Maybe there are secrets in it, this prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples when they asked him how to pray. Maybe it is just that we find what we seek. Maybe it is that simple, and it has less to do with the nature of God than with the nature of the universe, and with our own natures.
It is the Lord’s Prayer this Gospel gives us, but not as we learn it, not the version Matthew gives us with the verses added at the end. The Lord’s Prayer is short, direct, but it is even shorter here, as Luke records it, given to a group of disciples when they ask and not as part of the Sermon on the Mount.
The disciples claim that John the Baptist taught a prayer to his followers. If so, we do not have it. It is difficult to imagine John, that great shaggy loudmouthed prophet out in the wilderness, pausing to teach people how to pray. Still, it is one more place in the gospels where John is mentioned, one more indication of interaction between the cousins, Jesus and John.
So Jesus gives them a prayer, but he isn’t teaching them how to pray. He is teaching them about the nature of God. On the one hand, it sounds as though Jesus is comparing God to a lazy friend or an evil parent. On the other hand, if even a lazy man will eventually get up, and if even an evil father may feed a child, how much more will God respond? The God whom Jesus is revealing is not a God with evil in one hand and good in the other, punishments and rewards, judgment and mercy. We are not the toys of a manipulative puppet master. In this Gospel we hear that we are children, and children with a good and benevolent parent.
In the prayer he gives his lack wit followers, Jesus asks for bread. In the illustrations that follow, he speaks of bread again, and fish, and eggs–good simple food for good simple people. In the end, the final point, Jesus doesn’t compare God to the lazy friend and the poor parent, he shows how they are different.
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
There it is, if we are paying attention, the thing that we are to ask, the point of our prayer—the Holy Spirit. Surely God already knows that we need food, clothes, means to make our lives endure in a challenging world? Reminding God of those things is akin to reminding gravity to hold us down. There is no need.
And we note the conclusion, the great gift that God waits to share, and it is not bread, not the kind that we eat. Or maybe that is why Jesus uses such a peculiar word, επιούσιος, a word for which we in translation settle upon “daily”, though we do not know just what it means. It does not occur anywhere else in ancient literature but in the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe it is daily, or needed, or necessary, this sort of bread for which we are to pray.
Does Jesus mean for us to identify the bread as the Holy Spirit? Or, to cast the idea in different words, the opportunity to merge with and to become aligned with the Divine? Perhaps for that gift, God waits until we recognize our need and ask.
We may prepare wonderful things for our children, hoping that they will grow to recognize their need, grow to ask for the gifts we have prepared. A bicycle for a two year old? Maybe not. We can put the bicycle aside, though, and one day, when her legs are long enough to reach the pedals and her courage has grown to join her curiosity, she will ask for it. And that is how we know she is ready. Then, unsteadily at first but with growing grace, she will begin to ride out into her world.
That is what awaits us, when we know our own need for something more, something that transcends our humanity, something divine. And so we ask, praying yet again the Lord’s Prayer, but finally understanding that it isn’t about bread, not really. It is about something harder to touch but longer lasting.
All that is eternal, all that is divine, has been waiting for us to know our need. Ask, and it will be given you…
Luke claims that the people were filled with expectation. What a remarkable condition — an entire people looking forward, looking beyond themselves, expecting something, expecting the divine.
We don’t have to believe it, of course. Surely, not everyone was expecting a savior. It is hard to imagine everyone expecting anything — Christmas, an election, the sun rising. It is even harder to imagine everyone expecting the same thing, and so unlikely a thing as a messiah.
Perhaps in some different way it was true. Luke could have meant that his sort of people, the ones inclined to think about religious things, that all of these people were excited and thinking of a coming messiah, wondering about John the Baptist, thinking that John could be the one, though he denied it. He was certainly unusual enough, and he talked a lot about God and faith and repentance. He almost fit the bill.
Maybe it was true another way. Most of us are looking for something, expecting something or someone, hoping for something. Could the thing we are hoping for be some sort of messiah? Whether we define it in theological terms or not, are we hoping for something to save us, someone to save us, whether literally or figuratively?
Carl Jung wrote of archetypes, those powerful ideas, symbols, living deep in the unconscious regions of our minds—shadow, mother, trickster, hero, god. Surely a messiah qualifies? Someone to save us, god and hero and wise man in one, though the thing we are saved from varies?
Some of us want to be saved from despair, or grief, or regret. Others long to be rescued from the tedium of day to day life. Psychologists speak of needs and drives and behaviors, supplying language for our traps, cages, deficiencies, determination, desires. Just today I heard an economist talking about envy, envy of all things, as an economic force. To my mind, envy is something addressed by theology, not economists, but it makes sense as a economic principle as well.
What the ancients called sin and hubris, we call behavioral faults, to be expected in the natural order of the universe. Never mind that the natural order of the universe is violent, dangerous, ruthless, and unforgiving. Our modern comprehension of our place in the cosmos has been massively enriched, but at the same time our insight is shattered into kaleidoscopic and often bewildering bits.
Perhaps there is too much division, too much breaking up of knowledge into categories, separate rooms, disintegration. Not so long ago human lives were defined and molded by tribe or king or religion. Now we listen to voices of economists, politicians, doctors, scientists, fast food, gourmet food, all natural food, social media, real estate agents, bankers, automobile commercials, and the two hour window when a cable technician can hook up our televisions. With so many voices in our heads, it is hard to know which ones are important, which ones should get our attention. We are driving ourselves toward insanity.
We need something to save us from all of that, but our expectations are low.
The Christian celebration known as Epiphany is named for the showing, the revealing, of the Christ child. Some wise men found a child, caught sight of a symbol from the deepest parts of their minds, a savior figure, the messiah. They came, in the stories, with the expectation of finding him, and they did. So do we understand that the magi found the messiah because that is what they were sent to do, or did they find him because they expected him?
We call into being the things we expect. Expectations are powerful, connecting us to the divine in our hopes and dreams and aspirations. To live in expectation of redemption is an experience of faith, the practical application of hope.
What a remarkable way to live — expecting to experience the divine in our everyday lives.
Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Sunday Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
The Gospel of Doing
John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes — he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.
Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venture into the Temple itself, John left the company of society. He went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. John believed, hoped, that someone else was coming, someone who would come from a world away, and maybe out there, away from the cities and the lights, it might be easier to keep watch on the horizon.
In the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. It may have been what he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use — John ‘happened’ — a way of describing the acts of a prophet) somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their familiar paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.
”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.
His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.
Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.
Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.
That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.
Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world or apart from it.
John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.
He didn’t preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.
John preached a gospel of expectation — God is coming into the world, always, perpetually. He preached a gospel of doing — feeding, clothing, sharing — and oddly enough, according to John, these are the things that make smooth the paths on which we might see God approaching. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another: he told them to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.
Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary
Anchored in Christmas
The passage from Luke insists on establishing the date, or at least that is what it appears to do. The author grounds what is to follow, anchors it in history, by listing the names and years of rulers—the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, during the rule of Herod Antipas and of Herod Philip and of the otherwise unknown Lysanias of Abilene, during the priesthood of Annas and of Caiaphas.
In that time, according to Gospel of Luke, the word of God came to John the Baptist. Literally, we are told that the word of God “happened” to John, but one might suppose that the word of the Lord always happens to prophets.
So why start talking about John the Baptist? Why go to so much trouble to establish the historical setting of John’s ministry? After all, it’s the beginning of the story of Jesus. Why go to such trouble to anchor John in history instead?
It’s not about establishing a date for the events, or at least not just about pointing to the year. A date would be just a fact. The setting — the Gospel claims that these things happened in a real world, to real people not in any way that different from ourselves — is more than history or biography. The setting of the story is itself an expression of theology. It tells us something about God.
The story of Jesus is astonishing. In fact, the Christian claim that Jesus was God become human is nearly unbelievable, particularly to us reasonable, closed minded, modern folk—first one must accept the reality and existence of God, not a welcome idea in many circles, and then one must also accept that this God could and would become incarnate in human form. Of course, the notion was not new to the ancient world. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, and many other people before them, told stories of gods who walked on the earth as human beings. There were plenty of tales of the children of gods. One might even say that those ancient stories prepared the way for people to accept the possibility of a man who was also God in ways that would be unthinkable in our modern world.
If we, as Christians everywhere claim, accept the idea that God was doing something new, something never seen before or since, in the life and ministry of Jesus, we are also tempted to think of the Jesus story as an event outside of time, more akin to a meteor falling from space than to anything growing naturally on the earth.
Luke goes out of the way to make precisely the opposite claim. This is no act of God that comes falling like lightning from the sky. This is grounded. This is God growing the miracle of incarnation in a real world, in a particular moment of human history, surrounded by the joys and troubles of humanity.
In a real time and a real place, God called John, that wild and untamed man. In a particular time and place, God happened to John. In that real world, John set about the work he believed God called him to do — preparing a way, making a straight path to the minds and hearts of people who hoped for more out of their lives than work and taxes. John got their attention, even as he prepared the way for someone else to eclipse him.
In responding to God, John the Baptist was covered in the dust of the wilderness, surrounded by anxious people, bound by the laws of repressive Roman overlords and by the practice of his Jewish faith.
Romans. Local rulers. Taxes. Dust. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was his reality.
We can take comfort in the historical grounding of John’s call. If John could engage with the experience of God in such a place and time, then the same can be true for us in ours.
No need to wait for a perfect world in order to engage with God — in fact, that might be counterproductive. We do not need great opportunities, perfect connections; we do not need to be perfect people. Look at John. According to the other gospels, John the Baptist roamed the wilderness, ate locusts (the bugs, not the flowers) and dressed in camel hair — he was not what we might today call well adjusted. Even by first century standards, he wasn’t normal.
We begin great and wonderful things where we are, as we are. That is an important part of the good news, the gospel story. Great things may start in the wilderness, covered in dust.
Advent is about making a way, not about waiting for someone else to do it. The season of Advent is about straightening the paths we have, starting from our here and our now.
Christmas, like heaven, may seem to have more to do with one day and some day and the promised land, but it is anchored in the present — our present wilderness.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Off With His Head
I’ve never seen a single verse from this passage on a T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet.
It is such a strange story. For one thing, it’s a sandwich. That’s what brilliant theologians and expositors call a passage where Mark sticks one thing in the middle of something else.
In the middle of this story about some disciples going out and preaching on their own, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is ironic, since preaching is precisely what got John the Baptist in trouble—he had been opening his mouth and telling the people who would listen everything that he thought they ought to hear. Unfortunately for John, one of the things he preached was that people in positions of power ought not to behave like King Herod.
Speaking the truth to power is generally not welcomed by the ones with the power. It’s like that all the way up—parents, teachers, bosses, politicians and kings. Just because what you have to say may be true is no reason to expect that they will want to hear it.
It’s the job of faithful people to tell it anyway, even if the hearers want to chop off some heads, even if it lands us in a Birmingham jail.
Stories like this one stick with you. We’ve been telling them to each other ever since Og and his clan started watching firelight on cave walls. We still do it. That’s the real reason flat screen TVs are more popular than the old versions—a flat screen hanging on the living room wall matches our deep ancestral memories of listening to stories in the cave, painting the walls by firelight. Technology has just brought us back to where we started. And stories carry more truth than rules ever could.
The story of John the Baptist sounds like Southern gothic writing, like something from The Sound and the Fury or Deliverance. A lecherous half-drunk king, a beautiful half witted girl, a witch of a mother—how’d you like to have a mother like this one?—and a bearded wild man prophet with his head on a dinner plate. We’re inclined to believe every word of it, not because it’s in the Bible but because who would make up all that?
There’s much we can learn.
We need to be careful of our promises, for one thing. Jesus warned people not to swear to things without thinking. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”
Herod made an oath, in front of everyone, promising his daughter—her name may have been Herodias or it may have been Salome—anything she wanted. He did not foresee the consequences. Not that killing one more person gave Herod any qualms, but he liked listening to John, which is dead odd, since it was Herod listening to John that had gotten John imprisoned in the first place.
“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The slightly smaller fish in the pond were all gathered around watching, and Herod did not want to look like the sort of man who would go back on his word.
It is ironic, isn’t it? Everybody in the room had seen Herod do worse than refuse to kill an innocent man. Nevertheless, he kills John—though he had someone else swing the sword—to maintain appearances and for the sake of pride.
And it didn’t work, did it? Once they brought John’s head up from the prison, like a gruesome entree on a serving platter, nobody thought better of Herod for it.
Even that bunch of court sycophants knew Herod better than that. They weren’t blind.
Maybe I should make a little confession here. You see, I often do things (no head chopping) just for the sake of pride or to keep up what I think is an appearance. Monty Python said it right. I’m not fooling anybody.
Let’s think about the girl’s mother, Herod’s wife. Herodias. Now there’s a piece of work. She really does sound like the evil witch in a fairy tale, doesn’t she? The girl comes, breathless, to her mother, who is not at the party—perhaps it was a men only affair—saying, “What shall I ask for?”
The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. Hold the body.
She reaches down and asks for the worst thing that her self-absorbed, arrogant, revenge seeking mind can think of. We despise her.
Worse, we understand her.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we have to pick the character in this little play that is most like ourselves, who is it? The pretty dancing girl? Maybe. We’ve all done stupid things and been proud of them at the time.
How about the king? Herod himself? Not many of us really want to identify with him. We know too much about the Herods to be sympathetic.
John the Baptist? That is a possibility. We’ve all lost our heads at one time or another, with the difference being that most of us put our own heads on plates and walked off without them. Some of us have been imprisoned, either physically or more likely in other more subtle ways. Some of us know what it is like to have other people begrudge our existence, sometimes for very wrong reasons. Some of us might identify with the prophet.
Most of us are not so honest as John the Baptist, not so brave. We’re not sure that we are speaking for God—that thought gives us pause. It should give any decent person pause.
How about the wicked, evil, horrible, no-good, witch of a queen? Well, if this were an actual play, that would be the fun part, wouldn’t it? To really let loose and be the dark hearted self-serving vengeful creature that this woman became? Now that would be entertainment.
We love the stories with evil witch queens, and we love them for a lot of reasons. One that we need to think about is this—we know that she is just doing what we’d love to do, what we might do, if we weren’t afraid or if we had the power. Oh, we might not go around killing folk, not at first, but imagine getting anything you want.
The reason we hold onto stories like this one, with John the Baptist losing his head, dying in a cause he could not have fully understood but for which he was willing to give his life, and other stories like it, real and imagined, is for the truth that is in them.
G K Chesterton said this about fairy tales:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
Neil Gaiman summarized the idea this way:
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” He went on to describe the power of great stories to “…furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” (Here’s a link to a wonderful article on a website called BrainPickings.org — Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last.)
We hold onto the fairy tales with the wicked witches and evil kings and trolls and dragons not because they are factual, but because they are true. In much the same way, we do not tell the stories of the Garden of Eden and of the prophet Elijah and of John the Baptist because of factual content. Any facts in these sorts of stories are only for people who want to distract themselves from the truth. There is a difference.
John the Baptist was executed by Herod. That is the simple fact of the matter. We are still telling this story because John the Baptist dead had more to offer than Herod alive. That is the truth.
Now imagine that you are sitting wherever the evil queen was sitting, and the girl comes to you.
“I can get anything, anything at all,” she says, only now she sounds just the tiniest bit like a beautiful snake in a story about a garden.
“Anything,” she whispers. “And I won’t tell anyone that it was your idea. What shall I ask for?”
What do we tell her? More to the point, what do we want to tell her? It is the sort of test that helps us figure out who we are, uncovers what we hide from ourselves. What would we ask for? What do we want?
What would we see on our platter?
Know thyself, the Greeks said. The unexamined life is not worth living. More than 400 years after Socrates, Jesus gave us something of the same idea. “By their fruits you shall know them.”
By our answers, we shall know ourselves.
This is the real hero’s quest, to find the secrets we keep from ourselves. In stories, the girl or boy, our hero, goes off to find a treasure or to slay a dragon, but that is usually only in stories. The true heroes are you and I, which is why we love these tales. The real quest takes us inside our own hearts, to see whether there is any treasure after all, or to slay the dragon we find hiding there.
We get one life, one wish, one story. What happens next?