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Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Is This the One?
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Whenever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible.
I want to acknowledge and thank Eugene C. Bay, former pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Bryan Mawr, Pennsylvania. Much of this sermon
is based on his sermon from December 10, 1989, “Is Christ Still the One?”
“Is this the one?” That’s the question young adults sometimes ask after returning from a first date or after a period of dating, wondering if they have found a life partner. Is this the one I’ve been looking for, yearning for, desiring for so long? The attributes that matter to me are there, the chemistry is there—could this be the one?
In today’s Scripture, this question is in the mind of John the Baptist about Jesus. Is he the one the Baptist—and so many people—had been waiting for, hoping for—the long-awaited Messiah?
At first, John the Baptist was the very prophet who confidently proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the one—first in the wilderness as he called people to repent, and then when Jesus came to be baptized by him. You may recall that John thought of himself as a “forerunner” preparing the way for the long-awaited Messiah.
But now he is not so sure. Maybe because he sitting in a prison cell. John’s activities, especially his denunciations of political authorities such as Herod, led to his imprisonment and, ultimately, to his death. He was in prison when Jesus began his ministry. It would be understandable that anyone in his shoes would be wondering if he’d given his life to the right cause and person.
“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” That is the question that any would-be followers of Christ have asked from the beginning until now. But the circumstances in which the response is given differ now from what they once were.
“Shall we look for another?” Some of us long-time church-goers arrived at our answer with the help of a culture that was supportive of church life, and without having to consider the claims of rival faiths. But, today, the surrounding culture is mostly indifferent and our contact with other religions is increasing all the time. Probably many people are not even looking for a savior.
Some Christians no doubt are content just to accept the traditional teaching of the Church. But many thinking people cannot help wondering—secretly if not out loud—whether Jesus really is the unique and authoritative figure that the Church proclaims in sermons, creeds, and hymns. When, in the United States, there are more Muslims than Episcopalians, and more practitioners of Buddhist meditation than Presbyterians, can we continue to claim that Jesus is still the One?
Let’s begin to explore this question by returning to the encounter between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist. John’s preaching was full of “fire and brimstone.” He seemed to assume that when the Messiah arrived he would right all the wrongs, liberate all the oppressed, punish the evildoers, and usher in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. “Even now,” said John, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” As John the Baptist saw it, the chaff was soon to be separated from the wheat, and the lightning of God’s judgment was poised to strike!
Earlier, John had proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. But, sitting in prison, watching and waiting for the activities he had associated with the coming of the Messiah, John grew increasingly frustrated. Questions and doubts arose. What he had expected to happen wasn’t happening. There was not much thunder and lightning in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. There was no uprising against Roman rule. The strong continued to oppress the weak. The old order was not being toppled. Finally, John couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe he had been wrong about Jesus. He sent some of his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you he who is to come”—are you the Messiah, the Christ?—“or shall we look for another?”
Notice the way Jesus responded. He didn’t answer John directly. He didn’t say, “Yes, I am,” or “No, I’m not.” Jesus alluded to biblical passages—one of which was our Old Testament lesson—that speak of the coming Messiah, but in terms different from John’s expectations. Jesus told the Baptist’s emissaries, “Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
What was happening was not what John had predicted. Jesus was not dominating the headlines. The effect of his ministry was not to send huge crowds into the streets to demand change or overthrow tyrannical regimes. The movement under way was not one of coercion, but of persuasion. Jesus was not going to force his way, he was going to win his way, into the hearts and lives of potential followers. “And blessed,” Jesus told John’s disciples, “is he who takes no offense at me.”
The way that Jesus responded to John is important for us to remember as we seek the answer to our own question, “Is Jesus the One?” More specifically, the way Jesus dealt with John ought to serve as a model for us as we relate to people whose faith is different from our own.
To begin with, we ought to note the modesty with which Jesus spoke of himself. It was characteristic of him. While the early church was quick to call Jesus the Messiah, or Christ, he may never have made this claim for himself. The record indicates that he allowed others to call him “the Christ,” but not without reluctance—perhaps because, like John the Baptist, the connotations they associated with that title were not the same as his.
What Jesus typically did was to point beyond himself to God. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” “He who believes in me, believes not in me, but in him who sent me.” “Seek first God’s kingdom.” In all of the New Testament, the fourth Gospel has, by far, the highest Christology, the most exalted view of Jesus. But, even there, Jesus frequently points beyond himself. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” He was going ahead, Jesus said, to prepare a place for us—but not in his house, in his Father’s house. “I am the door,” Jesus said—but you do not stop with a door, you enter a door in order to get to what the door leads to. Jesus said, “I am the way”—but again, you go along a way, a path, a highway, in order to get somewhere. The way is the means, not the end of your traveling.
If we take seriously Jesus’ own modesty about himself, there is no need for Christians to deny that God has spoken and acted through others. We can gratefully celebrate Jesus’ coming as “the light of the world,” as “the Word made flesh,” and even as “the image of the invisible God.” At the same time we can also respect other faith traditions, happily affirming that they also contain truth and light. The Bible itself insists that God has witnesses everywhere, and that “in many and various ways” God has spoken to God’s people. As Eugene Bay said, “We do not diminish the significance of Jesus by acknowledging that God makes God’s power and presence felt in other ways. But we do diminish the stature of God when we insist God is a prisoner of the incarnation. When we refuse to allow God to speak and act in a variety of ways, we do what Jesus himself never did: we deny God’s freedom and sovereignty.”
Besides its modesty, there is something else about Jesus’ response to John that deserves our attention. Rather than answering John directly, and accepting, therefore, John’s definition of what he should be and do, Jesus revealed that he would be a different kind of Messiah. He would come, not with fire and brimstone, but with healing and peace. He would come, not to force the world to shape up, but to show the world a God of incomprehensible love. He would come, not with legions of angels to protect him, but with such vulnerability that those to whom he came could refuse the love he brought if they wanted to, and even crucify the one who brought it. The one often called the Almighty should just as much be called the All-Vulnerable.
One of my spiritual directors, Dare Cox, shared a true story to illustrate how God uses power. She and her husband lived out in the country where once in a while people would abandon their dogs when they didn’t want them anymore. One such dog appeared on their property, obviously quite hungry and thin. So Dare put out a dish of dog food and called to it. But it was too afraid to come close. So she put the dish of food far away from the house. The dog warily approached, but then ravenously ate. Each day for the next week or so, Dare did the same thing, only each day she set the dish of food closer to the house. Eventually the dog felt secure enough to trust her, and ate with her standing nearby. Finally it allowed her to pet it.
Dare’s analogy with God is that God doesn’t use power to force us into faith or action or acceptance of God’s love. God even restrains God’s self, patiently and gently inviting us, waiting for us, calling forth our readiness and willingness to come closer, to trust, to receive, to respond.
It is that use of power, that way of loving that answers the question of whether Jesus is the One we have been waiting for. It is why Jesus Christ is still the definitive disclosure of God. He is still the One! Not because there are no others through whom God has spoken, or in whom God’s Spirit is present. Jesus is the One, not only because of what he reveals but because of the way he reveals it. To use that old phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s, in Christ “the medium is the message.” As Christ comes—in the manner of unpretentious, unguarded, vulnerable, self-giving love—as Christ comes, so God is. I see the manner of that coming, and I am gripped by it, in a way that I cannot forsake. It is the God whom Christ reveals that I want to be loyal to now and into all eternity. Without dismissing or denouncing other faiths, I want to give my life to trusting and sharing God’s “incomprehensible” love “made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The sharing of that love is the glorious privilege of those of us for whom Jesus is still the One. We do not need to prove that Jesus is the One. We are not to impose Christ on others. Rather, we are simply and as faithfully as we can, to represent him, to be his light in the city, as Fourth Church has claimed as our calling.
In his commentary of the encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples, Eduard Schweizer said, “What is most important in [Jesus’] ministry is what is least pretentious—his message of love and peace.” So it needs to be with us if we are faithfully to represent Christ—to do what is most important and is least pretentious. Preparing bag lunches to give to people who are homeless and hungry each week. Giving students in underserved public schools the opportunity to learn to dance and grow in self-esteem. Tutoring a low-income student one on one every week throughout the school year. Welcoming and befriending a Muslim refugee family from Syria and teaching English to their 11-year-old twins. Providing safe space in our building where girls and women caught in human trafficking can be affirmed and supported to break free. Growing vegetables in a food desert. Helping the unemployed find a job or housing. Calling on the bereaved as a Stephen Minister. Making the showers in the Gratz Center available so people on the street can have a hot shower once a week. Nurturing community among older adults who live alone. Collecting postcards with Bread for the World to urge political officials to address hunger in our country and world. Funding the Education and Peace Initiative in South Sudan so violence may cease and new life begun. These unpretentious ministries of love and peace are important for us to do as we seek to represent Christ.
We are not called to prove Christ, or to impose him on others. We are called to be his light, to represent him faithfully—as a congregation, and as his individual followers.
As Henri Nouwen reminds us, “It doesn’t have to be spectacular or sensational.” Says Nouwen,
Whenever we forgive instead of letting fly at one another, tend one another’s wounds instead of rubbing salt into them, hearten instead of discouraging one another, hug instead of harassing one another, welcome instead of cold-shouldering one another, thank instead of criticizing one another, praise instead of maligning one another . . . in short, whenever we opt for and not against one another, we make God’s unconditional love visible.
This is what makes it possible for others to discover that—yes, Jesus is still the One. Amen.