In my office, I have two icons of John the Baptist. They sit between the two chairs across from my desk where they cannot be ignored. As I sit listening and talking with people, they remind me to think beyond the present. They call me to pay attention, to take notice of God’s presence and work among us.
Both of these icons are special to me. One of them is handmade, or hand-prayed, by a dear friend. Bright colors frame John’s face and his eyes are turned away: a reminder that John looks for someone else. The other is the first real icon I ever saw of John that touched my heart. Most of icons of John are fairly predictable: wild hair, strange robe…In this icon, the image focuses on the path in the desert. Indeed, John seems to blend in with the wilderness around him. The images remind me, again, that John never sought to draw attention to himself. Instead, John’s life and ministry does not serve him; he serves God.
In my faith journey, I’ve never really spent a lot of time studying John. He’s only mentioned several times in the Gospels. And, despite the importance of his ministry, he has always struck me as a peripheral character; his purpose to bring authenticity to the story. So, in the past, I’ve always rushed over him, in a hurry to get to Jesus.
Yet, John’s ministry is as vital to us as Peter or James or Paul. John stands at the intersection of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ ministry. Like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, he is a prophet calling the people back into relationship with God.
Before John, the prophets called Israel back to the covenant and the law. By the law, the people knew God’s mercy. This time, God does something different. John’s call to repentance prepares us for the revelation of God’s mercy that fulfills the law.
Ever since Eve and Adam ate that single piece of fruit, creation has been in a state of decay. Rather than satisfying our original purpose to reveal God, humanity becomes separated from God. From this point forward, God seeks to return creation to its original purpose. There was the flood, the ark and then a covenant with Noah. There was the call and a covenant with Abram and Sarai: the promise of a great nation in response to their fidelity. There was the great Exodus, the liberation from Eygpt; along with 40 years in the wilderness, the gift of the law and the Promised Land. Yet, none of these manages to fulfill God’s intent: to bridge the gap, to re-unite creation with its Creator. Indeed, it is as if the chasm continues to grow. Yet, God’s desire never changes. Humanity begins with love and this Love continues to work on our behalf.
So, God does something new. God comes among us as more than a prophet, more than a king. God comes as one of us. God comes with all of that love wrapped up in a package that looks very familiar.
But, we’re not there yet. This moment, Christ’s arrival among us, is still to come. No, we are still somewhere in between then (the past) and then (the future). Today, we stand with John: waiting and preparing for the moment when Christ comes.
Mark’s Gospel does not include a “Birth Narrative.” There is no census in Bethlehem, no angels visiting in dreams. Instead, Mark begins with Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” We often, for obvious reasons, associate these words with John. They come right before his introduction in the Gospel and they seem to describe John’s ministry.
And, something I read this week, as I prepared for this sermon, got me thinking. What if these words from Isaiah aren’t really about John? What if they refer to the Gospel itself? What if it is the Gospel that prepares the way, that straightens the path, for Christ to in our lives? We often imagine that John is “the one” who prepares the way for Jesus. We imagine that he is the fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah. And it is true that John prepares the way for Christ. The question I’m asking, though, shifts our thinking ever so slightly.
John is one character in a very big story. And his role is essential to the story. John is not the first to proclaim Christ’s coming and he’s not the last. And, as John announces Christ’s coming, he acts, he gets to work: he calls people to repentance, listens to their confessions and baptizes them.
Mark does more than paint a portrait of John as the one who points the way for Jesus. Mark offers us our first example of discipleship: John is an example of what it looks like to prepare the way for others to follow Christ.
When I consider my life, it occurs to me that each event has led me to this place, this moment.
I remember moving from North Carolina to Louisiana. I was a freshman in high school and not a big fan of the family move for my dad’s new job. But, as you know, teenagers don’t have many options in this situation and, so, off I went.
Turns out, one result of this move was a hinge in my vocation and ministry. Because of my church community in Louisiana, I embraced a call to ordained ministry. Some mentors in my life at the time helped me put this vocation on my horizon. They guided and walked with me as I maneuvered the path towards ordination.
And now, years later, I continue to experience the influence of that community in my life. Every time I preside at the Eucharist, I remember their support. When I share my story, my faith journey, I know that that support prepared the way for me to experience Christ.
When I ponder this, when I imagine, that each moment and person served a purpose, I am amazed. I could not see it at the time. And now, I see, the people and places strung together reaching back generations leading us here to this moment.
Time, though, does not end here. It stretches forward into the future reminding me that we are all part of a greater story: a reminder that we are all part of a larger purpose.
Can we imagine that our lives are woven together for a purpose?
Can we imagine that our life together is a sign of God’s mercy and grace
for each of us?
Can we imagine that we have a role in God’s work in the world; that our ministry will prepare the way, straighten the path for someone else to experience Christ?
John did. John imagined that the work he did made a difference in God’s kingdom. He imagined that his life is a vehicle for others to experience Christ. He stood at the edge of the wilderness and called the people of Israel into a particular way of life. He did not do this for his own sake, his own ambition or self-satisfaction. He was a prophet for the sake of God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world. He took seriously the call of Isaiah and prepared the way for God’s work in the world.
John’s ministry is also our own. We are all part of God’s story. We all have a role to play.
We are all messengers of God’s grace and mercy.
Thanks be to God!