The Strength of Our Convictions

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

“Who are you?” the priests and Levites ask.  John replies, “I am not the Messiah. . . . I am not Elijah and I am not the prophet.”  “If you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet” they ask him, “Why then are you baptizing?”[1]  A footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible states, “John was challenged because he lacked a status recognized by the religious authorities and engaged in a ritual not sanctioned by them.”[2]  John the Baptist was challenged by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem because John the Baptist’s ministry challenged them.  While John’s gospel focuses on the Baptist’s practice of baptism, last week’s gospel reading – from Mark - also emphasized the Baptist’s unusual appearance:  “clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”[3]  John’s words, John’s behavior, and John’s appearance challenged the assumptions of the day.
Tonight St. Mark’s will host the next gathering of our Confirm not Conform[4] class – about 20 young persons from the congregations of St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s.  The premise of Confirm not Conform (or CnC) is that not all participants will choose to be confirmed.  We are accepting the possibility that when we invite our young persons to open their hearts and minds to ask what it is they really believe, to truly explore questions of faith, to ask tough questions, and search out answers, there is a chance that confirmation may not be the answer for them at this time in their journey of faith.  The program itself has three phases: demolition, design, and construction.  We are in the midst of Phase One – demolition – where we are inviting the youth to challenge assumptions and, in fact, to rebel (just a little bit).   Tonight’s bit of rebellious deconstruction is to share with one another information about our favorite heretic. 
Heresy is defined by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “the formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith.” [5]  And while it is anachronistic to use the word as a label for John the Baptist, he certainly raised the eyebrows of the religious authorities – the priests and Pharisees – of his day.  What must it be like to see things that others don’t see? And what must it be like to have the courage to act, to have the strength of one’s convictions, in the face of opposition? 
Do you remember the movie Field of Dreams? Iowa famer Ray Kensella (played by Kevin Costner) plows under his most lucrative crop to build a baseball field because of a voice he first hears while working in his corn field: “If you build it, he will come.”  As Ray begins to share this bizarre experience – first with his wife, then with a neighboring farmer at the grain and feed store – as we might imagine, his story is met with ridicule.  And yet, Ray finds the courage to follow the dream, to build the baseball diamond, and to wait for Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven players from the Chicago White Sox – later dubbed the Black Sox - who were banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series match against the Cincinnati Reds.[6] 
Hearing – or seeing – things that others don’t cannot be easy.  In the first place it raises some big questions about one’s sanity.  I find it remarkable that so many people came to the Jordan River to receive baptism from a man wearing camel’s hair, chewing on locusts!  But more than that, it can force one to make some costly decisions.  The decisions John the Baptist made would ultimately cost him his life.  And yet, the Baptist hears a call to do something in a world that does not hear the call.  And rather than conform to their expectations he follows his faith, sticks to his conviction about who he is.
“I am not the Messiah. . . . I am not Elijah and I am not the prophet.”  “If you are not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet” they ask the Baptist, “Why then are you baptizing?” His response is calm, and clear, and confident: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ . . . I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”[7]  I am not any of those you might have expected or wanted or needed me to be, but I am who I have been called to be and I do what I have been called to do.  Even under pressure from the authorities the Baptist does not seek to conform to their expectations that he be someone he is not or that he stop being who he is called to be.[8] 
John the Baptist is among a long line of individuals in Scripture who are called to be or do something that is beyond the everyday expectations – sometimes even beyond their own expectations for themselves.  God calls out: “[Moses], I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”[9]  God calls out: “O mortal, [Ezekiel], eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel.”[10]  God calls out: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”[11]  God calls out: “[Mary], you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”[12], [13] Moses, Ezekiel, Joseph, Mary, John the Baptist, each responds in their own time and in their own way, “Yes, God!”
Where is God calling us?  What is God asking us to do?  John the Baptist points the way: he baptizes with water and points to the one who will come after him.  Next Sunday Eliana Amaya Greene will be baptized with water and the Holy Spirit and we will have that opportunity to renew our own baptismal covenant.  And, my prayer is that each of us will boldly take the risk, defying all cultural expectations, and promise again to follow the path set before us, not knowing fully where it will take us but trusting that it will lead us ever closer to our God.  And when those around us might ask us who we are, may we have the strength of the Baptist to say with clarity, “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet. I am simply one who testifies to the light of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”

[1] John 1:6-8, 19-28.
[2] Footnote at John 1:25 in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, 3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 
[3] Mark 1:6.
[4] Confirm not Conform (CnC) is a curriculum available for purchase from Church Publishing Group. More information is available on the CnC website accessed December 10, 2011.
[5] “Heresy,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
[6] Field of Dreams, dir. Phil Alden Robinson, perf. Kevin Kostner,  DVD, Universal Studios, 1989.
[7] John 1:23, 26-27.
[8] In a family systems context, we might call John the Baptist a well-differentiated “self.” For a concise overview of self-differentiation and other concepts of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory see Michael E. Kerr, One Family’s Story: APrimer on Bowen Theory, Washington, DC: Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2008.
[9] Exodus 3:10.
[10] Ezekiel 3:1.
[11] Matthew 1:20.
[12] Luke 1:31.
[13] Inspired by Susan K. Bock, “Hearing God Speak: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent,” Liturgy for the Whole Church: Multigenerational Resources for Worship, New York: Church Publishing, 2008, p. 35-37.