What Does He Look Like?
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11John 1:6-8, 19-31
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, it is good to be here. I have been waiting, and you have been waiting, for this time for several months now, and it is good that it has arrived. And our paths of ministry have merged, like I-75 and I-85, at an interesting point. Today we are following last Sunday’s celebration of the installation of a new pastor, and we look forward to the coming celebrations of the Christmas season. It is in this “in between” period that our life together begins, this brief moment of expectation and waiting, these few short weeks of Advent.
And yet, the timing seems appropriate, because, while I share with you the excitement of this new day at Oglethorpe with this new pastor, it is Advent that reminds us that it is not the pastor’s arrival that spurs us to faithfulness. Rather, it is the coming of Christ that compels each one of us and calls each one of us to our common ministry in this place. And it is in anticipation of Christ’s presence that we wait, that we join Isaiah in proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. So as we find our paths joining here, like the downtown connector, we pull over to the shoulder, and we wait.
It is an odd thing that we do in the Church, this time of waiting. Tradition holds that the season of Advent lasts four weeks: four weeks for four gospels, four weeks for the 400 years between the writings of the Hebrew prophets and the birth of Christ. We drape the sanctuary in royal purple, a traditional color of repentance. We sing hymns like “O Come, O Come Immanuel,” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We light candles, one by one by one. And we wait.
The odd thing is that we already know the end of the story. We’ve heard it before. We know all about the family traveling, and the baby sleeping, and the cattle lowing, and the angels singing, and the shepherds hearing and fearing. There’s very little room for suspense if we’ve already read the last page of the book. After all, let’s be reasonable. The stores have had their Christmas decorations up since, what, July? We’ve finished our shopping...or begun our shopping...or dreaded our shopping. Why don’t we just drop this whole “waiting” charade and get on with the Christmas celebration?
But part of the purpose of waiting is the drama. It is a drama we practice regularly in our lives. We order appetizers while we consider the entrees. The previews roll before the movie begins. The auditorium darkens before the performers take the stage. The drama begins even before the curtain is raised, and our anticipation builds. There is drama in the waiting.
We see this drama of waiting in each of the gospels, gospels whose focus is the life and ministry of Christ. Yet none of them opens with the life and ministry of Christ. Mark and Luke both start with John the Baptist. Matthew begins even further back, twenty-one generations before Christ, with the genealogy that begins with Abraham. The gospel of John goes all the way back to the creation, with word and light and life, before moving on to the ministry of John the Baptist. It is as if to say, “We have waited 400 years for this moment. We will not rush things. We will be sure that the stage is properly set. We will wait a little bit longer.”
John the Baptist, too, knows his role in this drama. We can see him vividly, this preacher with his message of preparation and repentance set against the harsh backdrop of the Judean wilderness. If we look to the icons of the Orthodox Church, which usually show our saints in a more presentable fashion, we see John painted as a wild prophet with wild hair and wild clothes and a wild look in his eye. John is the perfect character for this drama. His ministry, as our gospel lesson this morning indicates, has created quite the buzz. Word has spread far from the desolate depths of Bethany. His arrival has attracted a lot of attention; too much attention for the comfort of the central religious authorities in Jerusalem. They send their investigative team to check him out. So the priests and Levites take that long, winding road down from the heights of Jerusalem to see, they assume, the latest in a long line of Messianic and prophetic pretenders.
Their line of questioning shows this assumption: “Who do you claim to be, John? Are you the Messiah? Elijah? The great prophet Moses? Just who are you anyway, John the Baptizer?”
John knows his role. He knows that he’s the opening act, and he lets them know it. He tells them that the one they have to worry about is the one for whom he is preparing, the one who will come after him. But, he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”
Ah, the drama builds! That had to get on their nerves. “He stands among us? What, here? Now? What does he look like? Who is this one? Where can we find him? Just give us a hint.”
It is as if John is saying to them, “Thanks for coming. Sorry to trouble you. But you’ve come to the wrong guy. You’re going to have to wait.”
What is interesting is that, when we read the last few verses of our gospel passage this morning, we realize that John himself was waiting. He did not know who Christ was – not until he saw him coming. He knew his role, as the preparer, the precursor of Christ, but he didn’t know exactly what or whom that meant until he saw Jesus face to face. But as soon as he sees him, all is made clear: “Here is the Lamb of God,” he proclaims. “This is the one I’ve been talking about!” He knows him without a moment’s hesitation. And in this moment, we see the clearest example of the life lived in Christian faith.
Ultimately, we do not know the end of the story. It is God’s story, and it will be shaped as God sees fit. We can know our role, as those who repent and prepare and wait; and we can know our hope, that we will recognize the face of God coming towards us and calling to us.
My friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Sunday, in my first chance to address you as your pastor, allow me to take this moment as a personal privilege. This is the ministry we are here to continue and here to build at OPC. It is in the echoes of John the Baptist – not to lose our heads, not to call down the wrath of religious authorities to wonder at our insanity and wildness. But rather, we are here to prepare and to wait.
We cannot confuse the anticipation of Advent with the excitement of a new minister. I am your pastor, I am not your savior. Praise God for both of our sakes. I am here to wait with you and to discern with you what it is that Christ is calling each one of us to do and to be. As our ministries merge here, our journey together will be blessed. We will love each other dearly. And we will get on each other nerves. We will note each other’s gifts with deep gratitude, and each other’s flaws with periodic frustration. You will find me repeating myself. I will make missnakes...mistakes. And I will repeat myself.
But in our relationship, we know that God is at work, calling us to repentance and preparation and waiting. We will carve out spaces in our life together – in worship, in education, in mission, in fellowship, throughout the life of the church – we will carve out spaces into which we will invite the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit comes, we will, like John, be able to recognize the presence of God in our midst. And then, and only then, will we know what it is and whom it is and how it is that God is calling us to be in this place in this time, on Lanier Drive, in Brookhaven, in Northeast Atlanta, in 2005.
What will it look like? What will we be called to be? These are questions I cannot and will not answer. I will not because to do so would be to cut short the drama of the wait. And I cannot because I do not assume for a moment that I am the author of the drama.
But I do know that we will see it together, and when we do, we will act with boldness to proclaim the good news of healing and victory to this broken and hurting and defeated world.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, we sit, surrounded by the reminders of repentance, and we listen, and we pray, and we wait.