One Whom You Do Not KNow
| John 1:6-8
|Sun, December 15, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|John’s gospel is, from the beginning, a drama. It is in the form of Greek theater, a drama that always has two voices in dialogue. The first voices in the gospel are representatives, sent to meeting at a dramatic location. They meet “across the Jordan”. This geography has massive implications. It is a site soaked in memory for Israel and for us. The other side of the Jordan is the place where the long journey of wilderness wandering finally led to the promised land. Here the liberated slaves once more confronted a wall of water, a chaotic and dangerous boundary between the known past and unknown future. The other side of the Jordan is the place where Israel went through the water and into a new identity as a people with a land. To begin the gospel on the other side of the Jordan is to claim that this story is a dramatic new beginning. This is the radical claim that is made by John who baptizes those who gather at the river. He comes announcing the new beginning that God intends. Of course, a new beginning necessarily requires all manner of hard endings. John is not a messenger of continuity. He announces the ending of ways that make no room for the Lord. He is, says the text, “sent from God”. John is a divine emissary, an angel of the Lord. Notice that his dialogue partners in this opening exchange are also “sent”. They are priests and Levites sent from headquarters in Jerusalem, sent from the Pharisees to investigate and to report back. Both John and his interrogators are missionaries. They have been sent on missions. And they meet in dramatic fashion at the place where God leads a people across boundaries and makes new things happen.
This riverside drama is a courtroom hearing. John is in the witness box giving testimony, confessing the whole truth without denial. The interrogators from Jerusalem want to know his identity. “Who are you?” they ask four times. Three times John says who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” “What then? Are you Elijah. “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” “No.” John’s identity is crucial. Who is he? What authority does he have that enable him to dare bring Israel back to the beginning to start its life all over again. This is a fair question. It is the very question we ask of every witness who calls for an end to the ways we have been living and the beginning of new ways of life. There is no more radical call than this revolutionary cry to gather at the river of endings and of beginnings, of dying and of rising. Jerusalem sends out its scouts to see if this claim has any authenticity, any authority, any truth. In the church we call such scouts “seekers.” We give the priests and the Levites and the Pharisees a bad name. We imagine that they are somehow evil. But we will be wise to take care in making such rash judgements. For we, too, gather at the riverside font wondering if the call to cross over to the other side of the river, to end the ways we have been living and to begin a radically new way of life is the truth or if it is all a mirage. Here the ancient drama is replayed every time we gather at the font. Here one is sent from God to announce the amazing good news to those who have been sent from the centres of culture and who will dutifully report back what they see and hear.
John’s testimony cannot be clearer. He is not the one who makes the new ways of life possible. He is not the one with power to break old demonic habits. He is not the Lord of Lords and King of Kings who comes to turn swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. He is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘ make straight the way of the Lord’.” John is an evangelist. He comes with good news of the Lord’s return. He comes announcing what has been long awaited and now hardly seems possible - that God intends revival and renewal soon. This revival is long awaited by so many who grieve in despair. John’s testimony to the grief-stricken is bold: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Make preparation for life, not for death. This promised renewal seems an impossibility in a time of political decay and widespread destruction. Renewal for the poor and homeless Renewal for Israel and Palestine, for Iraq and America? Renewal for the atmosphere and the ocean? Renewal for the church and for the family? John does not flinch in the witness box. He tells the truth about what is to come: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” This making straight a way for the Lord is what our entire life is to be in this gathering at the riverside font. We are among those who have heard the odd and amazing testimony of John. More than that, we are among those who hear John and who find ourselves believing, intuiting, trusting that he tells the truth. That is the reason for our gathering back here at the river, Sunday after Sunday. We come to end the old ways and to enter into the promised new ways, on the other side of the river. We venture into that promised land with small forays, little daring ventures. A Welcome Table household is formed here, a shower gift is made there. Soup is served to strangers, the ancient story of newness is taught to the young and to the old, water from the font baptizes us into a journey of dying to the old ways and of rising in newness of life in Christ. Our life together - and our dispersed lives apart - are meant in their totality to be an evangelical witness. We tell the good news that preparing the way of the Lord is worth giving our entire life to because such preparation tells the truth about the future. In a world of deep despair and despondency this act of preparation is a radical evangelical message. It is good news when a people dares to live trusting that God’s promises will be kept, because God will not fail to keep them.
This is the amazing thing about John’s testimony. John is not a witness of events that have already occurred. He is not recounting for the jury things that he has already seen. No. John is giving testimony about what is yet to occur. John is sent from God as a witness who tells the truth about what is yet to happen. He comes, says the text, “as a witness to testify to the light ... which was coming into the world.” John comes to prepare the way for “the one who is coming after” him. We who have read Luke’s gospel expect that Jesus and John, being first cousins, have somehow mapped this all out, have planned the gospel strategy and campaign. But John is clear. Twice he testifies: “I myself did not know him” (vss. 31 & 33). John’s testimony is a daring act of hope and faith. He is sent with the message of renewal and the call to baptism without any knowledge of how this renewal is to occur or for whom this baptism is to be the preparation. This message and call sounds strangely familiar. Isn’t this precisely what we find ourselves announcing and doing in our life together? Our communal witness in this congregation is not so much about what God in Christ has done in the past as it is a daring hope that God in Christ is now coming into the world in new and surprising and wondrous and dangerous ways to break down and to build up, to end and to make new. Ours is a faith and a life that is rooted in the future. This good news pulls us forward, through the river of drowning to the old stories that we have been living in and telling ourselves, into life on the other side ... into life in the Kingdom of God that is as near as the far shore of the river. Imagine that. Imagine your own life as one that announces the promise that the Lord is coming to the lost and the least. Imagine that your own deep sense of being lost and last and least is washed away by the cleansing waters that drown the forces that have been killing us. Imagine that you cannot help but testify to the coming of the Lord because the Lord is already coming into your life even as you step into the river of ending and of beginning. Imagine that this is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God. Imagine that this is the truth about you and about us and about the world ... because, I swear to God, it is.
Here is the reason for the season. Christmas is worthy of a massive outpouring of joy, even among the grief-stricken and the homeless poor ... especially among the grief-stricken and the homeless poor ... because Christmas marks the arrival of the one who is the light of the world. This One is “the true light, which enlightens everyone.“ John - the man sent from God - is not even “worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” We who announce the amazing good news of the arrival of the Lord know that the power for ending our addictions to alcohol and to work and to oil does not rest with us. We who tell and live in the good news cannot forget that the potency required to free us from the oppression of our old violent habits and of our insatiable needs to consume and to have and to control is not our own. The One whose birth we will soon celebrate is the one who has endured even our attempts to crucify him once and for all. We have killed him and left him for dead, but he is risen and he comes again and again with power to raise the dead and to give hope to the despairing and rest to the weary. Only he can take us through the terrifying river of dying and rising, of ending and beginning, of gathering and waiting and preparing and then entering the promised land “where the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11). John knows that the one who is to come is already here. He tells the truth when he says: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” This one who has the power to save the lost and to give sight to the blind and to heal the sick, to bring down the mighty and to lift up the lowly ... this one is already here in our midst, though we hardly know him. Surely he is here, because it is his power to make new that brings us to this river and pulls us into his promised land and gives us a future to believe in and to prepare for. It is the truth, so help me God.