Sunday, December 14, 2014

3rd Sunday in Advent

And he confessed and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ.

This third Sunday in Advent is traditionally given to reflecting on and praying for the ordained ministry of the church. The collect for this Sunday in the traditional prayer book highlights the similarity between the ministry of John the Baptist which prepared the way for Christ's first coming and the ministry of the Christian church today which prepares the way for his second coming. In short, the life, witness and ministry of John the Baptist are a model for Christian priests and ministers to follow, and help to give all a sense of what a priest is and what he is not. This morning I want to examine the Gospel lesson to see what we can glean about Christian ministry from the example and words of John.

In the opening verses of our passage, we are told that the Jewish leaders sent an embassy  to John to find out what kind of credentials he has. It is clear that John does not fit the established religious institutions and conventions of his time. He is in the fray, and they want to know exactly who he is and what he is doing. John is not hesitant to say, I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah or one of the prophets. You see a foundation of John's ministry was to point away from himself. Later on in John's Gospel, he will say, I must decrease, but he, that is Jesus, must increase. Christian ministry in the same way is always about pointing away from self. The most important things a Christian priest can do are not about the priest as an individual but about being a vessel for God's grace and a witness to new life in Jesus Christ. It is all too easy for priests, and for the people they serve, to fall into the trap of the cult of personality. The priest can begin to tout what a great person he is. He can begin to worship on the altar of popularity, forgetting that a priest has to have the courage to speak truth which must sometimes make him unpopular. In all of this, the priest has to say, I am not the Christ, I am not your messiah. God's grace was with you long before I came along, and your relationship with him will still be there even after I am gone. This is why I shy away from lots of personal anecdotes in my preaching. Personal anecdotes might help you feel connected to me as a person, but they probably won't make you feel connected to God. In the final estimation, when you step out of this church, I don't want you to remember some personal anecdote about me, but the message of God's grace and love. There is a time and place for getting to know each other on a personal level, as fellow Christians, but I don't believe that time and place is in the pulpit.

But I digress, in the Gospel lessons, those sent to question John persist in their inquiries. You're not the Christ; you're not Elijah; you're not that prophet, but you have to be something, they say, and indeed, John says that he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. John is alluding to a passage in the book of Isaiah in which the prophet announces a word of hope and redemption for those who had gone into exile. One of the most important events in the Old Testament was the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. The trip was a long one; nearly a thousand miles, and there was no direct route. You had to go  far north of Jerusalem, and then loop towards the southwest toward present day Baghdad. The route as the crow flies from Jerusalem to Babylon is an expansive desert, largely uninhabited both in ancient and modern times. Isaiah describes a homecoming for the exiled Jews through this wilderness. The familiar words from Isaiah read, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” Of course, this never literally happened. There was no highway running through the Arabian desert for the Jewish exiles to come home to Jerusalem. What was Isaiah's meaning and John's meaning by quoting this passage? The idea is that in God, there is a straight path back to fellowship with him, not because in our human disorder we have finally sorted things out, but because God has made a way for us in Jesus Christ. Every obstacle that could separate us from the love and mercy of our Creator has been taken away. The great mountain of human hostility and rebellion against God has been laid low. The great valley of human despair in living apart from God has been raised up. John was preparing the way for Jesus Christ, and that in him, we have our highway to God. The Christian minister is called to this same proclamation. It is all too-tempting for Christian ministers to set up false obstacles between God's love and his people. A minister can preach endlessly that people are not worthy, and they aren't, but that isn't the point, my friends. We're not worthy, but the Gospel isn't about us; it is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not dependent, thank God, on our worthiness, but on God's decision to love us and restore us in Jesus. Ministers can also set up obstacles in the way they act towards outsiders: the subtext often is maybe if you work really hard and become exactly like us, you could become a part of this church. God has flung open the doors; he has made the path straight to his redeeming grace. God doesn't need his ministers to be the gate-keeper. He needs them to be stewards of this good news for all people.

So, to sum up, John's ministry shows that Christian ministers have to point away from themselves to Jesus Christ, and their central proclamation is to be about the highway to God, established in Jesus Christ. But it should also be said, that every Christian has a ministry as well, whether it is in your home or place of work or in community work or even in politics. We all have our vocations to which God has called us, and none is any better or less than other, just different. The same applications that we've made from John's ministry about priests and ministers apply to each of us. Each of our lives have been created, preserved, and redeemed by God's grace. There really is no boasting in our own strength because everything we have and are is from the Lord. All of us are to point away from ourselves, like John, to a greater one. In addition, in our interactions with others, we should not divide humanity into two classes: the redeemed or potentially redeemed and the unredeemable. In God, there is a highway. We have to treat others as if at any moment the invitation to come home to God down this highway will strike them like a clap of thunder. Are we setting up man-made hills and digging trenches to the love and grace of God, or are we witnesses of God's highway, God's great redeeming love in Jesus Christ?

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