I feel sorry for the Levites, the scribes and the Pharisees that were sent from Jerusalem to investigate all the commotion and buzz surrounding John, the one baptizing out in the wilderness at the Jordan River. Israel has a history of people coming along and claiming to be the Messiah – the people get caught up in the fervor and are just sure that this is the One to Come who will lead the army that throws off the yoke of the occupying army and re-establish the throne of David. The cycle is this: a self-professed Messiah appears, all the world runs to him, the revolution starts, foreign armies come and crush the rebellion, and in the end, it was a false Messiah. So, you can see why the Jerusalem authorities send investigators down to the Jordan river to ask John: who are you, what are your intentions. The religious authorities in Jerusalem have a responsibility to acclaim the Messiah when he comes, but there is this legacy of false messiah, misplaced hope, and people needlessly dying – all for naught. So…. They seek out John – once again wondering if the promise of the Messiah is true.
And the questions come: John’s interrogators run through the big items on their list. Are you the Christ? “No.” Elijah? “No.” The prophet? “No.” I imagine the priests and Levites and Pharisees look at each other, shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes. “All this way and nothing to show for it. Just a crazy guy out in the desert.” And I wonder if some walked away thinking how foolish it is to put such stock in promises of a Messiah – it has just led to rebellion, war, devastation and ultimately disappointment. I suspect they arrived back in Jerusalem and reported, “Sorry, boss there’s nothing there – nothing to believe in.”
To believe in a word of promise requires a level of trust that is increasingly hard to come by. These days, the very words that would engender and foster our trust are sometimes stripped of meaning. Elegant mission statements do not prevent corporate leaders from betraying their employees, retirees and stockholders and savaging an economy. The powerful words of scripture have not prevented clergy from abusing the trust of parishioners and their children. And ordinary words in the mouths of our politicians have sometimes become weapons against trust itself as meaning is spun, while we are afloat between the maelstrom of fake news and PolitiFact. And maybe, just maybe, we become like the folks from Jerusalem – in the end we just walk away from all the words and the empty promises.
Yet this morning we hear from a prophet, a psalmist and the writer of an ancient letter, that no matter what befalls us, God is faithful, and God’s promises are true. The psalmist insists that God “who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish” all the promises. The prophet offers a beatitude, promising the consolation of gladness to those who mourn. Both authors presume our intimate knowledge of pain and loss, but they assert that far better things await us, joys we can scarcely imagine. The epistle writer gives us a primer, almost a little rule, for holding on to our faith in these or any times: be thankful, pray no matter what, listen for the spirit’s prompting and do not spurn it when it comes, refuse to scorn with worldly wisdom the words of promise.
But the folks from Jerusalem, burdened by the legacy of disappointment, walk away from the moment when A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
The folks from Jerusalem walked away from the testimony; they walked away from the light
John held to the ancient promise of a Messiah and was given the mission to bear witness to the coming light in his preaching and in his baptizing. And we as a church community hold that promised fulfilled and are to give testimony that the light has come into the world.
All of us who have been baptized into Christ, his death and rising, are also, by that very sacrament, are given the same vocation—to hold to the promise – in pain and loss – come what may – and bear witness to the light; to go into the world and give testimony, perhaps, in many small, almost unnoticed ways. We may find ourselves in a group where persons of other races or cultures are the objects of jokes or coarse humor. Will a you bear witness to the light? Our youth will find themselves in crowds of other kids where the music glorifies violence and disrespect to women. Will they bear witness to the light? Will Christian mothers and fathers teach and live a life that holds up Christian value above secular ones. Will we hold on to our faith in these or any times: be thankful, pray no matter what, listen for the spirit’s prompting and do not spurn it when it comes, refuse to scorn with worldly wisdom the words of promise. Will we witness to the light and give voice to the promise?
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’”
St Augustine wrote: John is the voice, but the Lord in the beginning was the Word. John is a voice for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning (St. Augustine, Sermon 293). John did what was his to do: with his voice proclaimed the eternal Word of promise. May we not walk away from our mission, for ours is “a voice for our time,” bearing testimony to the light. May our voices echo the good news of the promise in our time and place, that a world may sing it forever.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice… I say again, rejoice!