Advent II: Hope in Something Bigger than Self

The Rev. Shelley Fayette, a priest in Seattle wrote this week of her longing for a set of truly Biblical Christmas pageants, one for each Gospel. In the play for the Gospel of Mark she imagined the congregation arriving for “15 minutes of complete silence in the dark.” As they arrived, everyone would be handed a tiny scroll that read, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” Then suddenly, after the 15 minutes of silence, a very hairy man with bugs on his face would jump down from the rafters screaming, REPENTTTTTTT!”

(As it happens, we are signing children and youth up for our pageant at 5pm on Christmas Eve. Don’t worry, I have already been overruled by our volunteers and staff. We will have a traditional pageant. All are welcome to participate. No bug covered men will be jumping down. We don’t have rafters to perch on in the darkness anyway).

My colleague’s imaginative piece of proposed performance art does give shed light on the shadowy character John the Baptist. John features at the beginning of everyone one of the Gospels. Such consistency is rare for the Bible. In each account John quotes Isaiah “prepare the way of the Lord.” Each Gospel elaborates on John the Baptist a bit. Matthew tells us that he ate locusts and wild honey. Mark clothes him in a coat of camel-hair (perhaps the source of the bugs) and a leather belt. Luke gives John words on ethics, which the church saves for next week’s reading. Luke also gives John a bit more backstory and specificity about the timing of John’s preaching: All of these rulers names tell us this was about the year 29 of the Common Era.

While the details vary a bit, John’s constant presence is significant. Every one of the Gospels clearly paints John as a fore-runner for Jesus, a hype man for the coming Christ. Many modern scholars believe that John’s constant presence in the Gospels marked a tension between the two characters, the men Luke tells us were cousins.

Were John and Jesus competing preachers? Were they both trying to attract the same followers? If so, scholars say, John the Baptizer might have been more successful. Based on the Gospels and the history written by Josephus, it seems, at least early on, that John was regarded as a bigger threat. Herod Antipas imprisons John the Baptist, eventually has him beheaded, because he is worried the preacher could turn the tide. Modern scholars wonder: Do the Gospels mention John again and again, constantly giving John the honor of prophesying Jesus, so they can keep John in his place?

This morning my answer is, “maybe.” But I want to push a little further. This second Sunday of Advent I am continuing a short series of sermons on the topic “hope.” If all we do with John is wonder with the scholars about whether he was Jesus’ competitor, I think we are in a bit of danger. We risk missing out on the hope John offers: a hope which bigger than self.

Following the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist sees in Jesus something bigger. Though on his own he appears wildly successfully, John finds in Jesus hope beyond himself. John points to a higher power. John must have been a phenomenal preacher. His words were so powerful that folks were willing to overlook his appearance, his anger, his smell. John gathered a following, before Jesus. Fancy Jerusalemites made their way down from the mountain to the desert, to be baptized by John in the Jordan’s muddy waters. John had power. He had a compelling message and that pied piper quality. But John knew that he, John, was not the answer. He had hope in something bigger than himself.

The 12-steppers in the congregation will recognize that language. “We admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a greater power than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.” Each week hundreds of people gather here at Holy Communion to work through these steps. They keep coming back because the steps work if you work them. Committing your life to God, to a higher power really can get you out of the deepest rut. I’ve said this to you before, but two Episcopal monks who happened to be recovering addicts were among my most important spiritual directors. Recovering addicts will tell you: everyone needs a power bigger than themselves. Everyone.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times’ Sunday edition ran a piece by Ruth Wippman, a bestselling author, about today’s gig and social media economy. She writes about how many of us have a hustle, especially online. More and more friends and minor celebrities have become “influencers” and their posts try to sell me make-up, get me to visit their Etsy shop, or contribute to the crowdfund for their kidney transplant. “It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul” Wipmman says.

Social media functions on a quiet ask: “build a brand. Sell yourself.” Whether you are being paid in actual dollars or in likes and comments, the psychology works similarly. Photograph only the prettiest parts of life. Make smart observations about every political twist and turn. Post frequently so others know how happy you are, how smart, how re-tweetable. Gain more followers.

There is a dark competition built into the system. To whom do we compare ourselves? Do we have more likes than our sister? More re-tweets than our colleague? More followers than our cousin? Are we only as valuable as the number of click-throughs we generate?

Social media may be the latest medium in which we play the game, but in America the grass has always been greener in the neighbor’s yard. Even the hustle isn’t really new. Tupperware, Mary Kay, and Avon have long encouraged our relations to hock goods on the side. If you’ve got a side gig, know that a priest has no room to criticize the hustle. If you follow me on social media, you’ll be invited to contribute to causes I believe in, and to buy books to which I have contributed. But Wippman’s article raises a question about HOW we engage the work of the hustle. How do we engage social media? For that matter, how do we survive family holidays and work Christmas parties, and all of the competition that goes on there. How do we relate? How do we maintain our sense of value, our sense of self?

John the Baptizer’s word this Advent can sound startling: “Repent!” (It’s worse if it is yelled as he jumps from the rafters). But this “baptism of repentance” John was preaching might also be heard as an invitation. The original, the greek, for repentance is “meta-noia,” literally a change of mind, a shift in mentality. The word forgiveness in Greek is actually closer to a “release from bondage.”

Hear the Advent invitation: Shift your pattern of thinking. Be released from the anxieties and relentless drive to sell yourself, to rate yourself. Let go of your need to prove yourself, to make yourself, to save yourself. Can you hear that invitation, even from a dusty, camel-hair wearing, locust and wild-honey eating prophet? Even across the centuries?

Some of the best spiritual advice I ever received came from an awful chintzy plaque my Resident Advisor, my RA, had on her door in college. She was from Georgia, and some of the decor she picked out must have come from one of those big Southern truck stops. The sign was tin, and over-large, and had artificial rust marks along the edges. But the plaque said simply, “Let Go, and let God.”

I find I often return to those words. When I get myself worked up at work. When I am frustrated or anxious about a project. When I can’t get a sermon to write itself. I return to those simple words, “Let Go, and let God.” I think John the Baptist knew something of this wisdom. He was able to say, like St. Paul, “I must decrease so that Christ might increase.” John knew he wasn’t the answer to his own problems. He knew he wasn’t the answer for others either.

Theologically speaking, “self-righteousness” is an oxymoron. You can’t be righteous by yourself. We are only set right in relationship. You can’t save yourself. You can’t. You aren’t Jesus. None of us is Jesus. You’ll do better spiritually if you remind yourself: I am not Jesus. I am not God. Because you aren’t Jesus, there is room for grace. There is hope. You aren’t in this alone. You don’t have to solve it all.

You don’t have to win: not the beauty pageant, not the argument or the coveted position at work, not even the neighborhood Christmas light competition. You don’t need to win. You are free to set your hope elsewhere. With John, you can point your life to God in Christ. You are free to choose a different way, beyond the self.

Setting our hope on Christ is difficult. I wish I could give you a simple answer. But Jesus was a complex human being. He was born into a difficult political reality. He defied the expectations of his followers. If someone asked Peter, James, John and Mary Magdalene: “What would Jesus do?” The disciples probably would have responded: “We have no idea, the guy is unpredictable.” If Jesus’ early life points to God’s reality, our God is complicated. Letting go and letting God is not a simple easy plan.

Letting go and letting God may lead you down paths you never expected, may require more than you ever anticipated offering. Setting your hope on Christ means learning to be comfortable following hunches, living with ambiguity, and especially serving among people who our society would keep at arms length.

But there are moments, lasting moments, when the light breaks forth. In the midst of all the complexity, something clicks. We see a smile, share an unanticipated moment with an unexpected new friend, and we realize we could never have manufactured this joy on our own. We have what my RA from Georgia’s sign makers might have called a “God moment.”

This Advent, could John the bedraggled saint point us to a better way? Can we let the recovering addicts, those who have done the work and kept coming back, can we let them be our guides? Can we trust even the unexpected signs? They point toward the inexact work of setting our hope beyond ourselves. Can we trust in that higher power, in the wild an unexpected God known in Christ Jesus?

Maybe the scholars have a point. Maybe there were tensions in the first century, between John and Jesus, or between John’s disciples and Jesus’. Maybe they took more time than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John let on. But the consistent claim in the Gospels renders an outstanding verdict. John knew he wasn’t the answer. John pointed to Jesus. John the Baptist may be the saint we need most in our own competitive day. John was able to set aside his own success, his own sense of accomplishment. John was able to lay aside security, prestige, and his own power. John pointed to a higher power. This Advent, will you let go? Will you set your hope on nothing less than Christ Jesus?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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