John, according to John

John the Baptizer casts a pretty big shadow.
Two Sundays in Advent this year bring us face to face
with this wilderness warrior – though they are two very different encounters.

Last Sunday, John played the part we most often expect:
using Isaiah’s model, John cries “Repent” and the crowds come running.
John points to “the coming one” – to Messiah – for sure,
but he has a project of his own to complete.
Baptism for the repentance of sins – offered by a wild desert prophet.

Mark’s gospel gives us the image of John we are most familiar with
but John won’t disappear just yet.

There is one coming – the light of the world, says that other John –
one who will travel those straight paths that JB is trying so hard to have us prepare.
And this morning, rather than his appearance or his message (or his methods…)
We come with a crowd who demands to know who John thinks he is.

We have heard enough – we need to check his credentials –
we need to decide what to do
with this man and his message.
And John really doesn’t give us much to work with.

John tells us simply who he is NOT…
Not Elijah – not the light –  not the prophet – not Messiah
I’m none of those things; I’m just a messenger, he says…

It has been a long time since I attended any meeting in the church
where our purpose and identity wasn’t discussed.
We want to recapture our audience
– renew our congregations – revitalize the faith in our communities –
so we spend time at definitions:
Who are we?  What do we do?  Where are we headed?

These questions raise others that threaten to distract us:
who is our audience? Who are we missing?  How can we ‘win’ them back?

I am as guilty as any for having asked – (and worse, for having tried to answer) –
some of these questions, and I become as frustrated as any
at the lack of progress these discussions represent.

We have no youth – so how do we get them back?
We have neighbours who simply aren’t interested – how do we change their minds?
We have faithful people who are worn out with the struggle –
how do we re-kindle their enthusiasm?
All questions we have asked (and tried to answer) for many years –
we are still asking them – to little purpose.
Sometimes the questions result in programs – policies – new practices;
sometimes not.
But what is certain is that there has been no real solution.
Our continually shifting identity (or our search for identity) does not seem to yield any answers.
My frustration and a new encounter with John
suggests a different approach to this age old problem.
Let us, following John’s honest eloquence, admit to what we are not…

We cannot compete for the attention of the youth of our communities –
our programs are simply designed, and tend to repeat themselves
along seasonal and thematic lines.
Ours are projects most often exercising the mind (and the spirit) rather than the body.

We don’t use fancy technology – education, rather than excitement, is our default position – (Though we are very excited about these educational possibilities…)
we are not recreational organizers, we are messengers.

We do not possess the savvy and skill to persuade and convince those
who are unwilling or unable to accept the church at its simplest and most ordinary
– for those who scoff and ask “is that all there is”
where our worship and our programs are concerned –
or those who say “I can worship my god my own way” , we have no simple answers –
we are not salespeople for the Christian faith, we are messengers.

We cannot easily resuscitate those weary, and wonderfully faithful saints
who look towards the next project – the next dinner – the next holy season
with fear and trembling.  We are weary too –
and we have discovered that we are not capable of bearing the burdens
that years of expectation have laid upon the church.
We are not “The One” – we are messengers.

The task of attention-getting, opinion changing & burden bearing is not now,
nor has it ever been ours – that is now and always the work of God’s own Spirit;

We are messengers – just as John was a messenger.
Witnesses to the work of God;
the work that is changing lives – changing attitudes – changing expectations.

Our message is simple: we have discovered God at work
– in the midst of our uncertainty, in spite of our apathy –
in our exhaustion and frustration, we have discovered something new from God –
a work of peace, hope and Joy.

Our message is simple: when God comes to us in Christ,
God is made visible in the ordinary things of life
– in human-ness and humility – and that  changes things.

Our message is simple:
the strength we have is given to us,
not to do the things that we’re convinced that God should do,
but to tell the story of what God has done,
for us, with us and around us.

Thus we make straight the way of the Lord;
always declaring God’s  grace and glory,
even as we stand in awe of God’s gift in Christ.


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