14 December 2014
St Augustine, Wilmette
Isa 61.1-4, 8-11; Ps 126 or Lk 1.46-55; 1 Thess 5.16-24; Jn 1.6-8, 19-28
I assume that all of you are aware of the various peaceful pop-up prayer walks that took place last Sunday at churches and synagogues and other faith centers concerning violence on our streets and particularly concerning the recent court decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York. You might have seen pictures of the signs they carry: “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” Perhaps you even participated in one of these pray-ins.
The gathering area for one of them was Water Tower Place in Chicago and some folks from the bishop’s staff participated. I was told that one of the most edifying parts of the walk occurred as members of St James and 4th Pres and St Chrysostom and several other churches and synagogues began to walk south on Michigan Avenue in the Mag Mile. They had already prayed and heard stories from those who know the violence and injustice all too well. As they walked, some carrying those signs, they were silent. And here’s the thing: Michigan Avenue, Nordstrom and Disney and Apple and Crate & Barrel Michigan Avenue, and the crowds and the traffic on that Michigan Avenue began to be silent as well. 18 days before Christmas in arguably one of the busiest shopping districts in downtown Chicago and the shoppers who had been hurrying in and out of stores and herding children and talking with their friends stopped and watched the silent parade and got quiet themselves as if they’d been infected by an unseasonably benevolent flu. As the marchers passed one corner some of them overheard a conversation between a little girl and her dad. “What are they doing with those signs? And why are they so quiet?” the little girl asked. Silent himself for a moment, the dad finally answered, “They want us to pay attention.”
Last week we who gathered in churches heard from another Isaiah, a quiet one who wanted his own people to pay attention and who sang a lullaby to a beleaguered, depressed and hopeless people: Nahamu, nahamu, ami, this Isaiah crooned: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ says your God.” And then we heard from Mark’s John the Baptizer who was anything but quiet, stirring up the people with his talk of baptism and forgiveness and a mysterious someone who was yet to come. John the B also desperately wanted his own occupied and oppressed people to pay attention. That was last week. This morning’s Isaiah, au contraire, is full of gusto and intensity and … infinitives; this is an Isaiah on a mission with no time to stop and sing lullabies. Listen to this cascade of verbs: bring, bind, proclaim [2 x], release, comfort, provide, give. And did I mention that all of them are infinitives, that part of speech that most of us learned about in the 3rd grade, that state of the verb not marked or limited by time or by a particular tense, but utterly open to the present and to the past and to the future.
It’s the job of the prophet to get the people to sit up and take notice so that they can hear the truth about themselves and about their world. In ancient Israel, the best of the prophets were summoned and sent by God to do just that and the truth of this Isaiah is that the good news, that bringing, binding, proclaiming, releasing, comforting, providing and giving is available now despite appearances to the contrary, despite upheaval and injustice and violence. What a passel of unbelievable good news that is to those who had been oppressed or broken-hearted or captive or imprisoned or who had been in inconsolable mourning. And all of this whirlwind of activity is not to be a private gift hoarded by the donees, but a largesse so big and so astonishing that is noted by those who watch from the sidelines. Israel, in its great resurgence from certain death to renewed and revitalized hope and life in the late 6th century stands, as an earlier Isaiah had promised, as a light to the nations, as witness to the graciousness and unending attentiveness of their God.
And again this week, as happens every 2nd and 3rd week of every Advent, we are treated to a reprise visit from John the B. We’re used to calling him ‘the Baptist’ or better ‘the Baptizer’ because in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke that’s what he was famous for doing; in this gospel, though we are told he baptizes, that role is muted as the emphasis on his central ministry changes. Here, he’s the first of several witnesses to Jesus, and for this gospel, being a witness to Jesus, seeing him and having insight into what he’s doing is a very big deal. John pays attention and he wants his contemporaries to pay attention too. And John the Witness witnesses even before meeting the object of his witnessing. That’s kind of extraordinary. And his witnessing is a little weird as well. As Isaiah pulsates with infinitive tripping over infinitive opening everything up, John’s speech is marked by a series of negatives which get stridently terser: “I am not the messiah…I am not…No!” muting his own heretofore quite active ministry gradually down to a whisper. He declares who he is not and when he finally answers the question of identity relentlessly pressed by his questioners he quotes somebody else and even there he self-deprecates. Despite what our English translations say, he is not the voice crying but a voice. He is not the main event but the opening act. When he says later in this same gospel, “He must increase, but I must decrease," he wasn’t kidding.
There’s a Greek word for what he does in this gospel: martyrion, and that word appears in this gospel 45 times and in the other gospels combined only twice so obviously for the author of the 4th gospel this witnessing business is important. In fact, it becomes the key characteristic of a follower of Jesus. In the ancient world, being a witness, like being a prophet, meant telling the truth. Your life depended on it as false witnessing was deserving, in the law codes of the day, of the death penalty which is why the English noun martyr, derived from the Greek verb ‘to witness’ gradually took on the meaning of dying for the faith, something that John would in fact later do.
But before all of that, he appears out of nowhere in this gospel. Again, the English version that Bryan proclaimed a moment ago is not quite how the Greek has it, not the smooth “There was a man sent…” but “A man appeared, sent…”. Just when we’re getting into the groove of that majestic hymn with which the gospel begins … you know the one: “In the beginning was the word and the word was toward God and everything God was the word was…”. John interrupts lofty poetry with earthy prose and grounds the cosmic and mystical and otherworldly with the incarnational and concrete and emphatically this-worldly providing all by himself a Christmas story in shorthand. And he witnesses, how he witnesses. I’m not the one, he says over and over: ego ouk eimi: I am not, I am not, I am not, preparing for the one who in this gospel will claim over and over I am, ego eimi: I am the good shepherd and I am the bread of life and I am the light of the world.
It is no wonder that we have so many depictions in the art of the millennia pairing Jesus with John. And in most of them John points, even when he’s a chubby little toddler in those several Renaissance paintings, he points to the baby in Mary’s lap. In this gospel, John the Witness is more than baptizer, important as that role is; here he’s the first disciple who shows the way not only to the one whose sandal strap he’s not worthy to tie, but he’s the one who demonstrates discipleship to all those who will come after him in this gospel and beyond. To follow Jesus is to witness to who he was and what he said and what he did. And not only that. Jesus did not go to all this trouble to leap from heaven to become one of us for the fun of it. What we celebrate in a bit more than a week is that God became one of us to teach us to become more like the God in whose image each of us was made. John the Witness somehow knows this and points the finger: Here’s the One. He’s got important stuff to say and to teach and to do. Pay attention.
Several weeks ago, I was on the bus on the commute from the train station to my office at St James Commons and I was doing what many of my fellow passengers do near the end of commute and beginning of workday. I was daydreaming, glancing idly about as you do, when something caught my eye. It was one of those moments when you’re looking around but not really seeing and your eye passes over something and keeps on going and suddenly your brain catches up and you stop and reverse direction. What I had seen was the word ‘GOD’ in discreet white letters on the arm of a black coat that a woman sitting a few seats away was wearing. I didn’t want to stare rudely so I looked away. But I couldn’t help myself; I kept glancing back as surreptitiously as I could. Why did she have God embroidered on her Columbia down-filled coat? Was she a little gospel right there on the 125 on Wacker Boulevard? What God was she proclaiming so silently on her coat? If we got into a conversation would we be talking about the same sort of God? Would I have the courage to wear God on my sleeve? Should I? What would it mean to me and to others who saw me? Then she got up to leave the bus a stop before mine. It wasn’t ‘GOD’ on her sleeve after all; it was the number 600 and the slight crease in the last zero as she sat made it look to me like a ‘D’. Still, all unknowing, she was for me that morning an interruption and a witness.
It’s Advent 3. We’re almost to the main event of the season and both John and Isaiah have something to say to us. We don’t have to wear God on our sleeves on a bus or stand in a real wilderness and point. We don’t have to do anything really if we don’t choose to. But John and the countless witnesses who follow his lead tell us it’s not enough to say we believe in Jesus or go to church or even say we love Jesus if we don’t point to him and what he did and what he said and what he taught. Pop-up prayer walks like the ones last week and today and that will continue to happen perhaps until, as another prophet puts it, “justice rolls down like a river” are one response because they interrupt us and point and ask us to pay attention to what we’re doing or allowing others to do in our name. The Jesus whose birth we’ll celebrate in 11 days didn’t sit still for violence and unjust practices; he died because of them. And Isaiah’s God who prompted the prophet to let loose that cascade of life-giving infinitives did not rappel down from a height to do the work that would make those verbs a reality; instead it is the people to whom those verbs were directed who do the work of redemption: “They shall be called,” says Isaiah in the middle of our reading today, and “they shall build up…they shall raise…they shall repair.” There’s the good news. There’s the witness. Pay attention.
To what do we point in our lives, in our families, in the places we hang out? Old Isaiah’s Israel became for a while what it was called to be, ‘a light to the nations’ and an active witness to their God. In this festival in which we celebrate the coming of the Light into the world, may we do a little of the same in any way we can. Not as Messiah. Not as Elijah. Not as the prophet. Not even as John. But as just us here and now in the world that God still so impossibly so loves. And that will be enough.