The readings for Sunday, December 14, 2008:
First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm: Psalm 126
Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Today's Gospel returns us to John the Baptist. John proves to be such a compelling figure that the religious people in charge try to determine who he is. This interchange between John and the priests and Levites fascinates me. I love that John knows who he is, but he's not interested in explaining himself to institutional figures. Still he'll answer their questions.
One answer in particular keeps banging around my brain: "I am not the Christ" (verse 20). Some interpretations have him say, "I am not the Messiah." He's also not Elijah, not the prophet. When asked to explain himself more fully, he refers to Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' . . ." (verse23).
I had an argument with an atheist friend who traditionally views Christians with the same sort of horror that the priests and the Levites viewed John the Baptist (how we are friends is a mystery to me, because I make no secret of my beliefs). She expects Christians to be unable to control themselves, to testify all the time. In our recent argument, she said that the message of Christianity is that believers have to go out to convert non-believers, and that Christians have that as their mission. I told her that she needed to go back and read the Gospel.
The first lesson from Isaiah seems more appropriate as a mission for the modern Christian, with its language of binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. We are to be a garland, instead of ashes, to be the oil of gladness.
And yet, some days I feel it might be easier to be one of those old-fashioned Christians, who have the mission of telling everyone that Jesus loves them. And of course, the next question from many people would be, "Yeah? How does that change anything?"
My atheist friend and I argue over whether Christianity is a series of beliefs (which she says it is) or a series of actions (which I say it is). Of course, we're having a centuries-old argument. You might even say the whole history of the Protestant Reformation, which continues today, is over this issue of creeds and who believes what.
I believe this issue of creeds leads us away from the important question. I remember watching Religulous earlier this fall, the movie which shows Bill Maher going all over the world to ask Christians whether or not they really believe in talking snakes and Virgin births. And I spent the whole movie shaking my head over how he was missing the point.
One of the main points of Christianity is that God comes to us, in the form of Christ, to show us what is possible in a human life. The Christian mission is to emulate Christ in our behavior.
The message of today's Gospel is that we must be careful to remember that we are not the Christ. There are days when I shake my head and think, "I've been working on hunger issues most of my whole life: writing letters to legislators, giving away money, working in food banks. Why isn't this issue solved yet? How long will it take?"
I must practice saying, "I am not the Messiah." That doesn't mean I'm off the hook in terms of my behavior. I can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.
But I am not the Messiah. We struggle against a huge domination system, as Walter Wink termed it. The story of John the Baptist and Jesus serve as cautionary tales to me, when I get too impatient with how long it takes for the arc of history to bend towards justice (Martin Luther King's wording). They struggled against injustice and died in the maw of the system they worked to dismantle.
This week I shall practice a John the Baptist approach. I will recognize the importance of making the pathways straight, while continuing to insist, "I am not the Christ."
feeling the feelings…
10 months ago