Advent Gospel Lection III, 2008: Subtraction is Addition
John 1:6-8. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
19-28. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "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." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.NB
John the Baptist. Again! Right in the middle of our Christmas preparations. Like one of those unexpected and unwelcome guests who appear when the table is already set and you really don't know what to do with them; but out of basic kindness or guilt (or both) you set another place and hope for the best. One Christmas Eve seared into my memory began with everything just right. My stockings, all three of them, were hung from the mantle over the fireplace. The tree was trimmed. I was at that age when Santa's reality had begun to be questioned. It was time for me to go to bed. But the doorbell rang. It was Santa, all dressed in red. His nose was red too. From too much eggnog or, more likely, shots of whiskey. I recognized him immediately, the Sears Roebuck Santa, AKA Mr. Rottner, a family acquaintance. He was determined to make my Christmas special with his well-oiled visit. My parents indulged him, warily. Me too. But no way was I going to sit in his lap, not at Sears and not in my own home. He gave me a gift, just what it was I have blocked out of memory. Finally, after what seemed like half the night, Santa left, weaving down the street, very pleased, I assume, with himself for making Bobby's Christmas special. And he succeeded, though not quite in the way in which he planned. I obviously never forgot that evening.
So here's John the Baptist front and center in the manger story. He's a sight with beard and camel's hair and a diet of bugs and honey. He's telling us things we would prefer not to hear, about how bad we are and how sorely we need to get right with God. That's the prophets' lot, always to be right and always to be unwanted... except, as Jesus points out, when they are dead and buried and we heap praise on them and buy their biographies to the top of the best-seller list. What to make of John?
The best suggestion comes from a place cited last week in the message on Lection II, from Colmar, France, the church with the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald, but not the panel featured in the message on the second lection. John the Baptist appears anachronistically in the center panel, the Crucifixion.
Simply put, John the Baptist shows us how to be a disciple of Jesus and, in the doing, to find our way to an abundant life.
But didn't John die at a young age, someone should be asking, decapitated in fact, for running afoul of the king's wife? And didn't Jesus end up the way he is shown in the altarpiece, hanging on two crude pieces of wood? True, both times: I didn't say discipleship would lead to a long life; it would provide a full one. John (and Jesus) accomplished more in his thirty plus years than any of us will manage with eighty. Or why else would we be remembering him two thousand years later?
The essence of John's discipleship is written in Latin in the Isenheim masterpiece, in the crook of John the Baptist's right arm: "He must increase; but I must decrease." Which runs counter to the spirit of our age, summed up in Sinatra's themesong, "My Way." Not that I would be so quick to knock self-assurance. Living with a couple of seventeen year olds I know the utmost importance to young souls of ego strength (though, I admit, sometimes the bragging gets to be obnoxious). This self-diminishing statement of the Baptist issues, let us not forget, from the mouth of a mature human being, self-contained and authoritative, unmitigated by the necessities of a cosmopolitan life style, a self-reliance borne of living alone in the wilderness. John knows who he is and he knows who he is with a certainty rarely found. Would that my teenage grandsons could arrive at thirty with so healthy and fully developed a self-respect! That is the context of John's declaration, not the self-denial of a wuss with nothing to lose, but a champion with everything to be gained. John has a lot, not a little, to decrease.
Let us consider, then, how and why it might be that less "me" might be a plus. Because the essence of what's wrong with the world and those of us in it is self-centeredness. I learned that way of putting it a long time ago in seminary, from a professor who, when asked to define sin, pointed to a painting in the room, to the lower right hand corner, where the artist had inscribed his name. As simple, ordinary, and expected as that. He could have illustrated it almost anywhere, this self-centeredness. It's plastered on the front pages of the paper day in and out, whether it be the news from Chicago or Mumbai. The insistence on my privileges, my rights, my insults, my righteousness, my team, my... well, go ahead and fill in the moment's loudest grievance. Martin Luther, I've heard tell, claimed that were the shirt to be stripped off anyone of us there on our chests would be plain to see, three letters: E G O. A congregant who worked for Bell Labs in New Jersey studying speech patterns reported that the word used most often in conversation was "I". The problem with humanity is not insufficient ego strength; it is radical self-assertion or, even with Milquetoasts, radical self-absorption. That is, being centered on the self. Combating it takes a lifetime of struggle.
Enter Jesus. In Bethlehem, sure; but, more importantly, into one's mind and heart. Like the Baptist insists, "He must increase; but I must decrease." Welcoming the Jewish rabbi into one's life: that also involves a lifetime of struggle. Even for a seventy-seven year old who has spent a lifetime extolling the Galilean carpenter and commending his example. There's still too much "me" in this well-worn preacher. I don't want to tell you the number of times I have perverted the red letter words of the Master about letting one's light shine, making it into a justification for my desire to see my light honored, especially when I get to thinking like Rodney Dangerfield that I "don't get no respect." Even though I can no longer limp onto the basketball court, I continue to throw a few elbows of my own when anyone carelessly elbows me on the highway or in a store, notwithstanding my ability to quote fairly accurately that passage in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek. Temper flairs in the eighth decade of one's life, no less than in the second. Aging allows one to claim greater prerogatives than are either fair or needed. "Me" continues to rise strong. Jesus is needed no less and maybe more than before.
I never particularly liked John Wesley's admonition to Methodist preachers that they should strive to be made perfect in love in this life. Earlier my disagreement was theological. Now it is the clear recognition that no way no how will I ever achieve that kind of sanctification. Instead, I shall hold on to John the Baptist as my talisman every time that self-centered itch deep inside me clamors for attention demanding I have it my way as the only way. The other way, John the Baptist's (less me and more Him), leads to a fuller, more generous, more loving and more loved life.
That I have also discovered from seventy-seven years living with Jesus.
NB. The worship service we attended this Third Sunday in Advent 2008 listed the Gospel reading as Luke 1:39-56 which, more or less, was the alternate Psalm reading for the morning, to wit, The Magnificat. That "Psalm" lends itself to a simpler, more uplifting interpretation than the assigned Gospel lection, this one about the last of the prophets, John the Baptist.