Father Chris Yaw wrote a delightful little book a few years ago entitled: Jesus was an Episcopalian, subtitled And You can be one too. Mr. Yaw makes a good case for at least entertaining the idea that Jesus was really a closet Episcopalian all along. Well and good.
With that said, one book that I do not see being written anytime soon, by Father Yaw or anyone for that matter, is one recommending that John the Baptist was an Episcopalian. For of the things we know about John the Baptizer, something tells me he wouldn't be our poster child. For starters, he is altogether out of touch with high-born fashion - camel hair and a sun-dried leather belt. And his dining habits of bugs and wild honey would most certainly exasperate our Lady Grantham sensibilities. Most disturbing of all, what I think really rules him out, is his total indiscreet manner of conversation, full of everything except subtlety. He knows one volume: loud, one mode of discourse: annoyingly direct, and one subject matter: apocalyptic, end of the world stuff.
Okay fair enough. But what I want to say this morning is` perhaps something like a campaign for John: a campaign which will recommend we give him a second look.
Of all the things that befuddle us about John, one thing remains clear: his proclamation. The Gospel writer scripts a blindingly simple message for John in this morning's text and, really, throughout his entire career as St. John narrates it in Chapter 1 of his Gospel. He makes two emphatic statements: "I am not the Christ" and "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John stubbornly refuses the Messianic laurel and when he does catch sight of the Messiah he doesn't take the time to introduce himself, no courteous bows of deference; no, like a punch drunk buffoon who has laid eyes on the love of his life, all he can do is yell: There he is, oh my goodness, the lamb of God. Agnus Dei.
So first, why is John so adamant to refuse the Messianic title? Well, John lived in a world that was all but obsessed with the Messianic. It was a world that craved for someone of power and charisma to wave their magic wand and usher in a golden age; someone to inaugurate a politico-religious revolution that would bring the vicissitudes of history to a halt. Take a religious group like the Essenes. This sect of Judaism had removed themselves from the pagan culture and relocated to the desert where they could devote special attention to purifying themselves in order to that they could have front row tickets for the Messiah’s entrance. They were altogether anxious for the Messianic. Or another example: the Romans began looking to the emperor to fulfill the Messianic role. The Emperor was to be someone who upheld justice, quelled enemy forces, and appealed to the people’s hope to "take away the sins" from the empire. Suffice it to say, in John's day virtually everyone was enamored with the idea of the Messianic. And curiously enough, we are all left to wonder if it is any different in our day?
"I am not Messiah" he teaches us to say. How much different would our world look if our political leaders had to say this before speaking in a City Council Meeting or Congress or at the NATO Summit? Better yet, how different would our own lives look if we said this at the start of each day? "I am not the Christ. I am not the one who can single handedly change my own world or anybody else's. I refuse to believe that I am the answer."
So first, renunciation. Secondly, he teaches us about confession: "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
This makes me think of some words penned by the late and much beloved Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney writes: History says, Don’t hope/On this side of the grave/But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.
"Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" or in Heaney's words, "The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme." That's what I think John has seen. John denies that he is the Christ and points to the one who is. Well, the question could still be asked: "what makes John so sure that this man Jesus has the Messianic prerogative?"
All of us are probably familiar enough with the first chapter of St. John’s gospel wherein we are told Jesus's staggering Messianic resume. He is the Word of God who has been with God since the beginning. He is the one who knows the Source of Reality like a child knows his Father. He is the one who has spent eternity basking in the radiant love of Father Son and Spirit. In short, this man Jesus is from an altogether different order than all other Messiah’s. His charisma is of a whole different sort. He is not like the other Messiah’s – political or otherwise – whose campaigns are built around glitzy power and celebrity attention; no ego flattery with him. He is not one like the Messiah's hoped for by the Essenes or the Romans who would whisk them away from the risks and travails of history for a timeless utopia. This Messiah wants to do business with this world; its this history, this life he wants to save.
And John recognizes that this Messiah's MO is too of an altogether different sort. John refers to him as a lamb. Of course this is not a symbol any of us usually associate with grandiose power. Quite the contrary. This is an animal that is, might we say, dumb by the jungle’s standards: simple, innocuous, and totally un-threatening. And yet, our text tells us that it is this MO that the Spirit of God alights upon. The sins of the world can only be dealt with in this way. "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth." "Behold the Lamb of God!" John tells us.
I want to pull our attention back to John's life. We have seen that John has denied his own right to the Messianic; he has challenged us to realize our own tendencies to believe that we are our own Christ's. And he has asked us to relax that movement. John has also taught us that in this act of renunciation we are wise to point the world to Jesus, who is the true Messiah.
One final thing can be said about John the Baptist that is worthy of our attention. From this point on in John's gospel, John the Baptist all but fades from view. Once you've finished reading the narrative, you hardly remember that John was there at all. Its almost like the gospel writer wants us to see that John's life had been fulfilled in this small, supporting role - in this role of pointing away from himself to another. In short, John is almost like the kid standing before the Grand Canyon, who is all but swept away by the majesty and beauty of it all. All the kid knows to do is laugh, maybe even weep, and holler for his parents: "Mom! Dad! Get over here, you've got to see this! Look!"
For in him, "the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme." "Behold the Lamb of God."