Dec 15

There Was a Man Named John

If this morning’s gospel reading feels a little familiar to you, well, it should. Last week we read Mark 1:1-8. The first verse of Mark 1 is about Jesus: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But after that, the next seven verses are about John the Baptist. This week, we read from the first chapter of John’s gospel. The first chapter of John is a lot longer than the first chapter of Mark—there’s a lot going on in John 1, from an opening poem about the Word of God to the call of the first disciples. But once again we are reading a passage about John the Baptist. Now, many of you know that I use a list of readings for each week called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is put together by a large group of Christian preachers and scholars—not by me. And when I saw that this Advent two weeks in a row we would have readings about John the Baptist, I wondered why. I imagine some of you are wondering the same thing this morning: why two weeks on John the Baptist?

So I did a little investigating. As it turns out, John the Baptist is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. After all the sermons and Sunday School lessons I’ve heard, all the classes on the New Testament I’ve taken, all the books about the Bible I’ve read, and even the classes on the New Testament I’ve helped teach, I’m not sure that I knew that before this week. John the Baptist shows up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. By my count, he is mentioned in 8 chapters of Matthew, 5 chapters of Mark, 8 chapters of Luke, 5 chapters of John, and 4 chapters of Acts: 30 chapters in the New Testament mention John the Baptist. Only a few other New Testament figures, people like Jesus, Peter, and Paul, appear more frequently. John the Baptist is also one of the few people from the New Testament mentioned at all by non-biblical writers of the time; the 1stcentury writer and historian Josephus talks about John and his execution by Herod.

For someone so prominent in the Bible, we know surprisingly little about John the Baptist. Some scholars believe John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived in small communities near the Dead Sea, but no one knows for certain. He is not the same person as John, the disciple of Jesus. He did not write the gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd John, or Revelation. He was not one of Jesus’ followers. According to Luke’s gospel, John was Jesus’ cousin. Tradition says that John was 6 months older than Jesus, so the church has celebrated John’s birthday as June 25th for centuries. John had his own disciples, some of whom become followers of Jesus in Acts. All four gospels agree that John baptized people in the Jordan River.

As you probably gathered from this morning’s gospel lesson, we’re not the first people to be confused by John. Having heard of John’s baptisms and increasing popularity, an unusual alliance of Jewish leaders sets out to investigate this strange figure. Priests and Levites, on the one hand, and Pharisees, on the other, didn’t always get along. But John has caught their attention, and they want to know who he is. They head out to the Jordan, near Bethany, find John, and start to interrogate him: Are you the Messiah? No. Elijah? No. The prophet? No. It’s almost like Rumpelstiltskin: who is John the Baptist? Will he tell ever tell them?

Of course, you and I have an advantage over the priests, Levites, and Pharisees. All they had were rumors about a man in the desert. We have John 1:6-8: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John is a witness, and the job of a witness is to speak the truth about what he has seen. But John is a funny kind of witness, because his testimony is about something he hasn’t seen, or at least hasn’t seen all the way. In the gospel of John, the first time John the Baptist sees Jesus is in chapter 1, verse 29—the verse right after this morning’s lesson. And John dies long before Jesus is crucified or raised from the dead.

You might say that John the Baptist is the anti-Doubting Thomas. Thomas, infamously, is the disciple of Jesus who refuses to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, “unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side” (John 20:25). Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b). Blessed, in other words, are those who are less like Thomas and more like John the Baptist.

In the end, I think this is why John the Baptist shows up twice in our Advent gospel readings this year. In this season of waiting, we need the Baptist’s example of belief without seeing, of testimony given out of faith and hope rather than from sight. At this time of year there are many people who have a heard time believing that Christmas means anything more than exchanging gifts and eating lots of good food. There are others who cannot believe that words like peace and love and hope belong to a season that reminds them so painfully of loved ones who will not be present this year to celebrate. And there so many more people who, looking at the world’s troubles and sorrows, cannot believe that Jesus will one day return to make things right, if he ever came in the first place.

In Advent, in the season of waiting, in the special time of preparation for Christ’s coming, belief is not enough. We must also testify. And we must be sure to bear witness truthfully: I am not the Messiah. I am a fellow traveler, nothing more. I am not the one you have been waiting for. But I know him. I wait for him, too. I cannot save you or anyone else. But I know who can. I wait for him, too. I am not the Messiah. But I know him. I know him. I know him. And I wait for him, too.

Nov 03

The Jordan River

            Rivers make great barriers. Rivers are dangerous and unpredictable, deep here and shallow there, calm on the surface but swift just beneath. Rivers don’t just stand between one side and another. They try to carry off anyone who would cross them, catch them up in their currents and hasten them to the sea. They dare any would-be trespassers: just try to get past me! The Potomac River once divided this country into north and south. The Mississippi marks for us east and west. The Rio Grande tells us in or out. Yes, rivers make great barriers.

            No river is mightier—and so no barrier is greater—than the river of death. Death is the strangest of rivers. At first glance, it looks more like a parched riverbed, dry, and empty, and lifeless. Approach death, stand close enough to its shores, and you realize that this strange river has a force behind it almost like no other. Like the whirlpool of a great rapid, its emptiness pulls you in, dragging you against your will.

            For the ancient Greeks, the river Death was the river Styx: as strong a barrier as you could want between the living and the dead. Hope for this life vanished at the far edge of the Styx. Few in our day take the Greek myths to heart as anything more than good stories, but for many of us, Death remains as insurmountable as the Styx.

            But it is not the Styx that lies between the Israelites and the Promised Land in Joshua 3. It is the Jordan River. All hope does not vanish at the banks of the Jordan. And when the Israelites prepare to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, the waters of the Jordan do not sweep the people of God down into the Dead Sea. Instead, the Jordan parts, “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap,” and Israel crosses from the wilderness into the Promised Land.

            This is the second crossing, the second baptism for Israel. The first was at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians hot on Israel’s trail. At the first crossing God washed away the idols and the oppression that had characterized life in Egypt. On the far shore of the Red Sea, the Lord claimed the Israelites as his people. At the second crossing God cleanses the filth from forty years of wilderness wanderings. On the distant shore of the Jordan, the Lord brings his people home.

            Not everyone could cross the Jordan at once, of course. No doubt some at back of the line must have watched their brothers and sisters cross the Jordan ahead of them and thought, “I wonder if the waters will hold back for me, too.” But they didn’t need to worry. The waters did not budge. Every Israelite crossed safely; “the entire nation” walked across on dry ground.

            Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this All Saints’ Sunday we find ourselves on the banks of Death. Others have gone before us, beloved friends and family members, cherished members of the body of Christ. They have crossed ahead of us, and we know one day we will follow them through the river. If you’re like me, you probably wish you could catch a glimpse of them on the far shore; you might long for even the briefest vision of assurance that they have crossed safely, a vision, also, of hope that you will one day stand with them. Do not be troubled. God does not carry us through life only to dump us by the Styx. The river that stands between us and the saints who have gone before us is the Jordan River, not a great barrier but a gateway to God’s eternal promises.

            Just like the Israelites, all of us must undergo two baptisms. At the first baptism, our own crossing of the Red Sea, God washes us clean of our sin and claims us as his people. The Father seals us with his Holy Spirit and makes us disciples of his Son Jesus Christ. This first baptism marks the beginning of our journey—not a journey we could ever undertake alone, but a journey with our fellow pilgrims and disciples, a journey as the church. At this first baptism God put to death our bent toward sinning and so saved us from the second death.

            But there remains, for all of us, a second baptism: death, the death of the bodies God has given us. The filth and grime from our imperfect discipleship pilgrimage must still be washed away. Having passed through the waters of the first baptism, we need not fear the waters of this second baptism. They will not overwhelm us. God holds them back with a mighty hand and will deliver us to safety on the banks across the way. Our great High Priest stands in the middle; his cross is the ark of the new covenant, the surety of our safe passage.

            What will we find across the Jordan? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, … saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and unto the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10). “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 107:1).

            The multitude is the multitude of the saints of God. Their journey is over. They await the resurrection of their bodies, but already for them death and sadness are no more. The march of the saints is not what happens on the other side of the Jordan. The march of the saints is what takes us up to the Jordan—and leads us across. If we want to be counted in thatnumber, we need to put on our shoes now. We need to follow the well-worn paths of the saints, paths of prayer and praise, paths of virtue and peace, paths marked by the cross of Christ. These paths lead us up to the banks of the Jordan. And there the saints will discover that no river is a barrier to God, that not even Death itself can sweep past Christ’s cross to drown us.

            May we also be found in the company of saints. Amen.