to speak within the origins
of Minerva’s fate.
We allow day to descend
with gravitas beyond,
the vanishing conquests
held by slender threads
in purple tombs.
John is one of many prophets who spoke from beyond the boundaries of conventional Israelite society. Even in our own country, people like Henry David Thoreau have removed themselves from the traditional rhythms of life and work in order to critically observe the world they inhabit. Inherent in this act is gaining a perspective which is impossible to have from within mainstream society. From the periphery, they are able to observe and comment on realities which the rest of us have ignored or forgotten. At a distance, their voices are amplified and heard above the white noise which inhabits our lives. In the remote regions which they inhabit, the prophets’ message is given greater weight because they live in desolate and demanding circumstances. This is where we meet John the Baptizer. In fact, it’s the last verse in this week’s lesson which tells us about his location. “This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing,” reads verse 28.
1. John’s place in the world matters. Location is everything. He is in the world but not of the world. John’s location offers perspective. Where can we find a similar place, in our lives, to offer the Gospel today? We too compete with the “white noise” and sounds of modern life. How do we talk about the kingdom of God and who Jesus is without shouting to be heard or turning others away?
2. People were coming to hear John. John’s message wasn’t turning people off or repelling listeners. Despite the remoteness and hardship involved to reach John; persons from all walks of life were attracted to his message. The crowds were genuinely interested in what he said (others more curious) and sought to be baptized. John’s message, while delivered on the fringe of society by someone living on the fringe, was appealing to large numbers of people. From within our society today, is it still possible to deliver the Christian message without alienating people?
3. John was clear about his identity. The visiting delegation of Jewish religious leaders asked him, “Who are you?” They ran down the list of possible suspects. Was he Elijah, the prophet, or someone else? The religious leader’s questions were rooted in authority. What authority did John have to preach and baptize? Who gave him this authority? Surely, he had to be someone returned (like Elijah) or incredibly special to speak so powerfully. John knew from whence his authority came. That wasn’t the issue in his mind. When John hears that question, he’s thinking, “Who am I in relation to the one who is coming after me?” John’s thinking big picture; where do I fit in the grand plan?
4. John doesn’t show them a driver’s license, passport, or other identification. He doesn’t even give them his name. He answers their questions by quoting scripture. He repeats a passage from Isaiah, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight.” He is the living embodiment of the word of God. He is acting out, living out, and being obedient to scripture. He has no identity other than the text itself. He cannot explain himself other than through scripture. John’s life doesn’t make sense unless it is in the context of God story becoming God’s reality. Who are we? Do our lives make sense apart from God’s story? Is it possible for you to talk about who you are without talking about Jesus? I can’t explain any of my reality until and unless I explain God’s reality in my life at the same time. Think of the man born blind, whom Jesus heals later in John’s gospel. It is impossible for him to explain his healing without talking about Jesus. For the rest of his life, he must explain this miracle by talking about Jesus’ intersection with his life. The story is incomplete and cannot be understood otherwise. John can only discuss what he’s doing by talking about the word of God becoming a three-dimensional reality. Are we able to talk about our lives in the same way?
Our wealth, our value, and the things which we believe define us do not originate from within our own efforts; they come from God. What we have and who we are begin and end with God. Paul wanted to remind the Corinthian church how well off they were. Paul tells them from the beginning, you’ve got God’s blessings in spades. You’ve got so much going for you it’s coming out your ears.
Paul puts everything in terms of gratitude and thankfulness. When we talk about the things we are thankful for we talk about them in ways that indicate we are ultimately not responsible for their presence in our lives. Because we were born in this country, to our families, married to our spouses, and met certain people; these things happened not because we planned any certain course of action. They are the result of God’s presence and action in our lives. This is what Paul is trying to say. What we can give to others and what we have received (whether materially or immaterially) has nothing to do with who we think we are, the address on our driver’s license, or the diplomas on our wall. All of those things come from God’s presence in our lives and our presence in this time and place.
Paul is saying to the Corinthians: You are blessed. You may not realize it and you may not want to admit it but you occupy a special place in time and are called to do special things. All you have is from God. All you are is from God. We are as privileged and as blessed as the Corinthians. We need to remember this. Remembering is key. An act of memory is the central feature of Christian worship. When we come to the communion table and gather around the altar we are remembering the words and action of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Through our memories, we make his sacrifice go from two dimensional words on a page to a three dimensional lived reality. The action of remembering God’s giftedness toward us is part and parcel of the same action. Jesus is the gift. We are the recipients. In our lives, that gift manifests itself in innumerable ways. Just as Jesus is a gift we receive and share; our lives are marked by the same kind of blessings and gifts.
That’s really the second thing Paul is trying to say. Our blessings are sometime too many to count and too innumerable to identify. How many of us thank God each day for the gift of clean water? That’s one that usually slips under the radar. We like to think “big picture” blessings, especially this time of year; family, friends, and food. The blessings which stalk our days and guard our dreams are the ones that we usually take for granted and easily forget. Look around. What has God done that we may be easily missing?
Paul says that while we wait we are fully equipped to be the disciples we are called to be. We have all we need. That may be hard for some of us to hear, we don’t feel “full”. If that’s the case, Paul is urging the Corinthians and us to change our perspective. He says we aren’t lacking any spiritual gifts. Gifts like love, teaching, preaching, and prophecy; the full spectrum of everything the Holy Spirit has made a living and breathing reality to the church. This is not a selective sprinkling of gifts, skills, and abilities. Paul says the whole package is right here in Corinth and in Ocracoke. Nothing has been held back. And while we wait, in this season of waiting and preparation, we use these gifts in an active partnership with God. It’s not as if we’re sitting back and doing nothing. Advent is not a time of waiting and watching; as if we’re participating in some four week long Christmas pageant. Advent is about doing. Paul says, “God is faithful, and you were called by him in partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” God is faithful. Will we show a little faith during Advent by realizing how gifted and blessed we really are, to do more for Christ and our community than we ever thought possible? Will we use a gift we’ve been keeping under wraps or been unwilling to acknowledge?
How can I say,
what’s on the page,
I see the words,
tiny Times New Roman birds,
I hear their sounds,
contained in this cardboard ground,
speaking syllables across time,
put the vowels together,
let the consonants be un-tethered,
feel the words as a song,
in your mouth, they belong.
Arnold Horshack in Caesara Philippi
A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
How would you answer the question, “Who are you?” It’s actually harder than you think. Jesus wanted to know, “who do people say I am?” In this country, we’ve got a whole subsection of the genealogy industry devoted to helping the famous and not so famous find out who they are and who others say they are. That is because we value identity. It matters to people where you come from, who your parents are, what house you were raise in, and especially in a place like this. I’m going to preach now. People put a value on having been born and raised on this island over those who have not been or came after they left their momma’s womb in some mainland hospital. This distinction exists. You could go to a tiny little island off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada and hear the exact same discussions about how you’ll never be considered a local, probably word for word. This is because we’re not as unique as we think we are, and yet we’re all individual, wonderful human beings on a quest to find out who we are, in relation to each other and to God.
Many people, if asked, to define themselves, would go to their Facebook page. Like it or not, whether you have a computer of not, that’s how most people define themselves to the world, whether they are 9 or ninety. That’s where you’ll find their profile, their family albums which once sat in stacks under the coffee table (or on shelves in the closet) , their favorite books, movies, and songs. When you go and look at someone’s Facebook page, you realize it is more than a question of simple identity. It is a composite of many factors that creates of mosaic like picture of who this individual is.
If you were to go to my Facebook page, what would you see? Who am I? Who do people say that I am? I am many things. It would tell you that I am my family. You would see things about my friends and my experiences. You would see things about the church. You would see some poetry and crazy pictures. But does that tell the whole story? But none of that is all of me; it’s part of me. It reflects parts of portions of me. For instance, nowhere on my Facebook page do I say anything about my love of Jazz improvisation and taking pop hits (say those from the Dave Clark Five) and turning them into smooth jazz piano classics. No matter how hard you look, it’s just not there.
This is because out identities are not about stuff. Our identities, as people and Christians, are ultimately defined by what we believe. The best example of this in modern Christian time is the Amish. The Amish have nothing, in the most practical sense of modernity. They have only what they need. Yet they live, are known, and are defined by their beliefs. Their lack of a belief in a modern sense of identity defines them. They are what they believe. Identity is about belief.
So when Jesus asks the disciples (and the group), “Who do people say that I am,” he’s also asking, what do people think I believe? And in another way, he’s also asking, “What do people believe about me?”
In modern political parlance, you might call this a focus group. He wants to know what people really think. He wants to go beyond what they go get off of the Facebook pages, Twitters, on village yard gossip of the day. The common knowledge, the stuff that was unique from Ocracoke to Nova Scotia, to Mauritius, he didn’t want to know. He wanted to know, what were people saying that they weren’t posting on the internet and that they weren’t talking about in public. Tell me that stuff!
One of my favorite television shows from the 1970’s (and really of all time) is Welcome Back Kotter. You probably know the premise. Gabe Kaplan came back to Brooklyn to teach in old high school. One of his students, Arnold Horshack, had a very distinctive laugh as well as an insistent manner in which he answered questions. If you know it, do it with me. “oooh oooh, Mr. Kotter, Mr. Kotter” Horshack always wanted to be called upon.
I like to imagine the disciples as group of first century sweathogs with Peter, particularly in this passage, just nailing Arnold Horshack.
Jesus asks, who do they say I am? Peter goes into full Horshack mode, “ooooh Jesus, I Know, ooooh Jesus, I know.”
Jesus gets back, what may seem to our ears, three rather random answers. But on closer inspection, not really:
Some say you’re Elijah
Some say you’re Johnny B
Some say you’re Jeremiah
Those are the greatest prophets in Israelite history. If they had portraits and posters back then, people would have had commemorative plates with each of these guys on plates from the Franklin Mint.
Everybody knew who they were and respected their work.
It’s only natural if they heard that a new prophet had come back, they might first assume it was one of these big three, someone everyone was more familiar with from the very beginning.
It’s as if someone would say, “Who else would it be?” It’s because their world had not expanded to include the idea of Jesus yet.
But then Jesus turns the question back onto Peter. Who do you say I am? What, Peter, do you believe about me? And believe it or not, Horshack gets it right.
You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Do you see the genius of that statement? It’s not just a statement of identity. It’s a statement of belief. Peter believes Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Identity and belief are one.
The step between identifying Him and believing in Him is the action. That’s where we build a relationship with Jesus. You can call it salvation, friendship, companionship, whatever word you want to use. When you realize that the moment you utter those words, you are making a statement of belief, that’s when your journey can begin.
If you have the common sense to identify Jesus you have the common sense to believe in this rational, inquisitive, compassionate Jesus who is there exploring with his disciples what people believe and how people can believe together-he’s in search of unity here.
So who is Jesus for us today? Is he someone who unites us or divides us? The answer, as I hope we’ve started to explore this morning means much more than are you saved or not. For many people, it raises the question if America is saved. Is the world saved? Jesus is savior, moral arbiter, judge, shepherd, king, moral arbiter, and messiah; he has a complex layer of titles, many he never applied to himself. Is he those things so that we may better understand who we are?
What a journey of enforced complexity we have laid at the feet of this man from Galilee who never knew any of what we tried to attach to him, classify him as, or simply want him to be 2000 years after his humble birth and humiliating death.
Are we ready to identity what we believe and to start the path toward a deeper relationship with something we may not fully grasp, we may not want to post about, but is as real as the building we are in and the person sitting next to you.
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