The Edge of Our World

Third Sunday of Advent  |  John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Edge of Our World

John the Baptist never claimed anything. At least, he didn’t claim anything that seemed to matter to the ones who asked.

He was somebody, though. That much was clear, or they wouldn’t have been asking.

He was out in the wild places, down by the river, and crowds of people were treking out to hear what he had to say, to make a new beginning, to let him baptize them—an odd enough ritual when you think about it. Say a prayer, stand in the river, and let this wild looking man either plunge you into the water or pour the water over your head. (They weren’t particular about how it was done in the beginning: those arguments started much later.)

When the crowds of people go to find John, their religious leaders WatersEdge2follow them. After watching and listening long enough, they manage to ask, “Who are you?”

Maybe, like the song says, they really want to know. It is more likely that they really want to get rid of him. Nobody rues competition quite like religious folk.

John claims nothing, except one thing. He claims to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, like the prophet Isaiah described.

More questions. Are you the Messiah? Elijah? The prophet? No, no, and no. Only a voice in the wilderness.

Then John adds one more thing. Someone else is coming, he says. Someone else is standing in the midst of you all, and you haven’t seen him. And he is much greater than I.

You are asking the wrong question. That is what John is telling them. The question isn’t, Who are you? The question is, Who else is here?

Who else is waiting at the edge of the world?

That is where they found John, after all, at the edge. He wasn’t completely in the wild places where no one goes, but he wasn’t calling out his message in the city streets. John, this harbinger of God, was out on the edge of the world, where people had to make an effort to go, out beyond their normal haunts and habits. He stood at the edge of their world and talked about God.

John also stood at the edge of society. He dressed in a queer fashion, and he ate strange things. According to the Gospel of Luke, John may have taken vows as a nazirite—no wine, a limited diet, and perhaps no cutting the hair. That gives you a stone cold sober guy wearing camel hair and leather, eating locusts, with hair hanging down around his knees. And this guy is standing in the river. Preaching.

This is the man God sent to announce the coming of the Messiah, at the edge of the world.

If we are going to encounter God, we may need to change our expectations. Finding some sense of the Other may require that we step away from our routine, our habitual comfort zone.

If God is going to touch our lives, God will start at our edges. Perhaps it is because our center is already so full of activity that not even God can find room. Or perhaps it is because our center does not map onto God’s center. Just as God is not the center of our world—be honest—neither are we the center of God’s world. Again, be honest.

God’s world does not revolve around us. Like Galileo, we have to look to a different orbit. If we are to encounter the Holy, it will be where we have not been looking. If Advent is about waiting for God, our waiting may turn into a journey out to the edge where God is also waiting for us.

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Photos by Granny

 

Until Something Better Comes Along

Second Sunday after Epiphany  |  John 1:29-42Fire

John is out by the river Jordan, baptizing people in the water. According to what the Gospel of John says, this other John is only out there to call attention to Jesus. This John is out there baptizing with water, biding his time until one comes who will baptize with fire.

Seeing Jesus walk by, John sends two of his own disciples to follow Jesus. Far from growing his own following, John is sending people away.

Clearly, he does not know how to build an organization.

From the time of Constantine, the Christian ideal has focused on building bigger congregations, bigger churches, gathering more members. Most religions do.

Jesus never did. It is easier to find stories of Jesus sending people away than it is to find him calling them together. He seems to have chosen only twelve core followers, and one of them was a failure.

There are many implications in this passage from John’s Gospel. One is that Christians may have the wrong idea about how to measure a successful church. Another is that outward baptism by water may have been a stopgap measure, an introduction to the inward baptism of the spirit. A third has to do with all of this walking and following—we are more likely to think we have arrived, but the first name for the Jesus movement was not Christianity: it was the Way.

On a more personal level, we might consider whether we are pointing to ourselves or to God. John the baptizer did not believe that he was the center of God’s universe. John pointed to someone greater than himself. He even sent the men who would have followed him to the end to follow someone else.

A religious man would have focused on building the organization. It takes faith to send people on the Way.

Grace in the Darkness

Season of Epiphany  |  Baptism of the Lord  |  Matthew 3:13-17

SidewalkPlantThe lectionary leads us into the season of Epiphany, the showing or manifestation of Christ. Think of wise men seeing the young Jesus, and of Jesus becoming known to the world around him.

ἐπιφάνεια – ephiphaneia – epiphany – from the Greek verb “to appear” or “to show forth”: a manifestation, an appearance, a moment of realization

Consider Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, an odd passage.

Jesus approaches John the Baptist and presents himself for baptism. At first, John refuses. It would seem to be a reasonable position: if Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, God incarnate, why would he need or submit to baptism? Why would such a ritual have any use for a god, let alone the God?

Not that the answer John gets is much use either: to fulfill all righteousness.

It may be that John simply threw his hands up at that point and said, “Fine.”

I have never read a single explanation of the baptism of Jesus that made any sense to me, at least none offering reasons of purity, or of a new beginning, or anything else that picks up on the customary uses and meanings of the baptism ritual—repentance, cleansing, dedication. Surely God has no need of repentance, or of cleansing, and surely Jesus was dedicated to his purpose in the very beginning (as John’s Gospel tells us).

Maybe for us the idea is closer to simple submission, or humility, even in the face of apparent meaninglessness. John submits to Jesus and performs the ritual, though he clearly does not understand the meaning of it himself. Jesus is submitting to the hands of John, though there is nothing to be gained; instead, Jesus’ submission may itself be a sign of grace. God is made known not only in human form, but humble even for a human.

We may sense God moving us to do something, though we do not understand the meaning or the value of it. Perhaps there is a meaning we do not comprehend. Humility and grace in the service of God, even when we do not see the purpose of what we do, may form the greatest experience and expression of faith.

We may not see the value of giving away our last candle. Perhaps it is simply that the other person lacks the faith to walk in our darkness and still find God.