I’m reflecting on Luke 3:7-18 and blogging about workers movements and union members over at Interfaith Worker Justice today. Here is part of what I wrote:
I often think about how brave John was. How did he – this man who lived off locusts and wild honey, who dressed in camel’s hair, who had no power in the Roman Empire – have the courage to stand up and boldly proclaim this truth when it was sure to get negative backlash by those in power? Then I think about how much his prophetic voice proclaiming this harsh good news in the wilderness was needed. Without it, so many of those on the margins would have been left hopeless. And yet, with it, a way was paved for our loving Savior Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and many who followed him in his movement of radical love that proclaims peace and justice for all.
This reminds me of the brave union members and worker movements who are some of the bold prophetic voices of our day.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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 those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11
I always love hearing the story about my baptism. I was about two months old. My parents dressed me in the same beautiful hand-made white baptismal gown and bonnet that my older sister wore at her baptism five years before. My parents and my sister dressed up in their nicest church clothes – my father sporting his white pant-suit. (Yes, it was the early 80’s.) And many of my extended family came into town that weekend to attend the service.
It was a beautiful ceremony – with the liturgy taking place over the baptismal font in front of the congregation at the Presbyterian Church in my hometown. Everything was calm and beautiful. Just perfect for a baptism…
Until I decided to have a huge blowout through my diaper and my gown as my dad was holding me during the baptismal vows in front of the congregation…
And it got all over my dad’s white suite…
Though there was a bit of a surprise and commotion at my baptism after my accident, this was quite tame compared to the baptism of Jesus.
John – the radical Baptizer – the one who hung out in the middle of the wilderness, was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt tied around his waist, and whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey – was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were traveling from all over the Judean countryside and Jerusalem to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. As lines of people awaited their baptisms and were confessing their sins, John loudly cried out: “The one who is greater than I will come after me. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
And – in the midst of this chaos – just as we hear about this One who is greater than John the Baptizer, guess who shows up to be baptized by John: Jesus, the Son of God, himself.
Yes, this baptismal event would have been a definite surprise and quite the site to see.
I love so many things about Jesus’ baptism. I love how John – this radical Baptizer seems to remind us of Elijah, the prophet who had been long expected to descend from the heavens and prepare the way for the Messiah to come. And I love that while – in his own insecurity – this popular Baptizer proclaims that he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. And yet, it is this very same John to whom Jesus shows up and is baptized by.
I love how it is in this baptism that we find out that the One who is to come, this Messiah John is preparing the way for, is not the worldly king that the people had expected. Rather, this Messiah is Jesus, the son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth, the One who had started his life as a homeless refugee on the margins of society.
I love that in the midst of this chaotic baptismal event in the Jordan River, as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens tear open and the Spirit swoops down on him like a dove – reminding us of the Spirit-wind swooping over the waters of chaos in the beginning of creation in Genesis 1. And it is in this moment during Jesus’ baptism when the heavenly and earthly realms collide and all that has separated God from God’s people is torn apart.
I love how it is in this moment when Jesus hears God’s voice crying out to him from the heavens, claiming him and marking him as God’s beloved Son, saying: “With you I am well pleased.”
But what I love most about this baptismal event is that it comes at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel… before any of Jesus’ miraculous acts or prophetic sermons about the Kingdom of God he was reigning in. Before Jesus’ brave and bold journey toward the cross and his hope-filled resurrection from the dead. Before anything that Jesus does in his ministry.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who recently got engaged. As with many engaged individuals, my friend has found the wedding planning process to be quite a stressful one… Searching for the perfect attire, reserving the ceremony and reception venues, narrowing down the guest list, selecting the best food, cake, photographer, you name it…
Just the other day, this friend said to me: “I am so ready for the wedding to finally occur so that all of this tension will be past us and we can finally be done with this kind of stress in our lives… After the wedding, things will be so much easier and better. I’m so ready for this all to end.’”
These words may sound familiar to many of us who are or have been married, as we, too, may have felt the same way during the planning process of our own weddings. And yet, now that we are on the other side, we have likely come to realize that our weddings were not the endings to struggle and tension and that our marriages are not the “happily ever after’s” our fairy tales have told us they would be.
We have likely come to realize that rather than an ending, our wedding was a beginning. That as we joined with our partners in marriage on that special wedding day, we began the long, wonderful and also quite difficult journey that we have to continue to work at daily.
And this is also true for the gift of baptism.
As Mark states in the very first verse in chapter one, the baptism of Jesus is only: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
It is in Jesus’ baptism when he is commissioned for the wonderful and yet difficult work of ministry that is to follow. It is in his baptism when his journey of spreading the good news of God’s love to the world begins.
And this is true for us, as well. As we come here today to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we also are called to remember our own baptism. Because our baptism is not a means to an end. It is a means of grace and a means to a beginning.
In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptisms. We do this by following the way of life and love Jesus has set as an example for us. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. In recalling our baptism, we are reminded that we are in God’s story and others are in God’s story, as well.
And in our baptisms, we are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together here at Ebenezer Lutheran on Sunday mornings, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.
Through us, God is at work in the world: As our ELCA motto says: “God’s work, our hands.”
Now, there may be times when we – like John the Baptist –wander in the wilderness and get lost in the chaos of our lives, wondering how we might ever be worthy of following Jesus and living this baptismal life we are called to.
And yet, just as Jesus showed up to John the Baptist in the midst of his own insecurities, when we get lost wandering in the chaotic wilderness and our lives seem to be falling apart, Jesus shows up to us, as well.
In these times when we feel overcome with self-doubt and fear, I think we can learn something from Martin Luther. As he was held up for almost a year hiding away in Wartburg Castle and translating the New Testament from Greek to German, he found himself questioning his adequacy, wondering how he might ever be worthy of doing the ministry Jesus called him to. And it was during these moments of insecurity, when he would often be heard throughout the castle halls shouting: “I am baptized!”
In our own times of feeling inadequate to do the work Jesus has called us to, we should be heard shouting this, as well. For in our baptism, the same voice of God who cried out from the heavens to Jesus while he was being baptized in the Jordan River cried out to each one of us, as well, before we ever even began our faith journey:
“You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you, I am well pleased.”
In our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it. For, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans: “not even death nor life, not even angels nor demons, not even the present nor the future, nor anything we have done or will do – can separate us from this love of God.”
When we celebrate the baptism of one of the members of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to join together as one family to help carry the burdens and share in the joys with one another that come as we continue to follow this wonderful and yet difficult journey of sharing this good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that each one of us here has been welcomed into the Kingdom of God – this loving family – and that each one of us is and will always be claimed by God as God’s beloved and cherished child. Because no matter what we do or say or think, in the midst of all of our fears, failures, and doubts, Jesus will keep on showing up to us, offering us God’s love and forgiveness whenever we are ready to accept it. And no matter how chaotic our lives may feel or how lost we may be in the wilderness, God’s voice will continue to be calling out to us:
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
It is the beginning of June in the year of 1964… One month before his 46th birthday… After being transferred the past two years while on trial for “sabotage” from one prison to another, he is now back in his tiny, dark cell on the secluded Robben Island with a life sentence for “treason.”
Though we now know that Nelson Mandela’s life sentence was cut “short,” isolation on an island in a small prison cell with only a mat on the floor for a bed, a bucket for a toilet, the allowance of only one visitor a year for 30 minutes, a poor diet, enforced hard labor, and having to continuously face discrimination because of his skin color even within the prison – all for 27 years: cannot seem like a sentence cut “short.”
This man’s faith was extremely important to him. And the faith that had once led him to confidently and boldly fight for equality and justice for all in South Africa by trying to end the apartheid had now led him to an unbearable sentence in prison. My guess is that there were many times in that little cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela could relate to John the Baptist in Matthew 11, our Gospel text for today: doubting and questioning who and where Jesus really was.
This morning we encounter John the Baptist for the second week in a row… Though now, he no longer looks or sounds like the same man we encountered last week: who – with wild-eyes and camel-haired clothes (in Matthew 3:1-12) – so boldly and confidently proclaimed in the wilderness a message of justice for all and called out for repentance from those who were sinners and hypocrites and who claimed they had a special privilege because of their status and heritage while taking advantage of the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the poor.
John the Baptist is now a different man than he was last week – as he sits in his tiny cell: no longer with the assertiveness and the bold voice, but rather with a shaky and doubtful voice, a voice of longing and confusion and of despair. As he waits out his ultimate life-sentence (one that would not last 27 years, but rather only a little less than one year, and would end with his ultimate execution by beheading) – he wonders if he prepared the way for the true Messiah he and his ancestors had been long-expecting. And he wonders whether or not what he did and proclaimed in the wilderness was in vain.
But somehow in the midst of his doubt and despair in that secluded prison cell – as he hears about what Jesus is proclaiming and doing – he decides to seek out answers by going to the source directly. And so out of final desperation, he calls out for his own disciples and tells them to go to Jesus and to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come? Are you truly the Messiah we have been waiting for for so long? Or are we to wait for another?”
It may be shocking for us to see such a transformation this week of the one who was preparing the way for Jesus in the world and who – by Jesus, himself, – was said to have arisen greater than all others who were born of women. And yet, how can we blame John? How can we blame him for questioning and doubting? How can we blame him as he sits alone awaiting his execution in his little secluded cell wondering where in the world was this Jesus – the one who came to bring salvation to the world and to conquer death and evil? Where was this Jesus now?
Don’t we understand where John was coming from? Isn’t it easy for us, as well, to see, trust, and proclaim who and where Jesus is in our lives when things are going well? And yet, don’t we know what it is like to start doubting Jesus the minute things start to take a downhill turn and don’t go the way we expected them to go? …When we unexpectedly loose our job or don’t get into the school we had worked so hard for… when our marriages are failing, our relationships are broken, or we have to watch our children and grandchildren struggle to succeed… when we find out about our terminal illness or our loved one unexpectedly passes away… In times like these, don’t we – like John – begin to question where Jesus is in our midst and sometimes wonder: Is he really the one we have been expectantly waiting for?
And don’t we wonder who exactly Jesus is – if he truly is the Messiah who came to conquer death and evil – when we feel like we are living in our own prison cells, held captive by depression, lack of sufficient health care, or our struggle to pay the bills… And don’t we question who Jesus really is when we hear about others who experience captivity in their own “prison cells”: through mass damages and losses due to a typhoon, or the struggles others go through to gain citizenship and in the meantime fear deportation, or through the loss of a child because a young man entered an elementary school and started shooting?
In times like these, don’t we, ourselves, want to call out from our own tiny, dark cells to Jesus, asking: “Are you truly the Messiah, the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”
For John the Baptist, it is no wonder that he is confused and doubtful about who Jesus is as he sits in his prison cell. John had come from a tradition that expected a Messiah to come into the world with earthly power, wealth, royalty, and authority. In the midst of the oppressive Roman Empire, John and his contemporaries expected a Messiah to ultimately conquer death and evil by overthrowing the Empire and immediately establishing a new kingdom of God on earth. And so we have to understand why John the Baptist was a bit confused and troubled after he had prepared the way for this expected Messiah in the wilderness and he is now sitting alone, locked up in a tiny cell and still has not seen the signs he had expected to see of the kingdom of God. If Jesus wasn’t the one, was there another to come and conquer death and evil? Or does this mean that death and evil have won?
Memorial and Vigil at Sandy Hook Elementary — image courtesy of nation.time.com
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I cannot even comprehend what the families of those victims have and continue to go through. And yet I imagine that at times, they can relate to John the Baptist – feeling alone and held captive in the darkness of their own prison cells and wondering when and even if light will ever shine in.
A few days ago, I watched a video created by Alissa Parker, the mother of 6 year-old Emilie, one of the victims of the shooting. In the video, Alissa talks about how sweet, creative, and giving Emilie was. She loved mornings and making art. She loved doing projects. And as the family was working on a project early last December in the house to make a crawl space into a play room for Emilie and her sisters, Emilie came up with the idea of collecting several of her toys, putting them in a box, and giving them to children who didn’t have many toys that year for Christmas.
Alissa explained that this was Emilie’s last project.
After Dec. 14 last year, Alissa could not bear to finish or look at the crawl space. And she said every time she saw the box of toys Emilie had been collecting, she felt tremendous pain. She said: “It was hard to imagine a world without that goodness and that selflessness in it. I was so consumed with how evil could be so powerful and felt that evil had won.”
This week in Advent, we light the candle of joy. And yet, in the midst of this dark week in December where we remember this mass shooting – along with all other forms of violence against children in our country, in our own city, and throughout the world – and as we grieve with the world this week over the loss of Nelson Mandela – an incredible leader who fought for peace, equality, and justice, and yet died knowing that there was still so much work yet to be done – it is really difficult to imagine where and how we can find any bit of joy. Like John the Baptist, we are left with a lot of questions, doubts, and darkness.
And yet, in our text in Matthew 11, Jesus does not allow John to just sit alone in the darkness of his cell and wait for his expected fate without answers.
Rather, Jesus listens to John, and without judgment, he sends him a message of hope. However, he does not answer in a way John had expected. Jesus does not say: “Yes John, there is another one to come who will bring about the kingdom of God fully now.” And Jesus does not say: “Yes, I’m the Messiah you expected… and just wait: very soon you will be released from captivity in prison, and you will see the army I will lead in conquering evil and overthrowing the Roman Empire. Just you wait.”
Instead, Jesus tells his disciples to:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In other words, John was expecting the wrong things about whom this Messiah was, what this kingdom of God would look like, and how and when it would be brought forth.
…The kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom full of worldly power, authority, and force – like what John had been expecting – and it will not be fully brought forth immediately. It has begun to enter the world through Jesus Christ, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh, and it will continue to be brought forth through John the Baptist and all of Jesus’ disciples who prepare the way in the world for the coming of the Messiah, the one who brings hope, peace, joy and love to this world.
And John will sense the work and the presence of this Messiah in the world when he hears and sees signs of the kingdom of God: when he hears about and sees light being brought into the darkness of the lives of the blind, the deaf, the lepers, and the poor… the last and the least… those who are suffering the most.
You see, just when we think we know Jesus, our Messiah, and what to expect of him, he surprises us and comes to us in very unexpected ways: coming to us not as a powerful and wealthy worldly king… But as a baby, born of a poor carpenter and a teenage girl, in a dirty barn among filthy animals… bringing us light in the midst of our darkest times and calling each one of us to receive that light and to pass it onto others.
While in his dark prison cell, Nelson Mandela heard and saw these signs of the kingdom of God, and after 27 years, he walked out of prison a changed and transformed man. Rather than seeking revenge, he chose to work for reconciliation and peace – and this work eventually ended the apartheid and led him to become the first black president of South Africa.
Mandela received light in his darkness and he passed it on, urging others to do the same. During his inauguration speech in 1994, he quoted Marianne Williamson, saying:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
You see, when we see and receive this light and when we pass it on, we can find hope in knowing that our Messiah is at work and that the kingdom of God is both in our midst and is still yet to come. And as we hear, see, and share these signs of the kingdom of God, we can and will experience little bits of joy – even in our most dark times.
Though, for a while, Alissa Parker felt like she was held captive in the darkness she experienced after she lost Emilie in the shooting last year, over time she began to hear and see some of these signs of God’s kingdom and was able to find in them some hope, peace, joy and love. She explains in her video:
“One day the oil truck just showed up. I never called for our oil tank to be filled. This kindness given quietly from a family I hardly knew was one of so many. The letters started to pour in. And these letters over and over were more accounts of the power of God’s love. There was an overwhelming response from millions of people: well-wishers, people praying for us, people sending us things. I truly started to feel this obvious strength and power that lifted me… that lifted my family. It was time to finish what [Emilie] wanted done.”
And so in Emilie’s honor Alissa co-founded a school safety advocacy group, she began connecting children in need with art, she supported a group that provided emergency response medical care in Guatemala, and she and her husband finished the project of making the crawl space into a play room for their other daughters. Alissa continues:
“People ask: but where was your God when this happened? Why didn’t he stop it? God allowed others to kill his Son. He allows for us all to make our own choices – good and bad – because that’s the only way good can be in us: if we freely choose it over all else. Evil did not win that day. We will carry on that love like she had. It’s quiet, it’s not on the news. It takes an effort to find it. But what I’ve realized through all this is how strong and how big God’s love really is.”
Twenty-six candles lit by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in remembrance of Newtown. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
This Advent, as we continue to expectantly wait for the coming of Jesus – the meek King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, Immanuel: “God with us” in the flesh – let us remember this message of hope, peace, joy, and love proclaimed by Alissa Parker, Nelson Mandela, and John the Baptist, himself. As we continue to feel doubt and despair in the midst of our own dark prison cells, may we call out to Jesus, keeping our ears and our eyes open to hear and see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And when we do see and hear these signs, may we receive the light of our Messiah and accept the little bits of joy that come with that light. And as we experience that joy and are transformed by it, may we also let our own lights shine – as children do – so that others in the darkness may know and experience that Jesus Christ truly is our Messiah, the one who was and who is to come.