John the Baptist, Evangelism and Doubt
December 17, 2017

John the Baptist, Evangelism and Doubt

Passage: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

About 500 years before the time of Christ, the prophet Malachi wrote, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me….Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah” (Malachi 3:1, 5). And so the tradition developed that – before the Messiah arrived – the great prophet Elijah would return to earth to prepare the Messiah’s way.

And so here we are now with this guy named John. He’s out in the wilderness behaving like they’d expect a prophet to behave: He’s dressed like one. He’s preaching like one. He’s baptizing. And folks are flooding out to see him. It’s a spectacle – like the Billy Graham crusades back in their heyday. And so the religious muckity-mucks wanted to know, “Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the prophet? Are you Elijah?!”

“No. I’m not Elijah,” he says. “I’m just John. Don’t make me out to be more than I am.”

When I moved to Northern Ireland in the late 90’s people there were still killing each other in the name of Jesus. So my Christian friends were very impressed by me – heading off to what they assumed was a war zone – proud to be friends with such a faithful “missionary.” But that kind of inflated respect made me uncomfortable. Sure, I was joining a ministry of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. But honestly, I was going to be their cook and their gardener! I wanted to support the work of reconciliation, but my role was marginal at best. And I wonder if that’s kind of how John the Baptist felt. Sure, he knew he was doing “God-Work.” But when they asked him if he was the long! expected! ELIJAH! he’s like, “No! Get out of here.”

But of course now – looking back – he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. I doubt he had Elijah’s DNA. But he served in the same capacity as Elijah: he was calling the people of Israel to repent – to live their lives in a manner that was worthy – that when the Messiah did come – he would find his people ready to receive him and to perceive the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

In the huge arc of God’s salvation, maybe John never knew the full extent of his role – of how crucial his ministry was. It wasn’t merely a matter of fulfilling the prophecy for the sake of fulfilling the prophecy. It wasn’t just a check-list for the party planner: “Has John shown up yet as Elijah?” “Yep, there he is.” “Great. Cue the Messiah. He’s up next.” No. John’s actual ministry mattered. John’s role was to get people ready. It was to get their hearts right, to be reminded of what it means to live as the people of God. I suspect that it was because of John’s ministry that the people responded so positively to Jesus when he arrived.

Can you imagine if Jesus had shown up and begun preaching and everyone ignored him? I mean, it’s possible. But it didn’t happen that way. John got the people ready and when Jesus arrived, they flocked to him. Their spirits recognized his authority and they marveled.

And do you know what? You and I have a similar role to be as John the Baptist to this world. And, like John, we will likely never know the significance of how our actions or our faith will be woven into the arc of God’s salvation. But we are called to be faithful with what we have found to be true of the Kingdom of God – that by our actions we would be preparing others for their encounter with God.

And how do we do this? How do we become John the Baptist (as it were)? We love the neighbors God brings before us.

Recently I’d gone out of my way to help someone I hardly knew at all. And she was so grateful and overcome by it. “Who does this kind of thing?” she asked. And I responded, “Well, I follow Jesus and he says to love your neighbor.” “But, surely, you have a lot of people in your line of work who need help.” “Yeah,” I said, “but you’re the one who crossed my path today, which means you’re the one I need to love today.”

It’s quite simple, really. Day to day, (in addition to prayer and worship) living your faith is simply a matter of loving and being attentive to whomever God brings before you. You aren’t responsible for the whole world. Just the ones who cross your path.

I did chaplaincy training in the hospital before I was ordained. I was assigned a single floor where I had to put in so many hours a week. At the time I was also working more than a full-time job and commuting about an hour into the city. So after my paying job was done for the day I’d head to the hospital and start going from room to room. And you know, during those months I don’t think there was a single visit when I actually made it to every room on the floor. At some point I’d run out of time. I wanted to get home to see my kids before they were asleep. And when I walked out of whatever my final room was, I’d look down the hall at all those other doors – all those other folks who hadn’t been visited – and say, “Well, God. Those are yours. Please take care of them.” And it was okay. I’d loved the ones who God had given me and I had to trust that God was providing for the others.

And so in this life: we are responsible for the neighbors God gives us – be they our literal next door neighbors or the stranger we encounter on any given day. We are their John the Baptist. And the Spirit is upon us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Now you know – there’s another word we can use to describe this. It’s called “evangelism.” Now, as a rule, we Episcopalians are fairly uncomfortable with this. We instantly conjure up images of going door to door and handing out tracts; trying to manipulate people into our way of thinking. But, good heavens, there’s so much more to it.

As time goes on I’m discovering there’s actually quite an ease with evangelism. It starts simply with loving your neighbor in real ways – ways that they understand: with kindness and generosity and legitimate attentiveness to their lives. These are things everybody wants. And please be clear – this isn’t being devious or scheming. It’s just being human. It’s living the way Jesus showed us to live. And besides – you’re not responsible for how they respond. That’s between them and God. Your only job is to love. And when the conversation turns to God – which it will if you’re actually trying to follow God – then you’re only expected to share what you’ve come to know about God yourself, by your own experience. Anything more is phony and useless. Just share what you know, or what you think you know. People are far more comfortable with humility and honesty than they are with posturing and techniques picked up at some evangelism seminar.

And don’t worry about not being an expert. There are no experts when it comes to God. I mean, really, think about it: we’re dealing with the Ultimate Source and Mystery of All Being. The only experts are the deluded ones! We’re all seekers – catching glimpses and sparks of the Divine as we go along. Day after day, year after year, we keep seeking. We keep asking for more. Who are you, God? And as we grow the answers change – not that God is changing, but that our perception of God is changing. It must, if this journey of faith is to have any substance and worth.

Things we used to be so confident in begin to shift. And that can be uncomfortable. It can feel like we’re losing our faith – that we don’t believe like we used to believe, or we don’t find comfort where we used to. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More often than not, what’s happening is we’re starting to shed an old layer of skin – an old layer of faith. It protected us for its season, but is no longer quite up for the job. After all, surely our ideas about God are always incomplete. The totality of who God is – God’s holiness and enormity – will always be greater than any theology about God we’ve used to define him.

Now, theology’s a good thing. Human nature requires us to seek the divine nature. But for heaven’s sake, let’s never become so arrogant to believe that our little verbal formulas have captured the wholeness of God, or that our brief experience of faith in those formulas has the authority to determine the existence or nature of God. So if you find your faith slipping – that might actually be a good thing. It might be that what used to pass as “faith” is no longer satisfactory. You can’t depend on it the way you used to, because your soul is crying out for more. Let it go. But be clear. It’s not God you’re abandoning; it’s only an immature conception of God. Now it’s time for something more.

I heard a story recently about a doctor. Like many people, he viewed God basically as a back-up plan – that he would live his life as well as he could, and when things fall apart, it’s time to turn to God. And that’s fine, in its way. But the presupposition in it all is that God’s job is to swoop in and solve our problems so that we can carry on with our comfortable lives. If we’re honest, a lot of us think this way. And when God doesn’t swoop in (according to script) – when the back-up plan doesn’t work – we’re suddenly in  a panic, because – not only are we still suffering with whatever the problem at hand is – now our underdeveloped perception of God and God’s agenda has proven to be unreliable, and our faith is being called into question.

This is what happened to the doctor when back-to-back children died who were in his care. “I walked out of that room as defeated as I have ever been in my life,” he said. “I wasn’t even cursing God. I’d just stopped believing.”

But he went on, “I kept going to church, and when I’d take the Eucharist every Sunday, I’d catch this glimmer of something I’d once recognized. And then it would be gone, and I’d be back to being unable to believe. Over the course of a year my faith in God began to return, but in a different form. I’m still an atheist in regard to the God I stopped believing in. That image of God had turned into an idol that had become too small, that could not be balanced against the reality of one kid dying of cancer or thousands dying in a war.”

And he went on to describe the God he was discovering – so much bigger, so much holier, so much more mysterious – and infinitely alluring. Faith, he discovered, was no blissful, static harbor, but a dynamic movement towards the Divine. Quoting Thomas Aquinas he said, “In this life, the deepest thing we can know about God is that we don’t know what God is.” [1]

And so on this third Sunday of Advent I implore you: Keep seeking God – not a deeper entrenchment of the faith you already claim – but an ongoing discovery of the Divine whose light beckons from just beyond the horizon. And as you journey in faith, be not afraid to share what you are finding to be true. For we are John the Baptist to this world, preparing others for the coming Christ – by our love and by our witness – that they might meet and be astounded by the substance of this Christ by whom and for whom we and all creation were made.

[1] Raymond Barfield (2016) ‘The Miracle in Front of You: Raymond Barfield on Practicing Medicine with Compassion’ interviewed by Janice Lynch Schuster, The Sun, January 2016, p 9.

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