12.14.14 Pointing is Occasionally Necessary
December 14, 2014
3 ADVENT A 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s rude to point. But sometimes it’s absolutely necessary.
Today we consider the most famous pointer in the history of Western art—and certainly the most famous pointer in the Christian church. This is John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, whose call to repentance in the wilderness helped to pave the way for the people to see and to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah.
Both last week and this week we read about John, clothed in camel hair and eating honey and locusts. What a figure he must have cast—even in his own day. Today’s selection from the gospel of John the Divine is plucked from two different contexts within the same chapter. Verses 6 through 8 come from the prologue—or beginning—of John’s gospel. You know the piece—it starts with “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” These words make it clear that he was a witness to the light—to Jesus. He was nothing other than a witness, one who bore testimony to the Son. He wasn’t the Messiah.
The second part of the gospel comes after the poetic prologue. It’s embedded in the “story part” of the first chapter. Here we see John the Baptizer confronted by some priests and temple officials from Jerusalem, sent by the Pharisees, who grill him about his identity. He emphatically states to them that he isn’t the Messiah—but instead he’s one who’s sent to make the Messiah’s way a little easier. It’s funny—if you start counting you’ll see that there are 10 negative words in this passage. John is saying who he is / by saying who he isn’t. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in Feasting on the Word for 3 Advent, Year B, vol. 1, page 71.)
In the words of Isaiah, he’s preparing the way of the Lord. He tells the representatives from the Pharisees that he baptizes so as to fulfill his call to provide the people a way to symbolize their repentance and inner cleansing. He baptizes with water.
And he tells them that Messiah is coming—and he’s already standing among them, actually, but as yet an unknown. He is a great figure, and no human will be able to compare with him.
He’s pointing to Jesus.
Now take a look at the picture near the end of today’s bulletin. It’s a wonderful and very famous portrait of John the Baptist, and it’s at the bottom right-hand corner in a beautiful, big piece of work done by Matthias Grunewald for the wall behind the altar at Isenheim, in Alsace, in the eastern part of France. In the center of the picture is a very graphic—even horrific—portrayal of Jesus, dead on the cross. But down at the right corner is John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus.
Behind John are the words that come from the gospel, a little further on from our selection today. “He must increase; I must decrease.” In other words, “I must be smaller, but he must be larger.” And in the perspective of the altarpiece, that is how it is as well.
His pointing finger says, “Look to him. Look to your savior. He’s the one who is your God.” To echo last week’s reading from Isaiah, John’s body language in the painting is saying what Isaiah said to his people, “Behold your God!” This is a classic theme for Advent. Behold your God! He is coming to save you. He must increase, and you must decrease.
John is often called the last of the Old Testament prophets. And as such his message touched on sources of stain in people’s hearts. The OT prophets cited both social justice issues as well as issues of idolatry in their preaching the thoughts and the feelings of God.
Today, where might John point us in terms of social justice issues that need our attention? I think he might point us to all the violence on our streets and in our schools, particularly on this day, the 2nd anniversary of the Sandy Hook killings. Might he decry our spending cuts that translate too often into withdrawal of services to the most needy, including those who need mental health services? Might he point us to look more closely at the roots of violence and do what we can to encourage fewer weapons among us?
And what of idolatry? Might John marvel at how we are increasingly pulled away from worship by our emphasis on lifestyles where we make ourselves and our kids crazy trying to have it all? Might he point to our increasing practice of slighting worship and prayer in favor of the sleep we need because we’re too busy during the rest of the week?
Yes, pointing is rude. But sometimes it’s necessary.
And now, as the first of the New Testament prophets, John would also encourage us to point to Jesus in our midst. To point to where we’ve seen God breaking into lives and hearts.
Let me do a little pointing. I point to the parish hall, where the Christ was mightily present with the Vestry this past Monday night, and where there are so many bags of groceries for others who need some help this year. I point south and west toward New York, where the presence of God was apparent as the editors of Time Magazine named all the Ebola responders as the people of the year for 2014.
Others in the congregation? Where might you point today to witness and to testify about where you’ve seen God-- where you’ve seen Jesus-- most active lately?
To the congregation, who are saving for a 2nd Ugandan well (pointing);
to the sacristy, where our Altar Guild not only prepare the things of worship, but also look out for each other so lovingly (pointing);
to the kitchen, scene of yesterday’s cookie wrap and today’s pickup and delivery—sending love and calories all over the town (pointing).
It’s rude to point. But it’s part of our calling to be witnesses to God’s love and presence—to Jesus’ love and presence—just as John the Baptist was a witness to him, first. Don’t stop pointing.