from a deep love of God. So whose voice are you listening to? Are you intentionally seeking out the voice of those who love the Lord with great fervor and prompt you to do the same? When was the last time you consciously listened to someone with seemingly no worldly influence, to an unlikely voice of God?
As a parent of a young child I often feel I have these opportunities, for as many of you know, crystal clear truth ne’er rung as clear as from the mouths of babes. But in my time here at Augustana I’ve also encountered that Holy-Spirit power in the unlikely voice of our memory impaired parishioners. Just last week I visited Mabel, an elderly sister in Christ, at a nearby memory care unit. The last time I visited Mabel I didn’t offer communion, because I was afraid she would be unable to ingest the bread. Mabel wasn’t able to speak or really communicate at all. We merely sat and stared together. She wasn’t able to communicate any desire for communion this time around either, but this time rather than assume she couldn’t tolerate it I took out the bread and wine. And to my surprise Mabel’s eyes began to sparkle. She quickly took the bread and wine, and gently grabbed my hand after hearing the words spoken over the elements. It was a truly holy moment. And no words were spoken. Even more powerful, though, was Mabel’s murmured recitation of the Lord’s prayer after taking communion. Not having spoken a word to staff in months, Mabel used her voice to speak to God. And of course, in doing so she spoke to me.
One of the ways we prepare for Christ’s coming is by listening well to the Holy Spirit in the unlikely voices among us. Even those we don’t believe to be capable. Listening has every bit as much to do with testimony as observing or telling does. And listening helps us prepare. What words did God speak to Mabel in the moments we shared? What words has God spoken to you, is God speaking to you even now? What are you listening for, and how is that helping or hindering your preparations? In 2018 what will you be listening for?
When it comes to listening notice, if you will, John’s own testimony. It is riddled with questions, not proclamations. The story asks more than it tells. In fact the only thing John assertively claims here is what he is not. “I AM NOT” the messiah he states in v. 21, as if to foretell what the Gospel of John will say about the real messiah, who is of course the I AM.
What makes John so decidedly different from the One who comes after him, from Christ, is the Spirit. John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with Spirit. And the Spirit also comes through the unlikely, in Christ’s sacrifice. Because Christ comes not as Messiah, King, or mighty Prophet as the Jewish leaders in this passage suppose John is, but as the Lamb of God- the final complete sacrifice- the distorted and alienated relationship we humans have with God is restored and the Spirit is given to sustain such relationship.
It is because of this passage that we regularly sing in our liturgy, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God you take away the sin of world. Have mercy on us. And grant us peace. And grant us peace.”
Not only is John an unlikely voice to hear and to heed, but so too Jesus’ very model of love embodies all things unlikely. For how peculiar that the God of the universe would choose to come dwell among us as a vulnerable bastard child, and how revolutionary that this same God would require not the sacrifice of another lamb, but instead become it for all people, in all places and at all times.
As you step into the new year, consider how you will prepare for Christ’s coming by listening well to the unlikely voices among us. Because he is coming. Each and every day he comes, and he does promise to return in the flesh yet again. May we recognize his voice and may we, like the smallest of the lambs listen to the voice of our Shepherd that we may live in the fullness of the Spirit.