Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, December 17, 2023

2023 YEAR B advent 3

Advent 3, 2023
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Who am I?  Why am I here?  Political junkies remember the man who famously asked those questions.  It was Admiral Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate in the Vice Presidential debate.  The press had a field day with this opening statement, because it seemed like a ridiculous way to begin a debate of this magnitude.  Stockdale’s opening statement was actually a question . . . or, in fact, two questions.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  They’re actually good questions to ask yourself.  Because if you can answer them for yourself, then you can answer them when someone else asks, Who are you?  Why are you here?

This is what happens to John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel reading.  He is out there in the wilderness, baptizing people, and these religious leaders come and ask him, Who are you?  And why are you here?  They’re really asking about the baptism that John is doing.  For the Jews of Jesus’ day, baptism was a ritual washing that a person did for only one of two reasons.  The first would be if you’ve become ritually unclean, like by touching a dead body or something.  And the second would be for Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) who wanted to convert to the Jewish faith.  The last step of the conversion to Judaism was to be baptized.  So, only two reasons to be baptized, defilement and conversion, and you’ll notice that “repentance” is not on that short list of reasons to be baptized.

So, the religious leaders are paying John the Baptizer a little visit to find out where he gets off adding a third religious rite without checking in with the main office.  But that’s their second question, the Why are you here question.  Before they get to that, they have to ask the first question:  Who are you?  And before he can answer, they offer John three options:  1) Are you the Messiah?  No.  2) Are you Elijah, the one who was supposed to come back before the Messiah?  No.  3) Okay, are you a prophet?  No.  

And now they’ve exhausted the list of people who could legitimately invent a new reason for baptism.  And they’re like, so then . . . who are you?  And he still doesn’t say.  He starts talking about someone else.  He starts talking about his identity as the one who prepares the way, who makes the paths straight.  They ask, Who are you?  And he starts talking about someone else.  This interrogation is not going well from the religious leaders’ perspective.  They want to know about John, and he is talking about someone else. Plus, he’s talking about someone who is right there with them, but someone they don’t recognize.  Just the kind of crazy talk you’d expect from a guy who eats grasshoppers.  John says, “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.”  

Translation:  You think I’m a radical?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  John’s baptism with water is threatening to topple the apple cart of the religious system, and John is saying this is just the beginning.  He’s the opening act!  And not even that, he’s saying he’s more like the guy who unlocks the stage door for the main act.  Not in the same league.  Not one of the same kind.  Just another guy named John, doing what God has called him to do.  He’s pointing to Jesus; they're looking at his finger.

Back in the day, we had a huge black lab named Lula . . .  she was the world’s best dog.  Sorry to all of you who thought the world’s best dog was living at your house.  You actually have the world’s second best dog.  Anyway, Lula always wanted me to throw things so she could go get them for me.  The technical term is “fetch.”  But Lula, being a black lab, wasn’t necessarily the world’s smartest dog . . . just the world’s best dog.  So, sometimes I would throw something for her, and she would stand there looking at me, with her head crouched down, waiting for me to throw it.  And, of course, I would tell her I already threw it, and she always seemed to take that to mean I’m about to throw it.  

In frustration, I would point at the thing I threw, saying “Go get it.”  And then, of course, Lula would look at my finger.  So I’d point harder toward the ball, and she would stare harder at my finger.  Eventually, I’d have to pretend to throw the ball again, and then she would run off toward the ball that had been sitting there the whole time.  Not the world’s smartest dog; just the best.

These accusers who come to visit John today are kind of acting like my dog.  They’re looking at John, and John is saying, “It’s not about me, silly!  Look where I’m pointing!”  And they all stare at his finger.  They want to know about John, and John is telling them to look for Jesus.  They want to know about John’s authority, and John says my authority is just to open the door for that guy,  the one who is coming later on.  They’re staring at the hand that is pointing, rather than the point of the pointing.  It’s not about John the Baptizer; it’s about Jesus.

Back in 1547, a friend of Martin Luther named Lucas Cranach painted Luther preaching a sermon.  (I’m a big fan of Lucas Cranach, as you can see on the back of my left forearm.)  I’ve seen this painting of Luther many times above the Altar in the Town Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  On a cross in the middle of the painting is Jesus.  Luther is on the side, way up in the pulpit, preaching to the people who are sitting directly across from him.  He is looking at them, but with his right arm he is pointing at Jesus, on the cross.  The people sitting directly across from him are looking to where he is pointing, not at Luther.  The preacher is proclaiming the gospel by pointing at Jesus.  And it is a perfect sermon because the people are seeing Jesus, not the preacher.

Today’s Gospel reading started off being about John: This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"  Sounds like it’s going to be a story about John, doesn’t it?  But the story is not about John, even though that’s why the interrogators are coming to talk to John.  They say, “So, John, tell me a little bit about yourself.  You’re doing quite a radical thing here, and we want to know about you.”  And what does John do?  He points to Jesus.  God among us.  The one “standing in your midst.”  He’s talking to them, but he’s pointing to Jesus . . . and, like the Cranach painting, it’s the perfect sermon!

They ask John, Who are you?  Why are you here?  And he says, I baptize people and tell them that Jesus is coming.  John is doing what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s Gospel:  Baptize people, and tell them that Jesus is coming.  And that answer should sound familiar to us, because that has been the mission of the Church ever since.  We gather together, baptizing people, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming into the world.  Baptize, and point to Jesus.  That’s what we do.

Of course, we also do other important and valuable things together, like gather for worship, offer hospitality to others, and minister through community outreach—Worship, Hospitality, and Outreach.  But the reason we do those things is because we are pointing to Jesus.  We are the ones who baptize people and point to Jesus.  That is who we are, even if we don’t realize that’s who we are.

So now if I were to ask you, are you Elijah?  You would say no.  Are you a prophet?  You would say no.  Are you the Messiah?  You would say no.  And then in frustration I would finally ask, Who are you?  Why are you here?  

And you could point to the one who is coming into the world.  You could point to Jesus.  Because that’s who you are:  the ones who point to Jesus.  And this morning you can point to this Altar, because that is where Jesus comes to meet us.  In the bread and the wine, right where he promised to be.  You can ask yourself those two questions: “Who am I, and why am I here?"  And you will find the answer in your outstretched hands.


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