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Not the One
December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Every year John the Baptist pops up in our lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Advent. And every year I point out just how odd he is. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet. He wore clothes that even rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled. But John was different from most people not only because of his strange wardrobe and bizarre diet, but, more significantly, in the humble way he regarded himself. He knew that God’s work in the world didn’t begin with him, and that it would not end with him. He didn’t pretend to be the Savior people were waiting for. Instead, he reminded people again and again that he was only pointing the way to the Savior. In short, John saw himself as a transitional figure. So, because our congregation has entered a time of pastoral transition, let’s lift up our heads and tune in John’s message. He speaks a timely word for a congregation in transition.
In fact, perhaps John the Baptist should be called the patron saint of transitions. The gospels record that John was hugely popular. He attracted enormous crowds, generated great excitement, and fueled hopes that the long awaited liberator, God’s Messiah, had come. Yet John brushed aside these expectations. He deflected the crowd’s attention from himself. Imagine the reaction among his followers when John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Very likely John’s humility disappointed the faithful who had flocked to the Jordan to hear him. After all, who wants to follow the one who is only preparing the way for someone else?
Without a doubt, John the Baptist stands in stark contrast to the way most of us think, most of the time. Isn’t it the case that most of us want to get credit for our work? We want to be known as someone who gets the job done, turns things around, and fulfills people’s expectations for us.
Think, for example, about how today’s business world typically works. Imagine a corporation that holds a national search for a new CEO. The decision-makers are looking for a leader to reverse the downward trend, re-purpose the organization, and solve the company’s problems. Now imagine that their “savior” shows up for the job saying, “Sorry, folks, but I’m not the woman you’re looking for. I’m only preparing the way for one who is coming after me.” Most likely that CEO would be shown the boardroom door.
Or think of a professional sports team that, after a long search, finally drafts its dream player. You know, the one the team is counting on to lead them to the championship. Now consider how deflated the team owners would be if this first-round draft pick said something like, “Actually, I’m not the star player you’ve been waiting for. There’s a much stronger and more powerful player who will come after me.” That’s hardly the kind of attitude that fires up the fans. So whether it’s in business, sports, or politics, we typically want leaders who portray themselves as masters of the turnaround, the man of the hour, or the woman we’ve been waiting for.
Of course, churches, too, can get wrapped up in the culture of the turnaround savior. Especially when congregations are struggling financially, losing membership, failing to attract younger folk, they may look for a “savior” who will come in the form of a new pastor–one who can fill the pews, oversubscribe the budget, and singlehandedly bring in the Kingdom of God.
After 19 years as your senior pastor, I have a confession to make: I’m not the one you have been waiting for. (But of course you already knew that.) And in truth, when you call a new senior pastor a few months from now, he or she won’t be the one, either. Pastors are all transitional figures who, at best, can emulate John the Baptist, and prepare the way for the one who truly is our Savior.
Let’s face it, transitions are challenging because we are called to proclaim what has not yet fully come. We announce glad tidings to people who aren’t convinced that there is anything to cheer about, or any substantial reason to hope. An article in this week’s Wall Street Journal was titled “Fewer Churches Are Going Up.” The article chronicled the changing nature of religious life in our country. They itemized the problems: fewer church buildings are being constructed, there’s a steady downturn in formal religious affiliation and worship attendance, financial contributions to religious organizations are declining, and on and on the dispiriting litany goes.
We sense today some of the impermanence of which the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said: “People are like grass, their constancy like the flower of the field. The grass withers, and the flower fades.” In other words, everything around us is fleeting, temporary and passing away. Thus, we wonder, as did the prophet, what can we cry? Is there nothing that endures?
Yet both Isaiah and John the Baptist lift up their voices proclaiming that, in the midst of all that is ephemeral and transitory in our lives, “the word of the Lord endures forever.” This is a word about a God who is mighty and constant. But as the prophet teaches, God’s might is like that of a shepherd who gently leads the mother sheep. From the beginning, you see, the power of God has been the power of love.
So John the Baptist came announcing the news that the enduring word of God proclaimed by the prophet was about to become flesh, and was coming into the world as a baby in a manger, a servant of others, a man hanging on a cross, and a Love that endures forever.
Friends, pastors come and go, and congregations change, but the word of the Lord endures forever. The person and message of John the Baptist remind us that our only role is to bear witness to the one who truly is our Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. “I have baptized you with water,“ John says, “but he will baptize you the Holy Spirit.” Thank God we have a role to play in the great drama of God’s Salvation. And thank God again that salvation does not depend on any one of us. Our calling is to do everything in our power to prepare the way, and then wait for Christ to do the rest.