Thursday, December 18, 2008

To Tell The Truth

St. John the Baptist from the Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1516

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; John 1: 6-9, 19-28
****** Congregational Church
December 14, 2008

Frank Abagnale Jr. was a confidence man, though you’d be a fool to place your confidence in him. He was an infamous forger and impostor of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, writing bad checks and posing as an airline pilot, a professor, a doctor and a lawyer. His story was the subject of the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1977 he even guest-starred on the game show To Tell the Truth, where ironically two other contestants posed as Frank, while the celebrity panelists had to decide who was the real Frank Abagnale Jr. As was the custom, at the conclusion of the show, the host Garry Moore demanded “Will the real Frank Abagnale Jr. please stand up?”

However, in this morning’s gospel lesson we have Jesus’ authentic, honest-to-goodness confidence man of another kind, John the Baptizer. And the priests and Levites are playing the same game, except they want to know if John is the Messiah. They want the real Messiah to please stand up and make himself known to the authorities. John beats them to the punch by confessing that he is not the Messiah. The gospel writer has already beaten John to the point by telling us, the reader, that though John was not the light, John came to testify to the light, that true light which enlightens everyone, which was coming into the world.

You see, it had been a long time since the Jews living in Roman-occupied Judah had seen anyone resembling a prophet. The last time God’s people had been inspired to rise up against the powers that be was in the time of Judas Maccabee, in the 2nd century BCE. But first, a little backstory is necessary.

After returning from exile in Babylon, the Jews completed the construction of the Second Temple, near the end of the sixth century BCE but only one thing was missing: the Holy of Holies was empty. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, had been destroyed in the devastation of the first temple. It was also believed that the Spirit of God was absent along with the heart of God’s law. Since prophecy—that is, telling the truth of God—depends on the Spirit—God’s living presence—prophecy in the land of Judah was at an all-time low.

Toward the end of the third century BCE the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, conqueror of the eastern Mediterranean, set about Hellenizing his conquest, including modest little Judah. He constructed a gymnasium, where men competed in athletic games in the nude, something unknown to Judeans. Jews who were eager to comply with these Greek influences disguised their circumcision, often painfully. In truth, they disavowed the sign of the Covenant between them and God, that which gave them their identity as God’s people. Next, a Greek Acra was built, a center for military administration that towered over the Temple, a sure sign of what was to follow.

The final blow that sent Judas Maccabee and his followers into a rage-filled rebellion was a statue of Olympian Zeus set on the altar in the Second Temple, in an attempt to fill the Holy of Holies and to unite the Syrian occupation of Judah with its Jewish citizens. Judas, the ‘Hammer of God’, along with an army of thousands, crushed the Greek troops and sent the Hellenizing king and his forces back where they came from. The desecrated altar was demolished, removing the stones and leaving them in a place to await the coming of a prophet, which alas did not come. A new altar was built, the Holy of Holies was restored, the great menorah was lit, and a celebration was made for eight days: the Festival of Rededication or Hanukkah. (1)

So, approximately 150 years after Judas Maccabee, when John began his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he struck a deeply-felt chord in the hearts of his listeners, that perhaps the Spirit of God had returned to the people, that God’s living presence was again amongst them. Being as spiritually starved as they were, the religious authorities were sent to ascertain if John was the Messiah, the one who would save them from the oppression of the Roman Empire, the latest and the strongest in a string of empires that had occupied the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The expectations of the people and of the religious authorities were high: with persecution and tribulation comes the great anticipation of redemption: Messiah? Elijah? Was John the prophet of the end times? John could have written his own ticket if he wished, but he was no impostor. John knew he could not have delivered what God’s people were seeking: salvation, light, truth: truth that would ultimately set them free. In his denial to the claim of Messiah, John gives us his most important message.

In difficult times, our expectations can also be high. We look to our lay-leaders and our pastors to provide the answers, the direction, the vision of our future, and to make sense of the present. Many in our nation and around the world are looking to President-elect Obama and his administration to rescue the United States from financial ruin and to restore our country’s place in the world as a leader among nations. A person in a position of power can fall prey to a kind of ‘messiah-worship’.

We also place high expectations on ourselves, in the Church and especially those outside the Church, who though not believing, do the work of Christ in making justice, creating peace, and performing kindness. We, too, can suffer under a sort of ‘messiah complex’, pretending to be something we’re not. Recently I saw a bumper sticker that said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Yes…and no.

Yes, each of us is a powerful, spiritual being. Yes, we who have been baptized have been baptized into a priesthood of believers. Yes, each of us has a calling, a vocation. Each moment, each day, each challenge, each experience has its own calling, its own vocation. Each lifetime has many pathways. But God is always one step ahead of us. The mystery of living and loving is still that: a mystery.

Even though we are called to do ‘messiah-work’—as Isaiah puts it, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to declare the year of the Lord’s favor, and to comfort those who mourn—the good news is that we are not the Messiah. That is not our vocation. The position has already been filled, and by one more than amply qualified. We may reflect the light but Jesus is the doorway through which the light comes into the world.

But sometimes it can seem as though this light moves in and out of the world. And we are not a patient people, waiting for this Messiah, waiting for God to show up. Could it be that we are slow to recognize the Messiah because we are no longer in the wilderness places, where John’s voice cries out to us to make straight the way of the Lord? Could it be, that in our impatience, we have abandoned our post in the desert and our vocation, our calling to watch and to listen?

Strangely enough, all four gospels have John the Baptist misquote the passage from Isaiah 40. Earlier we read “A voice cries out in the wilderness”, but in the original passage it reads, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” God comes in the desert, in the wilderness, in the unlikeliest of places.

I do not think that this is a mistake or an accident. Of course I could be wrong, but it seems to me that in the lifetime of John, and in our lifetime as well, the people of God have managed to escape the wilderness of God. In John’s time, many of the Jewish faith behaved and looked more like Greeks, to fit in, to not be noticed, to fly under the Roman radar. In our post-modern, scientific age, we do not resemble a people waiting for a Messiah. In communities of faith we can still witness the struggle between independence and interdependence, between the self-determinism of the individual and what is just and best for all, between being in the world and being of the world.

Waiting for the Messiah can seem like waiting up for Santa Claus, except you have to be asleep for Santa to come. John’s crying out from the wilderness tells us that we have to be awake if we’re going to wait for Jesus. John’s voice calls out to us from the wilderness, those unlikely places that wake us and shake us up.

John’s vocation is our vocation. We’re not the Messiah, we’re not the prophets of old; we’re here to tell the truth. And the beginning of the truth is, often we don’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to do. That is the beginning of wisdom, when we allow ourselves to not have all the answers. We leave room for Jesus, the Messiah, to act, to lead, to transform; to whisper, to declare what will be our vocations, our callings.

When you discover your vocation, when you have a vision of that ‘one step ahead’, both as a person and as a community, you find your joy. Energy begins to flow forth. People discover gifts they didn’t think they had. New possibilities emerge that didn’t seem to be there before. Challenges that once seemed daunting and overwhelming are now confronted. The truth about ourselves, about this faith community, about the power of God, the saving grace of Christ, the very real life of the Spirit amongst us—all this truth comes to light when we allow the light of Christ to enlighten us and to then reflect it. We live out our joy.

So, ****** Congregational Church, what is the truth that needs to be told about this community of faith? What gives you joy, as an individual and as a community? Where is God calling you next? Toward what Advent adventure is the Spirit leading you? Where are you being ‘anointed’ to do great things for God and for the world? (2)

You are being called to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, in the unlikely places, to be the real ****** Church, to stand up and to tell the truth of God’s love made known to us in Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘Anointed One’. How will you live out your calling? God will be with you as you seek to find your joy. Amen.



1. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), Chapter 1: “Greeks, Jews and Romans: The People Jesus Knew”.
2. Bruce G. Epperly,
lectionary commentary from the Process and Faith website for Dec. 14, 2008.

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