12-15-17 - The Spirit Upon You

Let’s switch now to Sunday’s passage from the Hebrew bible – Isaiah’s prophecy of restoration and fulfillment. This is what Jesus read the first time he taught in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth – and then shocked them all by announcing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is also a wonderful description of the ministry of John the Baptist:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, 
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…

Luke’s gospel tells us that God’s Spirit was upon John even before birth, as he leapt in in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary entered, pregnant with Jesus. They may not have met again for many years, but Jesus was very much around when John was exercising his ministry at the Jordan, ultimately coming to him to be baptized himself. And though John’s message was more fierce than comforting, it was Good News he was announcing, Good News that God was near, on the move, coming soon, already here – and people better get ready. (Here’s Curtis Mayfield on that subject… and a version by Joss Stone.)

Believe it or not, this is also an aspect of John’s ministry that we share, united as we are with Christ, filled with God’s Holy Spirit. That good news of release and justice and favor is now ours to deliver to this hurting world. We are the Jesus Movement, participating in God’s great mission to reclaim, restore and renew all of creation to wholeness in Christ. This ministry has a personal dimension, to be sure, and also a global, societal one. Here’s what is promised for those whom the Lord has anointed to bring Good News:

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display God’s glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

God is already at work building up the ancient ruins, the ruined cities, healing the former devastations. This vision may strike us as ludicrous, aware as we are of how busy humankind seems to be causing more ruin to the earth and its cities, but this is the promise we proclaim, the promise we live into, the promise we are bringing into being.

Where are you being called to be an “oak of righteousness” this year? 
Who is God’s planting in your life?
What ruins are you in the process of helping to repair, whether on a street or in someone’s heart?

People, get ready, there’s a train a-comin’,
It's picking up passengers from coast to coast.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’;
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

Are you ready?

12-14-17 - Water and Oil

The Pharisees sent a delegation to investigate John’s ministry because they needed to know by what authority he was operating. Having established that he was not an earthly incarnation of a holy figure, they wanted to know, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 

Once more, John does not answer their question directly, saying rather, 
"I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." (Sunday's gospel passage is here.)

It would be easier to grasp if the writer of John’s gospel had used the fuller quote the other three evangelists cite: “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.”

In that version, the water baptism John offered is contrasted with the Spirit baptism Jesus will initiate. In effect, his reply to the questioners is, “It doesn’t matter who I am, really – I’m not the main event. My baptism in water as a sign of repentance is just preparing people to receive the much more powerful, transforming baptism of Spirit – and that will come from someone already in your midst, whom you do not recognize, whose sandals I am unworthy even to untie.”

When we are baptized into the Christian faith, what matters most is the gift of the Spirit. Unfortunately, many modern baptismal rituals emphasize the water and are weak on conveying the Spirit, which is symbolized by the oil of chrism with which candidates are anointed. In some early Christian rites, the oil was so important, candidates were covered with it. Both elements are crucial to the sacrament of baptism, and our celebration of that sacrament is enhanced when the “sign value” is enlarged, the quantities and gestures expansive enough to convey the power that is being invoked and invited into our midst.

We can feel the water; that’s important. It symbolizes both the cleansing of a bath and the drowning in which our natural selves die, and our eternal, spiritual selves, the union of our spirits with Christ’s spirit, are born. The gift of Spirit cannot be felt with our senses, except through that dab of oil on the forehead, but that is where everything we need to live in God-Life is bestowed on us.

We may not remember our baptisms, if we were christened as infants, but this baptism of Spirit can be relived, re-experienced as often as we’re willing to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit. Fill me. Guide me. Work through me.”

Like John, we point to the One by whom our works are made possible. We are not worthy to untie his shoe laces – yet he has seen fit to stoop to us, to dwell with us, to dwell in us. That gift is forever.

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12-13-17 - Crying Out In Wilderness

John the Baptist would have made a good secret agent – he didn’t give away much under interrogation. Once the temple leaders investigating him established that he was not the Messiah, Elijah, nor “the prophet,” they pressed on:
“Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John might have answered, “I am the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, of the priestly line of Aibjah, born in the hill country of Judea when my parents were too old to have children… I am a preacher in the desert…” But rather than a standard biography, he offers this cryptic tidbit:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.

The identity John claims is that of “voice.” Not maker, builder, preacher, baptizer, but “voice.” A lonely voice at that, crying in deserted places to make a straight way for the Lord. Why in the wilderness? Because no one would have heard him above the din of the city? Because people needed to come away from their distractions to focus on his message? Because that’s where the river was?

Those who speak the truth are often lonely voices in wild places. Think about a time when you have heard someone speak truth that shook your soul or ignited your mind… where were you? What made it possible for you to hear that word? Were you away from your routines, your busyness?

And what message from God do you have for your fellow man? What urgent news do you want to share? Are you called to a “wild place” to share that? Wilderness doesn’t have to look like desert – an empty kitchen that used to be full of children can be a wilderness; a hospital waiting room can be a wilderness; a mall parking lot a desert. Where are you called to bring your voice of truth and love?

It seems absurd on the face of it, a voice crying out in the wilderness. Who the heck is going to hear it? But John’s audience came to him, flocking out of the city, listening, and responding. I believe that when we share the message God wants to give through us, the people who need to hear it will find us. Our wildernesses will become community; our voices will be heard.

(Here is an Advent hymn for today: "There's a voice in the wilderness crying")

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12-12-17 - Who I'm Not

It may be hard for us to understand the excitement that John the Baptist’s appearance in the Judean wilderness unleashed among the people of Israel. After centuries of oppression under a succession of foreign armies, years of exile still a distinct memory, the people of God were desperate for a deliverer. That desire became conflated with prophecies about a Messiah. In a time of religious foment, anyone who seemed to have spiritual power drew attention. And any time a spiritual person came into the limelight, the religious leaders needed to check him out. (I don’t know if they were all “hims,” but that’s all we hear about…) So it was that John was investigated and interrogated.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’  (This Sunday's gospel is here.)

He doesn’t answer their innocuous first question, “Who are you?” directly, but instead answers the question he knows they are asking. “I’ll tell you who I’m not – I am not the Messiah.” That must have been refreshing to hear, in an age when many falsely claimed that title.

They press on, asking if he is the prophet Elijah returned to the life of this world – no physical death is recorded in the Bible for Elijah; we’re told he was taken up in a whirlwind, so people looked for his return and John seemed to fit the bill. “Are you the prophet?,” probably meaning Moses. He answer’s “no” to all these, and never answers the question, “Who are you.” John defines himself – at least to these interrogators – by who he is not.

Is there something in this for us? We’re encouraged to become aware of who we are, in our deepest and truest identity, and there is something holy in that. Yet part of that work involves knowing who we are not. We are not our mothers or fathers; we are not the people we most admire, or fear to be. We are ourselves, with our unique mix of gifts and flaws and baggage and circumstances.

And we need to know who we are not spiritually – not the One in charge; not the savior; not the healer or prophet, though we may be conduits of the power to heal and speak God’s truth. Recovery from addiction and co-dependency often involves stepping out of those false roles.

Self-knowledge is grounded in humility and clarity. Treasuring who it is that God has made us to be, and being clear about who that is, allows us to become even more fully ourselves in God’s grace, and even more fully freed of all that is not.

I will tell again the story of a little girl who stopped on her way home from school every day to chat with a sculptor making a statue in a park. Over the months she watched as the block of stone became a discernible figure, and finally one day, when he was almost finished, said, “Hey mister, how did you know there was a lion in there?”

Who do you say that you’re not?

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