Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stay Away From the Lake

John 1:19-34

by Daniel Harrell

New beginnings are loaded with expectations. I’m not surprised that so many here at Colonial have expressed high hopes on the occasion of my arrival—even if I am a little overwhelmed. Many of your hopes for the future are my hopes too. Of course, the key when it comes to expectations is having realistic expectations. The running joke among Senior Minister Search Committees is how expectations can get so out of hand that Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify as a candidate. And then even if he did, no congregation would ever vote him in. Folks have asked how I deal with high expectations people might have of me. I tell them not to worry, I have this uncanny ability of lowering expectations just by being myself. Nevertheless, we pastors do have high expectations too. We all enter this profession with Messiah Complexes. We think we can save the world. Therefore, for the sake of realistic expectations, I make it a point to begin most days by reciting John 1:20. Similarly whenever I teach a seminary class, I have the seminarians join my recitation too. All together now: “I am not the Messiah.” You can always hear the disappointment in our voices as we say it.

It’s part of human nature to want to be someone you’re not. It’s also part of human nature to want others to be someone they’re not. In first century Judaism, high expectations focused on the return of God’s prophets to Israel. Ever since Malachi’s last word in the Old Testament, the Lord had been giving his people the silent treatment. Nary a peep was heard out of heaven for 400 years until one afternoon in the Jerusalem Temple when an aged and weary rural priest named Zechariah got tapped for incense duty. In the middle of offering ritual prayers for the nation (as well as sneaking in a few for himself), an angel appeared and famously announced that Zechariah was going to be a daddy and that his son, John, would be the next prophet.

However, John would not be raised within the conventional confines of his father’s religious tradition; but out in the irreligious desert—a place full of bad memories for Israel. The desert was where their faith had fallen apart and where they had wandered aimlessly for 40 years. It was in the desert that John intentionally preached his one point sermon: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” This was prophet-talk and for the hyper-expectant Jewish population, such talk on the heels of half a millennium of silence whipped them into a frenzy. Hoards abandoned the presumed religious security of Jerusalem and Judea and piled into the desert and into the baptismal water of the Jordan River. Remarkable for a people whose very identity had been based on their movement out of the desert and through the waters of the Jordan.

John’s baptizing also drew the attention of the priests and Levites and Pharisees. As guardians of orthodoxy and protocol, they were obliged to investigate. John welcomed them to the river by calling them a “brood of vipers.” They responded by demanding to know who John thought he was to be doing the prophet-like things he did. John responded back by telling them who he was not. Verse 20: “I am not the Messiah.”

You can just feel the wave of disappointment that likely spread over the crowd when he said that. Some would have definitely thought John to be the Messiah. The next obvious guess was Elijah. John dressed like Elijah. He preached like Elijah and Malachi promised that Elijah would be back before Judgment Day (which also explains why so many took the plunge of repentance). But John denied he was Elijah; or more specifically, not the kind of Elijah they expected. 400 years of anticipation amped up expectations of Elijah far beyond anything that Malachi had in mind.

So then they asked, “are you the Prophet?” “The Prophet” meant “the prophet like Moses” whom God promised way back in Deuteronomy would come to again deliver Israel from her enemies and permanently establish her as a chosen nation. But John said no, he wasn’t the prophet either. “I’m just a voice crying out in the desert,” he said (though this came straight from Isaiah). The religious leaders weren’t buying it. If John wasn’t a prophet, what was he doing baptizing like a prophet? But again, John demurred, “This is nothing. I only baptize in water.”

It’s hard for us to appreciate the enormity of John’s modesty here. In those days, water carried no tranquil or romantic connotations. Waterfront property was real estate apocalypse. Suggest a day at the beach and folks would think you’d gone nuts. To hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes would have been lunacy. The word swim only shows up three times in the whole Bible, and never as the backstroke. You’d never go near water unless you had a boat—and even then it was a risky venture. Water was the abode of chaos and evil. It was the abode of judgment. If you were accused of a capital offense in ancient cultures, instead of getting hauled before a judge and jury; you’d get hauled out to the lake. Local authorities would row to a deep spot and then fling you overboard. If you floated you were innocent but if you sunk, well, you were sunk.

Water was a means of divine judgment too. In the two major judgment events of the Old Testament: Noah’s flood and the crossing of the Red Sea, water was the means whereby God passed sentence. The innocent were those who never got wet. Baptism, therefore, symbolized this judgment. Getting wet didn’t wash away your sin. Getting wet condemned you because of your sin. To be baptized was to be declared guilty. The Pharisees knew this. Everybody knew this. If John was for real then God was not happy. If his kingdom was near you’d better repent. “It’s only water,” John says. Right. In our day that’d be like BP saying “It’s only oil,” or more to the Judgment Day point, “It’s only plutonium.”

There are who plenty who envision Kingdom Come with a mushroom cloud of smoke. A nuclear Armageddon. On the other hand, I once visited the Bradbury Museum at the National Labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico (where they created the first atomic bomb and continue research into nuclear weaponry). When I was there they ran an exhibit entitled, “how plutonium is good for you.” The exhibit cited the positive side of this potent radioactive material such as power generation and national security. Just don’t let it leak out of reactors or blow up in bombs—or get near it or touch it or eat it—the exhibit warned.

While there I spent time with some church folks, all of whom worked at the lab and had to deal with the dissonance between their allegiance to the Prince of Peace and their development of weapons of mass destruction. Most of them dealt with the dissonance by concluding that the only way to ensure world peace was to make world war unimaginable. As weapons inspector Hans Blix has observed, the Cold War has made for a cold peace. And yet there’s little by way of worldwide peace of mind. Worries persist over nuclear armament in Iran and North Korea, who just last week warned the UN to be impartial about the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship or risk nuclear war on the peninsula. There’s grave anxiety over nuclear terrorism too, especially given the shoddy security of Russian nuclear arsenals.

We remain “under a nuclear sword of Damocles,” as John F. Kennedy put it, “capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness.” In recent Senate committee testimony on the new START treaty, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered his support by asking the committee to imagine waking up one morning to learn that a nuclear weapon had killed 500,000 people somewhere in the world. It’s a nightmare scenario. Some would say an inevitable scenario. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel remarked, “We are heading towards catastrophe. I think the world is going to pieces. I am very pessimistic. Why? Because the world hasn’t been punished yet, and the only punishment that could be adequate is nuclear destruction.”

This same sort of fear is what John generated down by the riverside. Scripture warns of a just and righteous God whose anger at evil inevitably explodes with intense and inflexible force. The Lord cannot remain indifferent toward injustice and oppression and remain righteous. To forgive “as if” sin never happened makes the Almighty an accomplice to it. And thus in the last pages of the New Testament, Kingdom Comes with a fierce totality. Justice rolls down like a river and destroys evil for good. And yet leading the charge is an ironic figure. John the Baptist announces the Messiah as one coming with a winnowing fork of judgment in hand, accompanied by unquenchable fire. The picture is one of a warrior Messiah, a reconstituted King David ready to rumble. The book of Revelation goes so far as to announce this conquering Messiah as “the root of king David,” as well as the “Lion of Judah,” which for CS Lewis fans evokes the ferocious Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia.

High expectations were for a fierce and foreboding Savior, righteous and victorious. Yet when the Messiah actually shows up in Revelation, what we see is not some ferocious King of the Beasts but rather a bleeding baby of beasts; a vulnerable lamb having been slaughtered. Talk about disappointing.

Did John the Baptist know all of this when he saw Jesus approach in verse 29? Perhaps, for in mid-sermon sentence, the river water still dripping from his fingers, John looked up and pointed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Turning to the rest of those gathered he said, “This is why I baptize in water—so that he might be revealed. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” However, John couldn’t have imagined Jesus would do it the way he did it. To baptize with the Holy Spirit was to execute divine justice on others, not suffer it yourself.

As we read in the other gospels, John was shocked when Jesus came to be baptized. How could this chosen one of God, who existed before John was even born, how could he wade into the waters of condemnation? He wasn’t guilty. John was guilty, he knew that, so he begged Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus insisted that righteousness demanded it happen the other way around, and so John obeyed. And as Jesus came up out of the water, John saw the heavens split open, the Spirit descend as a dove and heard the voice of God thunder: “This is my beloved son.” Now I take for granted that this never happened at any of your baptisms. I know it didn’t happen at mine. Jesus alone surfaces from the judgment waters as worthy. But worthy for what?

Turn to the end in the book of Revelation, and as the bloodied lamb enters the scene, the heavens again open and sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” It all fits together. In the Old Testament, there were two significant lambs slain. One was the Passover Lamb. Moses told the Israelites to take the blood of a perfect lamb and spread it over their door posts to divert the angel of death from destroying them as he would destroy the hard-hearted Egyptians. The apostle Paul declares at the communion table that Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us. The second lamb slain was the metaphorical lamb in Isaiah used to describe King David’s heir—the one who has “borne our grief and carried our sorrows, who was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” and “led like a lamb to slaughter.” But didn’t this just apply to Jesus’ treatment on earth? Apparently not. On his way to heaven, the risen Jesus showed up to his disciples and told them to look at his hands and his feet. Despite his triumph over the grave, Jesus still wore his scars.

Jesus takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself. The perfect lamb becomes the black sheep. On the cross he suffers the full weight of divine justice. That Jesus referred to the cross as his baptism indelibly links it to this justice. But just as Jesus rose from the baptismal waters to be declared God’s beloved son, so would he rise from his baptismal cross to be crowned God’s worthy Lamb who was slain. Worthy, Revelation tells us, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. Worthy to make peace between God and his people forever.

Some of you may be familiar with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an anti-nukes organization out of Great Britain that has been advocating disarmament since the 1950s. Even if you’ve never heard of the organization, I know you’re familiar with their symbol. It was very popular throughout the 60s and 70s, but like everything, has made a huge comeback as a t-shirt design today. The symbol is supposedly a stylized N D for Nuclear Disarmament, but most people just see a dove’s foot. The dove is an ancient symbol of peace, originating from the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. You’ll remember how at the end of forty days and nights of torrential rain, Noah eventually let loose a dove to go and check whether the flood waters of judgment had receded enough for Noah and his family to disembark. The dove returned with an olive branch in beak. It was the peace sign. All clear. All safe.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove from heaven and landed on Jesus. It was the peace sign. The Lamb of God is our ark of salvation. All clear. All safe. Therefore the apostle Paul further declares, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death … so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might have newness of life.” The waters of judgment are now the waters of mercy, showers of blessing, and a river of life loaded with great expectations that never disappoint.

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