Luke 1: 57-80
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Zechariah, a priest of the temple, and his devout wife, Elizabeth, are childless and quite elderly when they are visited by the angel Gabriel and told they will be parents of a son. They are told that their son will be a great prophet, and will herald the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. Isn’t that extraordinary? How can this be? About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth who is an unmarried young woman named Mary. She is told that she is going to bear the Messiah. And isn’t this extraordinary? How can this be? Elizabeth does indeed give birth to a son, John, and Mary gives birth six months later to a son, Jesus. If we work our ways backwards in the western calendar of the church, with the birth of Jesus being celebrated on December 25th, the birth of his cousin John would be celebrated six months earlier, today, the 24th of June: John, the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus, the miracle son of Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her husband, Jesus’ “stepfather,” Joseph.
There were probably a lot of “family of origin” issues with these two cousins, especially given the incredible challenge of living into their destinies, (supposedly) predicted by the angel Gabriel. I say “supposedly” because these are the kinds of stories you can read about today in supermarket check-out lines. I would guess that in back-water Judea in the first century, there must have been a fair amount of gossip and derisive humor about about these angel stories and these two bionic boys. What would it have been like for these two cousins to grow up in each other’s shadows, to live side-by-side for maybe 30 years, their lives shrouded with such mystery and expectation and speculation about their identities and their futures. Neither of them married. It seems that neither of them was all-that-special, really, at least for boys who were supposed to become so great. What did they know about each other? What did they think about each other? How did they talk to one another? We don’t know.
All we do know is that one day John left home and, it seems, left Jesus, at least left Jesus on his own. John began living out own his destiny, preaching repentance, baptizing those who came to confess their sins, preparing the way for the Messiah. And then the day comes that Jesus appears on the horizon, asking John to be baptized with all the other sinners. I can imagine this was something of a crisis for John. “What is Jesus doing here?” John silently screams with his eyes. Either Jesus, his cousin, was the Messiah, or Jesus was not the Messiah after all. In my mind’s eye I can see John lunging after Jesus, seizing Jesus by the arm and marching him out into the sea, far enough so they could be alone, where John demands, almost in desperation, “What in the world are you doing here!?” I suspect that Jesus is not, himself, completely clear why he has come.
But Jesus soon has something of an answer. There’s the sight of a dove and the sound of a voice from heaven saying, “This is my well-beloved son.” John, it seems, never completely hears this answer, not in this life. John does baptize Jesus, on Jesus’ insistence, and Jesus leaves for the wilderness and beyond. John labors on, baptizing, and, I bet, wondering, too. The only thing he’s sure of is that something greater is to come. “Prepare the way for it,” John preached. Would this happen through Jesus or not? John knew from where Jesus had come – his clan and his culture – which probably left John wondering, “What good could come out of that?” You may even remember the early reports in the Gospels about Jesus’ coming to his home town to teach the people. People were astounded, not because they had never met and seen someone like Jesus. Quite to the contrary, they did know him and had heard him because he grew up there. And so we hear that the people were astounded: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”
I don’t think they were impressed or taken with Jesus. Quite to the contrary. The Gospel account says that they took offence at him. And Jesus says (maybe under his breath), “Prophets are not without honor… except in their own country and in their own house.”1 John the Baptist was from the same country, same house, same clan. According to the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke, even at the end of his life (when he was in prison), John might not have been altogether sure that Jesus actually was the Messiah. John now in prison facing execution, summons two of his own disciples and sent them to Jesus with instructions. They are to say to Jesus that “John the Baptist” had sent them. And John told them to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” (which maybe even needs to apply to John). 2
I actually take enormous comfort in what I read to be John’s uncertainty, maybe confusion about Jesus’ identity and his own. I take comfort in this for several reasons, which may also speak to you.
For one, Jesus had his own issues growing into his own identity as the Messiah. It took the church three centuries following Jesus’ death and resurrection to arrive at the theological formula that Jesus was truly God and truly human (the very thing we will attest to in the Nicene Creed, momentarily). I wonder how that was with Jesus in his own lifetime? As we hear in the Gospel record, people were asking, “What good can come out of someone from somewhere like Jesus?” I imagine Jesus was asking those questions of himself long before anyone else was. We even know of Jesus’ struggle, up to the last moment of his crucifixion, when he felt abandoned by the God whom he called “Father”: “Why, O why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cries out. I find enormous comfort in both John’s and Jesus’ struggle to know and claim their own identities and with certainty. Some mornings I wake up and I’m not completely sure about a lot of things – either about my own identity or about Jesus’. What I am sure about I draw from memory: of God having been with me, miraculously, in so many ways in life. Maybe so for you, too? I draw on my past memory and I draw on my present need… which brings me to an altar such as this with my hands cupped, almost begging to know God’s presence and God’s provision.
I also recognize the incompleteness of John’s life experience: he was beheaded. As for Jesus: he was abandoned, then crucified. Neither of these cousins’ lives on earth ended in perfect completeness. You may know that Shaker hymn, “ ‘tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” and the stanza which ends with the line about “everything coming round right.” 3 I believe that to be true, with all my heart. But I don’t believe that to be true about all life on this earth. For some people, many things do come round right in their own lifetimes: issues with their families and friends, with their health, with their finances, with their reputation and legacy come round right. However most of the time – at least as I listen to people’s lives and read the newspapers – most people come to the end of their lives incomplete, often times quite broken. In the vocabulary of the church, there is this wonderful phrase, “the hope of heaven.” What I look for and pray for – for myself and for people whom I know and love and for people whom I simply read about in the newspapers – my hope and prayer for heaven isn’t about pearly gates and gold-paved streets, but about reconciliation and restoration. When Jesus says he’s come “to make all things new,” I think he’s speaking heavenward. I’m not suggesting we live our lives in a kind of masochistic state where we are determined to take pleasure in our suffering. Nor am I suggesting that we give up enjoying all the good gifts we can and do enjoy in life. Nor am I suggesting that we cease to struggle and advocate for justice and peace on this earth. To the contrary, we are the major builders of what Jesus calls his “kingdom,” his coming kingdom. That’s our job. It’s our job, to be preparing the highway to God, especially for those who have fallen off the path or never discovered the path to God. We’re on a mission from God in this life, every last second of our lifetime. But in the meantime – and sometimes it’s a very mean time, we also embrace the reality that life on this earth is incomplete. It’s a foretaste of what is to come, for ourselves and for others. If you know someone who died where things did not “come round right” in their own lifetime, pray for them. Pray for the kind of healing and reconciliation that can come, and may only be able to come, in death. I think we’ve got enormous power here to pray for what Jesus calls the “unbinding of people” on earth and in heaven. – Back to John the Baptist and Jesus… I think they lived incomplete lives on this earth, and I think they give witness to an earthly-heavenly comfort and freedom to us all.
One last word of comfort and encouragement from the life and witness of John the Baptist and Jesus. The earliest followers of Jesus were not called “Christians.” They were called “followers of the way.” Jesus even takes this name himself when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the way.” Where did this notion of the “the way” come from ? Jesus certainly would have heard this in the readings from the prophets and in John’s own speaking. John proclaims, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” What is this way? First of all we come to find out how Jesus is the way. His message is that all of us have lost our way and need to be found and rescued, saved, brushed off, patched up, cuddled, fed and lead home. We need to be rescued; we need to be saved. God, out of so much love for the world, sends God’s only Son to seek us out and save us. In English the verbs to save, to salvage, to salve come from the same etymological root. And it’s true also in the Greek. Jesus has come to save us, to salvage our lives, to salve our wounds. Because that’s the way God is. We hear the prophet Isaiah’s call, “Prepare the way,” but when it comes down to it, in Isaiah’s day it didn’t happen or couldn’t happen, and so Jesus makes it happen by coming to us and living with us and dying for us and rising from the dead. God provides for what God commands. God becomes the way to God through Jesus. I would call this good news, very good news. Jesus has come to save us, salve us, salvage us. And I would say that it is Jesus who finds his way to us. I don’t think we find Jesus; he seeks to find us, who are prone to get lost in life. That’s the way it is with Jesus.
If this is a season of your life where you are full of clarity and confidence, where all seems right in heaven and on earth, how wonderful. Enjoy it. Share it and share it generously. If, however, this is season of your life where you are lost – something about your past or your present or your future – and you are lost, take enormous comfort. Jesus will find his way to you, presuming you need to be rescued. Jesus bridges the way to us and to the God whom he calls Father. Jesus is called God Emmanuel, God with us, God with you, even today. Even if your only experience just now is longing for God and a feeling of emptiness, God is in the emptiness. John points to Jesus. And Jesus looks for us. And he finds us. He finds you. And what he finds in you he loves.
1 Matthew 13:54-57.
2 Luke 7:18-23: “The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”
Matthew 11:2-6: “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”
See also Acts 19: 1-7, 18-25.
3 Simple Gifts was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. in 1848. It was first published in The Gift to be Simple: Shaker Rituals and Songs.
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