The religious authorities demand some answers from John the Baptist. Namely, they want to know who he claims to be and what he’s up to. He’s gotten their attention because he’s drawing big crowds and shaking things up.
Tons of people have beaten a path to the desert to hear this unlikely character talk about God. Actually, I suspect they come not to see and to hear John at all. Urban sophisticates from Jerusalem and earthy, hardworking folks from the countryside are flocking to the wilderness to encounter God for themselves. John’s teaching and baptizing act as a vehicle for meeting the holy in person.
No wonder the religious authorities have grown suspicious. John the Baptist is cutting into their market share. And in all likelihood he lacks the proper license. God is supposed to be the property of the Temple and the synagogue. John the Baptist has set up a kind of black market God business. In their view, he’s got to be passing off a counterfeit.
When the theological police come knocking, John answers all their questions. He’s not Elijah redux. He’s certainly not the Messiah. And then he says something remarkably important that they completely miss. And that we probably miss as well.
|Filipp Malyavin’s “Laughing”|
John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” (John 1:26b)
That short sentence doesn’t sound significant on the face of it. Hearing those words in the narrow context of the religious leaders’ questions and John’s answer to them that day, you might assume that John is simply saying that they haven’t heard of Jesus yet. After all, Jesus hasn’t even begun his public ministry at this point.
Or, taking into account what we already believe about Jesus today and what the religious authorities could not have known at the time of this exchange, you might say that these leaders failed to recognize Jesus as God incarnate.
Given John the Gospel writer’s penchant for multilayered meanings, both of these interpretations open the text for us. But John the Baptist is getting at something deeper as well. His message to the theological experts and moral teachers and worship leaders of his day is this, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
In Jesus God reveals himself as the God of plot twists.
You’re probably familiar with plot twists from literature and film and television. Narratives take sudden, unexpected turns.
For the better part of the story, you’ve been picking up clues and getting to know characters, so you have a sense of how things are going to wrap up. Then, you discover that your clues are false leads or your villain is in fact the true hero of the whole story. The entire direction of the narrative changes and the ending forces us to reinterpret what we had read or seen at the beginning.
We like plot twists in fiction and fantasy. In real life, maybe not so much. We like for things to be predictable. Stable.
There’s just one problem with that for followers of Jesus. In Christ, God is making all things new. God did not take on flesh to implement minor adjustments to business as usual. He came to complete the project he started on the very first day of creation. He is infusing earth with heaven and fleshing heaven out on the earth.
In other words, we should expect some holy plot twists.
|John French Sloan, “Spring Rain, New York”|
We become accustomed to a way of seeing things and a way of doing things. And then God changes our story. It may seem really abrupt, even disruptive to us. But once we get over the shock of the new, we realize that we could have seen this coming had we only known how to read the story right in the first place.
Then again, you cannot know what you don’t know. Some things we’ll only understand in retrospect.
The religious authorities had no clue that in Jesus God was bringing Temple worship to an end. To be honest, I’m not so sure that John the Baptist realized it. He knew that God was doing a new thing. He was calling people to repent. To open themselves to this new thing. But he didn’t see with clarity how the plot was about to turn. He just sensed that turn coming.
They would still be the children of the very same God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God of Moses and Elijah. Only now, how to live out that identity was about to undergo a cosmic change. That’s because Christ had come to change their minds about God.
The dominant worship practices of the day were shaped by the felt need to appease God through sacrifice. People believed that adhering to the moral law won God’s favor. Since our conduct inevitably falls short of the moral mark, sacrifices were needed to fill the gap. To make things right with God.
This worship reinforced a self-understanding for the people of God, at least among many of the religious leaders. Their aim in life was to live a moral life and to insist that others do the same.
Jesus came to change their minds about God. Grace is not something God dispenses when God is pleased. God is grace: love freely given no matter what. That love is given to the messiest, smelliest of lives. And when that love shows up, lives are transformed.
I think that John the Baptist is speaking to us with a similar message. We are in the midst of a divine plot twist.
|Marc Chagall’s “Bella and Ida by the Window”|
The world is changing beneath our very feet. Old familiar patterns of living are giving way to new practices. Home and work and community don’t look the way they used to. Some of this—no, lots of this—is pretty messy and disorderly. People are learning to live in a changing world, and they’re still trying to figure that out.
The Church should be perfectly suited to be a welcome character in this plot twist. We are the grace people. God formed us in the first place to be not only the recipients of, but also the bearers of, transforming love. As bearers of that love we participate in God’s work to shape all these changes into a holy movement.
Instead, somewhere along the line we forgot about the true nature of grace. We began to think of God in different terms: as the final judge of our moral performance.
And so all too often we find churches responding to the changing world with a moralist’s harsh, disapproving tones. We insist that all of this change can only be a decline. The Church finds itself either demanding a return to what used to be or succumbing to our grief over what is forever past.
Jesus is once again changing our minds about God. That’s not to say that all changes are godly or that we should embrace change for change’s sake. But it is to say that everyone is already a child of God. And it is the Church’s unique calling on this planet to remind everybody, no matter what, of that life-affirming truth.
Here’s the holy plot twist. We’ve been living for too long assuming that we are the morality police, assigned the duty of teaching people how to get God’s approval. Now we are discovering again that we have a very different place in God’s story. Our role is to remind everybody that they are the beloved child of God.
This sermon was preached at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Ruston, Louisiana.