No Year’s Resolutions

sermon on John 1:19-34

 

Last week it was angels and shepherds. This week it’s John the Baptist.

Last week, angels were directing our attention toward a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And then shepherds brought us along for a visit as they shared the news.

This week, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, with a similar role of pointing to Jesus.

I don’t want to spend all our time this morning on Bible study comparisons of the gospels and on recounts explaining history, but will say that for a while, we understand John to have been more popular and attractive, to have more of a following than Jesus. The other gospels say crowds were going out from Jerusalem and the surrounding country to hear him. Somewhat like Jesus, John was arrested and killed for being seen as dangerously revolutionary. That level of acclaim and influence seems to have persisted even after his death.

The other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give more of a portrait, with descriptions of John’s curious wardrobe and peculiar diet, and his message with baptism of repentance drawing the masses out to the wilderness.

With that message about sins and calling for radical reorientation in our life, I’d note that we usually hear these passages about John the Baptist in the middle of Advent. They can be awfully demanding and dour words in a season when we want to focus on cheer and all being merry and bright. With odd disjunctions in how our usual lectionary and liturgical year fit together, if we think about Advent as preparation for Christmas, remember that John wasn’t pointing toward a Messiah by getting ready for a birth; this is already when Jesus is an adult. And John’s preparing the way of the Lord isn’t the adornment and accumulation of the holidays, but is about clearing things away.

So maybe it actually feels more appropriate and fits better today, as you’ve cleared away some of the Christmas detritus and perhaps begun to clean up and pack away the ornamentation. Maybe that makes you feel ready to address straightening things out.

Indeed, that version of John the Baptist from other gospels may seem especially timely for us starting a new year, in these days that cause us to look back in reflection, to assess our lives, to take stock and resolve what needs to change. This transition to the new year can be a repentance moment.

And that may be some of the reason for John’s enduring popularity. He’s the self-help sort of figure. Evidently it’s not just us, but those ancient crowds also that like self-improvement projects and find them to be an endless diversion. There’s always something about ourselves we’d change, that we wish were different, that we feel to our core is a little rotten, is not quite right. Those ancient crowds could head out for a retreat of wilderness renewal, for the washing of water to give a sense of a fresh start, with assistance and direction from a guru instructing them exactly what they needed to do and how to practice being better.

The thing is, though, that’s not why we mark the enduring legacy of John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John focuses more directly on his importance for us as a secondary sort of character. In the Gospel of John, the main point isn’t his background baptizing or his potential in preaching repentance and radical reorientation of our lives and values. His central identity here is as John the Testifier or John the Witness. He is sent by God so that everyone might believe through him, it says. Which is saying something pretty big.

And yet for the huge importance of that role, he spends his time pointing away from himself. It’s emphasized and reiterated in our reading today: “he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” I am not! He said he was not the Messiah, not the anointed and chosen one.

He said he was not Elijah, the prophet we met this fall in conversation with the still, small voice of God, who was taken up into heaven and expected to return. That’s an interesting one, since the other gospels specifically try to associate him with Elijah, including as the reason he’s wearing that curious wardrobe. It’s so strongly connected that our Old Testament is arranged to end with the book of Malachi with the final words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” which leads into the appearance of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament in Matthew.

But here John says he’s not Elijah. And he says he is not the prophet. Even though he was out at the Jordan River to guide people back into the Promised Land, he distances himself from being identified with the prophet Moses said would follow in his footsteps as a leader. So there could be reason to see John in those roles, enacting those expectations.

But he says he’s not. He’s just a pointer to Jesus. That is his central role and identity, as a witness to the light. A billboard, and advertisement, as Linda said. John the Testifier. A penultimate, secondary character, who ranks lower.

The point of all of this is Jesus.

Well…so you may not be entirely surprised by that, at least until you stop to consider it. I think there is a fair amount of presumption that church and the practice of faith is really about making you a better person, that we think primarily of our self-improvement projects and resolving that we’ll be a little nicer and more helpful and holier in the coming year.

But that is pretty hopelessly self-centered, and with fairly bleak prospects. The reason we keep making new new year’s resolutions is because we keep failing. The reason there are always new diets and new workouts and new tips for healthy living is because we remain so unsuccessful, frustrated even at convincing ourselves we’re doing fine.

And I suspect a fair amount of our prayers and ponderings as we gather here weekly to confess are reflecting on the parts of ourselves we’d like to improve, and that there’s a broad sense of sermons as encouraging little pep-talks to send you back into life motivated to try again, with some notion that maybe by the end you’ll be able to sneak by as good enough to make it in to heaven.

But that’s not the point. That’s not the central message or why we’re here. That’s not why John is important to us. He points, points away from ourselves, points to Jesus. And as we continue in the weeks ahead with this fourth gospel, we’ll have the benefit of having our gaze continually refocused on Jesus. He himself is our core, the reason we’re here, the point of it all.

But that keeps coming with surprise. Last week those angels and shepherds pointed to the surprise of a baby in a barn, which pointed directly away from the usual expectations. The proclamation about the birth of a savior, the lord, and the son of god were words that usually indicated Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire, the absolute ultimate central pinnacle of power. So an outcast baby in a backwater barn at the edge of the Empire, visited not by wealthy aristocrats and fierce generals and influential politicians, but attended only by shepherds, well, that would’ve been the opposite of any indicator of prestige or power or potential.

The Messiah who will come to save us, and the sign is a baby?! That’s certainly not the mighty new King David that the people were anticipating and yearning for. We get it wrong not only in thinking that it’s about us and how well we’re doing by society’s standards or God’s measurements, but also wrong in what we hope for or expect when God shows up for us.

So in a similar surprising way today, we get the same reversal of expectations with John’s pointing personality. We have the sense of what the people are looking for in their questions to John—they want a Messiah, probably meaning one to come and drive out the bad guys. They want an Elijah, a mystical undying miracle worker who drops down out of heaven to bring about God’s final vision. They want a prophet like a new Moses to guide them out of wilderness wanderings and lead them into a Promised Land. That’s what the people want, and we probably could agree with wanting a messiah to straighten out society and get things running right again, or somebody to show up with all the answers, to save us from our troubles, to be a great leader, with some sort of moral revolution, with panache and power and in whom we can be proud.

But not only does John the Baptist reject the claim to be any of those things, he won’t point to Jesus as fulfilling them either. He sees Jesus walking by and points his long bony finger and says, “There’s the one. Jesus. He’s the lamb.”

The lamb?!

Lambs aren’t especially known for their military might. They’re weaklings. They’re not known for their leadership capabilities, since they’re mostly apt to roam astray. They’re common, regular livestock not known as much of anything special. What they are known for is dying, for offering blood for a Passover marker and serving as dinner. With our ongoing surprise, John points to Jesus and says that that’s him, and that’s what this is all about.

As I was visiting family and friends in Eau Claire this past week, almost every conversation turned to assess the state of our lives and world through this past year and deeply asking what we can change or do about it. I know this congregation holds those concerns dearly, too.

But the pointing of John the Testifier doesn’t give us much resolution. This doesn’t come with a step-by-step how-to manual. It’s not explanation but proclamation, pointing to Jesus: Lo, unto you is born a savior, a tiny left-out baby who will die. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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An Offensive Highway

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah35:1-10; Matthew11:2-11

 

With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.

Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.

Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.

Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.

For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!

That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.

In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.

Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.

But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.

John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “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.”

But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.

Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.

As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.

As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.

Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.

Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.

Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).

This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.

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Baptism of Our Lord (and last sermon for St. Stephen’s)

­sermon on Luke3:15-17,21-22; Isaiah43:1-7; Acts8:14-17

 

You called me here to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, so let’s start this sermon by seeing how well I’ve done (though that’s a scary thought!): what do you need for baptism?

With this, I want to teach you one final word: adiaphora. Adiaphora is a Greek word that means “matters of indifference.” You can almost hear in “adiaphora” the word “different;” it’s a word for when differences don’t matter.

Even if you didn’t know it, Lutherans are pretty good at living with adiaphora, with things that don’t make a lick of difference in the big sense. There are many, in lots of categories, but this morning we’re going to focus on baptism. For example, often babies wear white gowns to be baptized, which goes back to earliest ancient traditions of putting on new clothes, symbolizing new life, freshness and purity put on in Christ. But babies don’t need white gowns to be baptized. For that matter, we mostly baptize babies, because we consider it a good thing to have this assurance of God’s love always with you, but any age is fine and good.

For more adiaphora, we say it’s best in a Sunday worship service, the day of resurrection, when we’re together as the Body of Christ, but it could be another time in a private service. We mostly use special flowing fonts of water, but that’s not special holy water. In our understanding, it’s just plain water, so any water would do. It could be in big splashes or a dunking or just a few drops. It could be lake water, or from the Jordan River or a hospital sink, or (you’re no longer surprised that I would say this) water from a toilet bowl. Even if you’d prefer something more pious feeling than a tyke getting a swirly in the jon, in the overall theological sense it still “counts” as a baptism. Our preferences are largely adiaphora that don’t really matter.

There are more parts of the baptism: we process around the sanctuary, we light candles, kids give blankets, Rebecca calligraphs certificates, we read words from hymnals, we stand up and sit down. Our oil for anointing is from Palestinians in the Holy Land with frankincense ointment in it. We may consider any of those nice touches, or extra bits of symbolism and meaning.

But when we boil it down, none of that is necessary. It’s adiaphora. It doesn’t make a difference. In the end, what do we need for a baptism? Water and words (generally “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” though in our Acts reading it seems to have just been in the “name of the Lord Jesus.”) Oh—and of course somebody to speak those words from God.

And that person has sometimes, over these past 11 years, been me. Some of those I’ve gotten to baptize, to offer God’s words to, will be coming in from Sunday School in a few minutes. To be qualified as a baptizer, I don’t have any superpowers. Clearly I’m not any holier. It’s not even really having special authority; nurses baptize in emergencies. Family members have done it. But you’ve had me here, called and hired me, to be one you could turn to and expect that I would speak God’s promise to you and for you.

But that also comes around to highlight a peculiarity in this Gospel reading. Let’s see how well you were paying attention: Who baptized Jesus? It’s kind of a trick question, because of the verses the lectionary skips. Here’s the whole thing. So in Luke’s peculiar version, John the (so-called) Baptist isn’t told of baptizing Jesus. Luke doesn’t even give John the title of “the Baptist.” Although on the 4th Sunday of Advent we heard the story of their mothers meeting, of Mary and Elizabeth, and a child leaping in the womb, nevertheless in Luke there’s no story about John and Jesus meeting each other face-to-face. By the time Jesus appears on the scene, John is already gone, shut up in prison, on death row. Luke inserts that mention of incarceration, and only then goes on to tell about Jesus being baptized.

Yet we said that a baptism requires a baptizer. That’s not optional, not adiaphora. Jesus didn’t and couldn’t baptize himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, John argues and keeps protesting that Jesus should baptize him instead, but Jesus says, ‘Just do it.’ So why not here? Why, of four Gospels, does only Luke describe Jesus’ baptism in this way (or not describe it, we might say)? Well, I’m going to give you a couple possibilities, then try one more thought.

First, it could be that Luke is trying to downplay John’s role. We talked about that last month, how John was so popular and such a big deal with a huge following that crowds were even wondering or presuming if he were the Messiah. Jesus, then, almost could take a back seat. Imagine a concert where the opening band is a bigger draw than the main act. It would take some extra publicity and showmanship and staging to hype the other. Some figure that’s the situation here, trying to accentuate Jesus and downplay John’s persona by giving him a smaller role.

Another possibility I was reading this week is that Luke wanted to highlight the difference between John and Jesus, marking the end of one era and start of something totally new. Rather than being an intern who shared office space with John, in this case it is a clear division of different roles: John prepared, Jesus fulfilled. John was the era of prophecy, and Jesus came to reign as king. Having John out of the way may help clarify that distinction.

John’s discussion about baptisms may also accentuate these differences. He says he baptizes with water for repentance, a washing of renewal. It’s an understanding that you’ve made a mess and want to clean it up. Having done wrong you desire a sign of being able to start fresh. John seems to figure his baptism is still a chance to say you’re sorry and that you’ll try harder, but soon it’ll be too late and there will be no way to stop the punishment. Expecting this radical difference, John says Jesus will come with power and the fire will be unquenchable.

For that, I think we’d say John was wrong. That’s another point of this break in Luke. Jesus is not John, nor even what John expected. Later in the Gospel is a passage where from prison John sends investigators to ask Jesus if he’s really the one, since he didn’t come with unquenchable burning, but with unquenchable love, not to destroy but to create anew and to reinvigorate and revitalize, not to kill but to give life.

(To be fair, we could hear that in John’s words. Maybe instead of blanket assaults of destruction it’s the view of surgical incisions, with Jesus replacing all that is evil in you with his goodness, burning away the ugly corrosion of your sin to leave you gleaming and pure and valuable, exchanging your selfishness with holy gifts to share, even taking away your death to fill you with life. That’s actually a strong view of what the Holy Spirit it up to in your baptism, so maybe we should give John the benefit of the doubt and get past our own violent preconceptions of a vengeful God.)

Along that track of what God is accomplishing through your baptism and in your life, I want to try that one more thought on John being gone by the time when Jesus starts his ministry and things really get rolling: Today I can relate to John the Baptist no longer being on the scene, even if he did do the baptism yet being out of the picture when so much more good stuff was going to come from Jesus. With God’s blessing among you, it’s the assurance that the best is not in the past. It can feel confining that I’ll be shut off and away from you in these moments to come. It’s not quite with the sense of John in prison, but there will be that separation and inaccessibility. Just as John heard about Jesus through others’ reports, as you continue forward I’ll be off receiving messages of the amazing things for life and renewal that God is accomplishing in and through you.

With all of that, once more I want to tell you there’s nothing wrong here at St. Stephen’s that I’m running away from, and nobody is making me leave. It just was a time, and a new opportunity, and a decision, and always with the expectation that God is working for the good in our lives wherever we are. Yet for the hurt and sorrows and worries and brokenness that remain as I go, for missing your lives, I apologize and trust that forgiveness and redemption are, as always, at work among us.

That’s the heart of this faith we proclaim and share. Trusting and believing that, as we have together for these past years, I also once more want to say how good it has been share with you as the body of Christ. As I’ve gotten to be in this role, two words I most frequently have found myself using are “honor and privilege.” It has been an honor and privilege to serve as your pastor, striving in this role to convey the love and blessing of the God who created you and redeems you, sharing that promise and that new reality.

This indicates one more distinction for us from the baptism of Jesus in Luke, where the heavens were opened and God’s voice thundered to speak the promise. We don’t look to the sky, but repeat that message, listening for God speaking through other voices. You need a preacher to tell you you are God’s beloved child. That is not among adiaphora. It’s not optional, and it does very much matter for your lives. We need to speak the promise to each other, otherwise we won’t hear it and know it and trust it. And this message itself is essential, necessary, the furthest thing from adiaphora.

Finally, then, I want to turn to our words from Isaiah. They are so astoundingly chock full of good news and promise that I almost ignored Luke entirely, wanting to stop our day’s Bible readings after even just one verse from Isaiah. Here it comes again, one last bit one last time. Even as I prepare to depart, I get to proclaim a message that abides and remains with you forever, speaking from God for you:

“Now, thus says the LORD, who created you and formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, says the LORD. [Troubles] shall not overwhelm you or consume you, because you are precious in my sight, and I love you.” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

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Expectations & Fulfillments

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.

Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.

Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)

Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.

So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.

Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”

Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.

That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.

For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.

But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.

The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!

That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.

But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.

The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?

Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.

The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.

This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.

Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.

We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.

This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.

You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.

Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.

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