Year B of the Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is my true favorite. Both from the perspective it generates in using the Gospel according to Mark as its foundation (being so short, they sprinkle in a generous helping of John to flesh out the year), and from the temerity of many of the readings I get a sense in the year's lection of a kingdom that is actively breaking in and over us. Jesus is stomping onto stage, center stage, and demands our attention with his mere presence.
So, last week, John is the voice in the wilderness.
This week, he is not the One. Instead of accepting the pressure of the crowd to claim either an old school prophethood...Or a new school messianic identity, he instead points to the One who is to come. No small feat.
When I was a young seminarian, I had the chance to go back to my home diocese for the investiture of the new Diocesan Bishop. When one bishop succeeds another, this service confirms the new diocesan's role as bishop-in-charge, if you will. A great occasion, with one person referring to the service as the bishop's "coronation." We all piled into a van, with a childhood friend of the bishop who was hitching a ride from NYC back to Ohio with us for the service, and set off to pay our respects at the celebration.
At that service, the preacher was an older, retired bishop. One of the greats of the Church in his generation. With incredible gravitas, great wit and humor, he preached one of the best installation sermons I have ever heard. One line keeps coming back to me..."Remember my friend," he said to the newly-invested bishop sitting on his proverbial throne, "that you, like me and all the rest of us, are not the Christ. Nor do we have any business thinking that this is all about us. Remember that you are an interim, the one who is hear after the one who just left...And you are the one who POINTS TO THE ONE WHO IS TO COME!"
So, I guess in many ways we are all John, forerunners of the one who is to come. We are not Moses, or Elijah, or some early or late version of Jesus. We point, like John, to the one who is to come, both as babe in arms and as judge at the end of the age. No easy feat.
It takes being willing to give up not only our own agendas, but also the pressure that the expectations of the world put upon our shoulders. We strive to reframe and refocus who we are and HOW we are about the business at hand as kingdom work in service to Christ. Success is no longer measured in dollars and cents, in inches and yards, in average Sunday Attendance or in gross receipts of pledge revenue. We will not be judged in how many we bring to Christ, I pray, but in the life well-lived that draws those around us into deeper communion with God. Instead of being let off the performance-delivery hook, we are instead held to a higher standard. It is what is inside and well as what is outside that defines us.
At morning prayer, there was a GREAT line from Jesus' harangue against the Pharisees in Matthew; something about how they build up a great gate into heaven, but then refuse to enter. How they strain a gnat out, but swallow a camel. How they clean the outside of a cup but then leave the dregs and dirt inside so that no one can drink. How often to we get the outside of things in order, make them look great; but fail to draw order, kingdom life, inside?
John is not just calling on us to dust and sweep and paint up the dull spots in our spiritual households in preparation of the Christ's Advent. He is calling for a radical redress of our attitude toward God and neighbor. Rejecting out of hand the pressure of the crowd to proclaim himself the promised one, he claims instead the identity of "one crying in the wilderness." Make a path straight for the King, he says. Do it.
Why do you baptize? Why do you do the things you do? What is ministry in the Church? Does it exist for itself? Is this just to make us all feel better, more comforted, assured? Or are we here to get ready, to prepare, to point toward the One Coming? If that is the case, then what does that mean for us as we work, worry and push our way through life? As we struggle to make the bottom line? As we coordinate schedules and bring off events and programs? As we manage? John presses in on us, sometimes creating excitement and sometimes creating dread, but always-always pointing and proclaiming. He looks like Elijah and he sounds like an archangel, but he is pointing.