John the Baptizer – a major character who plays a minor role – that’s his story; he’s sticking to it. John’s prominence in Advent soon fades once Jesus is center stage.
Religion and church at its best creates space and time for consciousness of God. That’s why you come here week after week – to experience and grow in God’s grace, to help you see God at work in your life and in others each day. Religious authorities like to control that experience. Sometimes they like to tell you what God wants you to think and do. Personally, I recommend running from people like that. They scare me. At best I have opinions, thoughts and experiences of God and so do you. In sharing them, which we need to do, we can still be humble in our confidence. Are any of us really certain? We may be wrong.
But John is different. He’s a prophet, a mouthpiece for God. The message God speaks through him bears truth. We know his truth because we experience the one he says is coming. He’s a successful prophet. Prophetic success attracts attention – and resistance. That’s why the Temple rulers send their minions to ask: “Who are you?” John tells them who he’s not: the Messiah; Elijah; and not a prophet like Moses. Why do they ask about dead guys? According to tradition, past prophets re-appear to announce the coming messiah. “Who are you, John? Are you he?” “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” or “Unclutter your life so the Lord can get to you.”
It’s comical, really; non-ordained John playing with these poor priests and Levites. Imagine their report: “Well, he’s not this, or that, or this.” “Well, who is he?” “He says he’s just a voice in the wilderness.” “What the heck does that mean?” “He won’t say.” That’s insufficient for the Pharisees. So one last try – “Look, we’re just doing our jobs. Help us here. If you’re not any of these guys, then who authorizes you to forgive sins and baptize?” Again, John withholds the prize, telling them, “Among you stands one you do not know. I point to him. I am unworthy even to untie his shoes.” ‘Yeah, where John? Point him out for us.”
How would we know him? We know him as his Spirit transforms us and we see the world and others differently – more humbly – through softer and more loving eyes. We know him when we listen and hear God’s voice in the changes and challenges of our lives. We know him as we begin to think differently. We notice our values no longer align with the world’s. We know Jesus as we take the form of a servant, drawing attention away from self to point others toward Jesus. If church and formation do its work we know and experience the presence of one who is already among us and who keeps coming among us. And we are profoundly changed.
In an old sacred story a monastery has fallen on hard times. The monks don’t get along anymore. Their relationships are biting, not loving. They’ve grown old and insular, and they are dying off. No new, young replacements join them. Even people outside their walls have stopped seeking their spiritual guidance. The abbot had prayed, pleaded with the monks to change, tried to inspire them – nothing worked.
A rabbi who lives in the woods just beyond the monastery is out for a walk. The abbot spots him and overtakes him. They stop, and look each other in the face. Tears start falling, for the rabbi, too, knows the monastery is in trouble. The abbot asks: “Can you give me some direction so the monastery will thrive again?” The rabbi tells him, “One of you is the Messiah,” turns and walks away.
The abbot returns home. Monks saw him talking to the rabbi: “What did he say?” “One of us is the Messiah,” the abbot slowly says. The monks begin talking: “Could it be Brother John, or Andrew – could it be the abbot?” With that possibility, the spirit begins to change. They begin to treat each other as if they could be messiah. Soon new monks join them. People return to the monastery for spiritual guidance and conversations. One – already among us – how will we know? Maybe it’s each of us. We know – others may know, that messiah is here by the way we treat them, as God’s own – God’s beloved child.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know,” says John. How will people in our day know and experience Jesus among us? Maybe they will begin to see Jesus in us, and through us – or won’t. That will depend upon us. Do we live as we profess: loving enemies; praying for those who persecute or disagree with us; welcoming the stranger; caring and effecting change for the poor, broken and lonely? We create the sort of community where all are treated as God’s beloved – with the very love we experience in Christ. God has an unwavering, faithful, passionate commitment to be with us and for us.
Among us God’s kingdom has come in Jesus and through us still is coming. And one day all will see, know and live in God’s love, forgiveness and grace. In Advent ask yourself: “Who are we waiting for? Think about it.