13 December 2011

SERMON TEXT: Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know

It's easy for us to get distracted this time of year. We have coaching changes in college football. There are the important questions of which is better: The iPad2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab? We have family arrangements to consider. Who will be home for Christmas? What presents will we give them? In the midst of such considerations comes a strange man in weird clothes with one of those off-beat Southern California kind of diets. His name is John the Baptist. His message sounds like it is straight out of a science fiction movie about aliens in our midst. He claims there is one among us whom we do no know.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."

1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."

1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

1:23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"

1:26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
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One of my favorite sci fi movies is called "They Live." A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. The turning point in the movie comes when the drifter wears those special sunglasses for the first time. As he walks along a busy sidewalk in the city, words on signs and magazine covers morph from advertisements into blunt propaganda such as "OBEY." "STAY ASLEEP." "DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY." Money now changes from regular bills to papers that read "THIS IS YOUR GOD." And what's even spookier is that certain people's faces now look like scary reptiles. Clearly, all is not as it seems on the surface. Some of the most successful people are revealed to be reptilian aliens who are in control of the media and politics. The drifter forces a friend to wear the sunglasses and together they seek other humans aware of the situation. They organize a resistance against the powerful aliens from Andromeda and their associates.

Like the drifter in the movie "They Live," so John the Baptist is hard to classify. He's not an Old Testament prophet and he's not one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is a first cousin of Jesus to whom he was introduced while still in the womb. His mother and Jesus' mother were very close family members. John baptized his followers in the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the early days after Jesus lived there was a competition between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus. Some of the original disciples, such as Andrew, were first disciples of John the Baptist. His followers today, the Mandeans, of whom there are about 70,000 members, still baptize themselves today as a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist shares much in common with Jesus. They are related by blood and faith. They are cousins whose mothers are close. They share a Jewish heritage and the Jewish Bible. John the Baptist dies beheaded by King Herod. Jesus dies crucified by Pontius Pilate. John the Baptist's head is said to be entombed in the Umayyad (meaning "Great") Mosque of Damascus in Syria. It is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and it is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist which heralds from the time of Roman emperor Constantine I. Back in my seminary days, I had the pleasure of visiting this mosque and seeing the Christian basilica within it that is said to entomb the head of John the Baptist.

In the gospel stories, John the Baptist points the reader to "one who stands among you whom you do not know." That one is Jesus. Jesus is the one we do not know. He is the one who comes to us from God. "He came from God but God's own people did not know him." The unique quality of Jesus is that he is God come down to us in human form.

John's gospel goes to great lengths to show us that John the Baptist is inferior to Jesus. We read in John 1:20 where John the Baptist says: "I am not the Messiah." John the Baptist says of Jesus: "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

John the Baptist refers to Jesus, saying, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one he refers to is Jesus. You do not know him, says John. John the Baptist says, "Follow Jesus not me."

The one we do not know is the Christ within us. We are not well acquainted with the Christ within. We either ignore the Christ within or try to subdue it out of fear. We are afraid of letting Christ loose in our hearts. Changes may come. We may become more vulnerable. Getting to know the Christ within can be scary and uncomfortable. It sometimes feels as if the Spirit is shining a light around in the basement of our unconsciousness. Hidden sins are brought to light. This is what John the Baptist was all about, revealing the darkness within us.

A BOY was hunting for locusts. He had caught a goodly number, when he saw a Scorpion, and mistaking him for a locust, reached out his hand to take him. The Scorpion, showing his sting, said: "If you had but touched me, my friend, you would have lost me, and all your locusts too!" [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop'sFables (p. 16). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] We fear if we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist we will lose ourself and everything we have worked for but the exact opposite is the truth. As we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist, we discover our true self. As we see our inner sinfulness mirrored back to us in the waters of our baptism we come to know our true nature as sinful human beings. Yet is is precisely sinful human beings whom Christ comes to redeem.

A DOG, crossing a bridge over a stream with a piece of flesh in his mouth, saw his own shadow in the water and took it for that of another Dog, with a piece of meat double his own in size. He immediately let go of his own, and fiercely attacked the other Dog to get his larger piece from him. He thus lost both: that which he grasped at in the water, because it was a shadow; and his own, because the stream swept it away. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 18). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] When we fight our inner John the Baptist we fight against ourselves. We waste our energy attacking shadows. We do not realize we are seeing another aspect of ourselves.

A GOATHERD had sought to bring back a stray goat to his flock. He whistled and sounded his horn in vain; the straggler paid no attention to the summons. At last the Goatherd threw a stone, and breaking its horn, begged the Goat not to tell his master. The Goat replied, "Why, you silly fellow, the horn will speak though I be silent." Do not attempt to hide things which cannot be hid. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 22). Amazon Digital Services, Inc..] Do you think you can hide your inner nature from others? Well, you can't. It's impossible. Some people know you better than you know yourself. Certainly, God knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet, here is the amazing part, God loves us just as we are. Self acceptance is the foundation of charity.

John the Baptist reminds us, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one you do not know may be Christ. Or the one you do not know may be yourself. Or the one among you whom you do not know may be the Christ within you, the hope of glory. Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. The part of us that we try to avoid. The part of us we think is secret but it is there for everyone else to see. The connection to the Isaiah text would be that we are the spiritually oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives who need to released from prisons of our own making. (See Isa 61:1) The one among us whom we do not know is neither John the Baptist nor Jesus: It is we ourselves. We are strangers to ourselves.

A German city was recently evacuated after unexploded bombs from World War II were found in a nearby river. The dramatic story of the defusing of these weapons inspires reflection on the "unexploded bombs" that lurk beneath the surface of so many of our relationships with family members and friends.
As the holidays approach, what bombs will we encounter as we gather around tables for meals and conversation? Alcohol abuse, infidelity, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual addiction?

What bombs will we bring with us? Anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness? And perhaps the most important question of all: How can we defuse these bombs?

During the Christmas season, we are bombarded by cards, gifts, music, ads and parties. All promise happiness. But many people enter the season feeling hurts, losses, disappointments and grief. How can this pain be acknowledged?

The early disciples interaction with Jesus was experiential. Jesus invited them to "come and see" and they came and saw. They gained insight found only at the level of profound trust. Jesus invites us to experience transcendence for the mystery of our lives is in our midst. Superseding John the Baptist, Jesus invites us to explore the Christ within us. There we may find the "God of peace" that passes all understanding. This Advent may the lyrics of that anthem become our inner battle cry: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 11, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
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