John the Baptist
“Jesus said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi…where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:38-39a
I read some strange things, but I never could have imagined the article I stumbled upon this week. In it I learned about an artist named Richard Hansen.[i] Hansen is known for creating art out of organic materials – banana skins and other kinds of food. He’s also, by the way, the current Guinness World Record Holder for having created the world’s largest connect-the-dots puzzle in 2017.
Last fall Hansen decided to create an 8-foot by 10-foot portrait of 19th century American writer Edgar Allen Poe out of – wait for it – earthworms. Living, squirming, fresh-from-the-ground earthworms. He first got the idea when he was taking a walk about ten years ago after a summer rainstorm. As often happens after a storm, he found himself dodging the earthworms on the sidewalk. Inspiration struck, and he was soon collecting earthworms and creating molds into which he could insert the earthworms. As the worms crawled into the various spaces within the mold, they created a picture. Hansen started with smaller projects and perfected his technique over time. Any guesses how many earthworms it took for the portrait of Poe? 7000.
What does Hansen want people to take away from his project? Here’s what he says:
“Of course, I want people to laugh and be entertained. I [also] want people to consider the small things in life and look at them a little bit differently. Almost all of us have had that experience of seeing worms on the ground as we’re going on a walk.” [But I hope my portrait will get people] “to just look at that experience in a new light.”[ii]
This is what I love about artists – that ability to look at something as ordinary as earthworms and see new possibilities. To see something in a completely extraordinary way. Artists need the skill to execute the vision, but it begins with seeing.
That invitation to see in a new way is found throughout today’s gospel. The first person who reminds us to take another look is John the Baptist. He points us directly to Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John wants people to see Jesus, not just as a teacher or as a friend but as the Lamb of God. He uses an image that suggests sacrifice, hinting at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry that Jesus will in the end give his life for our sake. I’ve always wondered how people made sense of that image. I’m sure plenty of folks dismissed it as John being dramatic again, but John also invited people to look closely, to see that Jesus was the messiah.
It helps that John is able to give some eyewitness testimony. As we heard last week, John had the closest possible vantage point for the baptism of Jesus, and he tells people what he saw there: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John has witnessed some things. He has seen the Holy Spirit resting upon Jesus. He has heard some things too – the voice of God declaring Jesus to be God’s beloved Son.
I saw it, John says. I saw it all. And now I’m going to tell you about it.
The next day John does it again. He’s hanging out with two of his own followers, and Jesus walks by. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Those two people are intrigued enough that they begin to wander with Jesus, and then Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”
Pause for a moment and consider what you would say if Jesus asked you that question. What are you looking for? What do you hope to see here? What do you hope will happen? What new possibilities do you seek?
These two disciples are clearly not prepared for that question, so they do what most of us do when confronted with a question we’d rather not answer. They change the subject. “Where are you staying,” they ask Jesus.
To which Jesus replies with an invitation: “Come and see.”
So they go with Jesus. And they see – at first literally. They see the place where he is staying. But after some time with Jesus, talking with him and seeing what he is up to, they come to a deeper realization – one that we hear when Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon Peter and reports, “We have found the Messiah.”
It all starts with an invitation to see. To see Jesus. To see that Jesus offers new beginnings, new hope, new life. To see how Jesus sees us – with love and with forgiveness, which makes the rest possible.
On this weekend when we honor Dr. King’s legacy, it’s good to remember how much he helped us see the world in new ways – to see that many things that were technically legal were spiritually and morally wrong. Dr. King summoned church folks – especially white church folks – to help bring about change, and he was often left disappointed. As he writes in “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail”[iii]:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
That phrase always convicts me : “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” I read this letter at least once a year because it makes me look more closely at my own complacency. It makes me ask: How, in the name of Jesus, am I continuing to learn about the experiences of people of color? How, in the name of Jesus, am I working to challenge and disrupt racism? How, in the name of Jesus, am I learning to see what I might not want to see – and then do something about it?
I don’t always feel capable of doing that work. But Jesus sees me – and sees you – as someone who is capable of doing that work, not because of our own strength but because of his.
Jesus looks at ordinary people like us and sees new possibilities. He sees us as more courageous and more creative than we feel on most days. And so he says to us: “Come and see.”
Come and see what you did not expect to see.
Come and see your neighbors as people who are precious to me. Every last one of them.
Come and see what God is up to in the world, the change that God makes possible.
Come and see the new pathways that God is opening.
Come and see. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3
I stopped by a garden center this week to pick up a couple of decorative items for the season. As I walked from the parking lot to the entrance, I could hear the beginning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing through their sound system: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight…”
I got to the door just as the second verse started: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay…” A man was exiting as I was entering, and so I paused to let him pass, just as the song got to the line “From now on your troubles will be miles away.” He was singing that line softly to himself, and as he did, he paused outside the door. A shadow passed across his face. His shoulders fell, and he made a little sound – hmm – a sound of resignation.
I said, quietly: “If only that were true, right?” He nodded, gave me a sad smile, and he walked away without saying anything more.
I don’t know that man’s story, but I do know this. His troubles, whatever they are, are not miles away. They’re very close by. And that particular song was reminding him of the difference between what he was hoping and what he was living.
Our friend John the Baptist is back this week. It’s hard to keep track of this guy, and it doesn’t help that our assigned readings keep jumping around in time. Last week we found ourselves earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. John was out there in the desert, pacing and preaching. He was urging folks to repent. He was baptizing hordes of people. He was calling the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He was getting people ready for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – preparing the way for the messiah.
Today we fast forward, and we find John in a much different kind of wilderness, both physically and spiritually. Today we find him in prison. He’s gotten tangled up in some royal politics. John had been bold enough to tell King Herod that it wasn’t right for Herod to steal his brother’s wife. Herod was a petty and vindictive man, so he received that criticism about as well as you would expect. Eventually, you may recall, Herod will have John beheaded.
What a change. From the wide-open desert to a prison cell. Here there are no crowds to inspire. There’s no fresh air to breathe, no river in which to baptize. There is only isolation and a loss of identity. In this moment John knows the difference between what he had hoped and what he is living.
I hear a heartbreaking uncertainty in the message John sends to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Out in the desert he had been so sure. He had pointed to Jesus as one more powerful than himself. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals,” John had said. But now he doesn’t sound so confident. Are you really the messiah, Jesus? Are you the one? How can I be sure?
This turn from confidence to uncertainty is even more moving when we remember how intertwined the lives of John and Jesus have always been. We learn in the Gospel of Luke that John was a bit of a miracle baby. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were older and had been unable to conceive a child. Even before Mary gets her visit from an angel, Zechariah, who is a priest, encounters his own messenger. An angel shows up one day in the sanctuary to tell him that he and Elizabeth will be parents after all. The angel says that this child will have a holy purpose: He will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will help people turn toward God, to turn from disobedience to wisdom. He will prepare the people for the Lord.
Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary gets her own surprising news, and that’s the first place Mary goes. She runs to Elizabeth, where she is welcomed with open arms. The baby that Elizabeth is carrying – baby John – leaps for joy when Mary shows up. John and Jesus are connected even before they are born.
And of course John baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan. He doesn’t feel worthy of doing so, but it was the role given to him, and he does not run away from it. John had been given the job of preparing the way for Jesus. He embraced that role with purpose and with power.
So we really can’t blame him for feeling so disillusioned. He’s simply done what he was given to do. And now he’s not sure what to believe.
Maybe you’re at the point in this season when you are feeling that difference between what you’re hoping and what you’re living. Maybe your expectations for how wonderful you would feel at this time of year aren’t quite being met. Maybe you’re longing for something more, and try as hard as you can, you can’t seem to shop, bake, wrap, or decorate your way there. Maybe, like me, you are tired of all the gun violence and angry that yet again it has taken more lives, this time very close to us in Jersey City. Or maybe things are generally going well, but you wonder what else is out there waiting for you. Maybe you’re doing the things you’ve been given to do, day after day, at work and at home, but you’re having trouble seeing what it all means.
The writer Ross Gay talks about it in stark terms: “It astonishes me sometimes…how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow.”[i] He lists some examples that have touched people in his own life: “Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back.” He says it again: “Everyone, regardless…of everything.” He goes on to describe that sorrow as a great wilderness. It makes me think of the imagery in today’s Isaiah reading – the burning sand and the thirsty ground longing for nourishment.
Your longing may come from a different place. Financial pressures. Family squabbles. Worry about your kids. Pure exhaustion. And that difference between what you were hoping and what you are living might lead you to some doubts and some questions, especially at this time of year when everyone and everything keeps insisting that your troubles should be miles away.
Notice how Jesus responds to John. Jesus points to tangible experiences: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus doesn’t launch into a sermon or a long theological discussion. He simply points to what he is doing – healing people, sharing the good news with those who need to hear it most, bringing life to places of death.
Jesus is urging us in the midst of our longing and our sorrow to look for places where beauty and holy wonder are sneaking in. Sometimes we have to look closely or we might miss it. But it’s there. Those moments of human connection. Those ways that we give and receive love.
God works in and through our sorrows and our hopes to bring about the transformation that we also hear about in Isaiah: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
This transformation often happens in countless small ways – one drop at a time, if you will. It happens when you have bought and wrapped gifts for the families we have supported through our Giving Tree. It happens when you have donated toiletries and other needed items to the Hoboken Shelter. It happens when you serve in so many different ways that make our worship welcoming and beautiful. It happens when we pray for each other and care for each other.
Try one small thing this week. Think of one person who could use some water in the wilderness. Share some hope with that person. It doesn’t have to be something dramatic or big. Send a text. Give them some cookies with a post-it note. Drive them to the doctor. Call them.
Ross Gay also passes along some wisdom from one of his students, who planned to become a teacher and described how she wanted her classroom to be. This student, Bethany, thought about each person as carrying with them a kind of wilderness. And she asked this question: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?”[ii]
What if we joined our wildernesses together? What if we make sure that no one is alone in their sorrow? What if we point each other toward the moments where we experience the holy breaking into our lives? That’s how the water begins to flow in the desert. That’s how our thirst will be quenched. It won’t be because there is no sorrow or no uncertainty. It will be because God has created us to be in community with each other and to offer healing and hope in tangible ways.
Look around this wilderness that we share. Our troubles are not miles away. They are right here. But so is our God, who says do not be afraid; you shall have joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ