Advent 3, Year B--John, Mary, and Pointing to the Light
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in
One of my favorite professors in seminary was the Episcopal priest Katherine Sonderegger. A former English professor, bespectacled, with salt and pepper hair and with a knack for making even John Calvin seem like a good idea, she’s both a brilliant systematic theologian and the most gifted, and challenging preacher I’ve ever heard. Blessed with a photographic memory, she delivers extemporaneous sermons without a single hitch in perfectly ordered, almost Elizabethan, prose. Try complimenting Dr. Sonderegger on the best sermon you’ve ever heard in your life and all you’ll get is—“They are beautiful texts. What a privilege to preach them.” That’s why I told her in jest one day that she should change her name to John the Baptist. “Perhaps we all should,” she replied. I got out while I was ahead, or at least before I got lapped.
Downstairs in the newly appointed children’s chapel, I recently hung three icons on the wall. In the center, slightly raised above the ones that flank it on either side is Christ Pantocrator from the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia in what was Constantinople. On the left is an icon of the Virgin Mary. And on the right is Andrei Rublev’s 15th century icon of John the Baptist. In both icons, you’ll see something similar—with empty palms upturned and eyes looking to the one we profess as Lord, they gesture towards Jesus. They point away from themselves to the source of all beauty, truth, and goodness. They point to Jesus as if to say, with Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
It’s no coincidence that in our readings for today, Mary and John feature prominently. In place of the usual psalm, we sing the Magnificat taken from St. Luke—"my souls magnifies the Lord.” And our reading from St. John sets before us another John—the camel-haired, leather-belted, bug-eating ragamuffin John the Baptist, the one who points away from himself to Jesus, the one who witnesses to the light, the one who knows all too well that he himself isn’t the light. For goodness sake, the Baptizer won’t even dare to shine Jesus’ shoes!” “He himself was not the light,” St. John tells us. Remember what Augustine says—“no one falls except he who is a light to himself.” Recognizing that we aren’t the light, recognizing that we are to point to the light, to let that light shine through us—that’s when things get interesting. We’ve stepped aside, acknowledged something other than our own efforts and accomplishments, and let God be God in and through our lives. Those open, upturned palms don’t just point, they receive. We receive who we truly are, who God intends us to be, as gift. We look away from ourselves to Jesus and receive back the gift of being truly human. Following after Him, we discover who we reallly, authentically, are.
Sometimes, we hear the Baptizer’s words “not worthy”—“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals”—and alarm bells go off in our heads. Haven’t we heard enough of the Good News being used to tell we aren’t good enough, holy enough, nice enough, upright enough? Haven’t we been told too many times already that if we just get our acts together, our ducks in a row, and straighten ourselves out once-and-for -all (as if that were possible), we will join the prim-and-proper club of the affluently righteous whom God loves? The trouble is, of course, that these storylines are not just Bad News (in case you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re never going to get our act together)—these storylines are entirely counter to the thrust of the Gospel. Remember Paul’s beautiful, game-changing line in Romans 5:8—“While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
That means that God isn’t sitting around for us to successfully complete our entirely self-devised spiritual improvement plan before he welcomes us into his very life. Just as we are—without having to do anything, accomplish anything, perform a role—God loves us. Heaven is full of forgiven sinners and so is Hell. The only difference is that the ones in Hell can’t accept that they’ve been forgiven and the prefer the drab, self-enclosed dreariness of trying to be perfect, good, upright, and sinless to accepting themselves as the forgiven sinners they are and getting on with joining the party to which we are all invited and that’s been in full swing since before the foundation of the world.
So when we hear the word “unworthy,” which the Baptist uses to to describe his relationship the coming Messiah, it’s important not to hear it as another excuse to get back on the spiritual treadmill, shed a spare tire’s worth of no-nos, and make New Year’s resolutions to try harder. In fact, John the Baptist’s pronouncement of himself as unworthy is the death-blow of Divine Grace to that picture of how God’s Grace actually works. It’s not earned, worked for, portioned according to good behavior, and withheld if we make a mess of things (which we always do). God’s not Santa Claus, the pencil-licking bookkeeper with endless lists of naughty and nice kept in perpetuity. No, when John the Baptist says he is “unworthy,” what he is really saying is that he already knows God doesn’t work according to that whole machinery. John’s not worthy, and we’re not worthy, because being worthy has nothing to do with anything. Grace is free gift—sheer, unmerited, unearned, no-strings-attached grace that rains down on the just and the unjust alike.
John knows as a witness to the light, that whenever we think we have the light inside us, we get into big trouble. We get tricked into taking credit for all the great things that are happening, instead of pointing to the real doer of good deeds—Christ Himself. John is that paradigmatic figure of discipleship who knows that left to our own devices we will likely turn the opportunity to serve others into a subtle, or not so subtle way to take some well-deserved credit, boost our fragile egos, and write home about how great we are. John teaches us that being Christian and being a disciple means we see that the good that happens in our lives isn’t the result of our efforts, but an openness, receptivity, and willingness to yield to love, that in the yielding we might become that to which we yield. Love makes us loving, not some effort of will. We witness to the light. We let that light search us, sound us, and shine through us. Our life isn’t about us, of course. It’s about what God is doing through us. The quicker we realize that, the quicker we can die to being the ones who interrogate John—the priests, Levites, and Pharisees—and get on with the work that is no work at all, bearing the yoke that is no yoke.
All that’s what got me thinking about those icons in the Children’s Chapel. Icons are probably best described as “windows to God.” We pray through and not to icons, if we understand them correctly. The icons open little windows that give onto the vast mystery of God. John and Mary’s open hands pointing to Jesus are windows through which we get a glimpse of that paradoxical truth—that it’s in taking our attention off ourselves and placing it on God that we make Christ known in the world. It’s in pointing to Jesus instead of our resumes, in gesturing to Him instead of our last name or our bank accounts, in acknowledging the light of God as the source of all that shines in our lives rather than our well-practiced virtues, that we find fullness and abundance; joy that that isn’t subject to what the NASDAQ is doing, and peace that’s got nothing to do with whether the neighbor’s dog is barking at squirrels.
John and Mary, point to something else, however. It’s not just that they are icons, but that we too are called be windows that open onto God’s nonsensical love for each of us. We are called to be windows through whose dusty, smudged, and, yes, broken panes shine the love and mercy of God. If we think we are the light, and take credit for the colors streaming through the stained glass and try to own them, we actually dim the light down. When we open to God—when we stop trying to shine Jesus’ shoes to make him wink at us and flip us a nickel and simply accept that he asks nothing of us but to trust in his upside-down way of loving no matter who, and no matter what—then Advent happens not as a season but as an event in the ground of our being, in the depths of our soul. God discovers what love looks like in your life. God discovers Godself in us. He sees what funky hues His light can shine through a retired cop, a corporate lawyer, a sick widower, or the single mother of a foster child. That’s why Mary sings, “my soul doth magnify the Lord” in the old language. Of course, God doesn’t get bigger and smaller like a balloon being blown up and losing air. But there’s no question that our lives can be instances, happenings, advents where God’s love either shines with its incomprehensible, upside-down, all-inclusive light, or where all we notice is the freshly-painted window frame and the dead flies of tedious self-regard on the sill.
Our lives can be a yes—“Let it be with me according to your word”—that points to Jesus, or they can be a stodgy no like the priests, Levites, and Pharisees who think pointing to Jesus means things will get a little too unpredictable, a little too wild, a little too much about somebody else enjoying center stage—a direct threat to their power and privilege. Unlike John the Baptist, the priests, Levites, and Pharisees don’t dare take the attention off themselves in case people forget how indispensable they are. Reminding people that they worship the living God—not priests, power structures, rules, regulations, or the byzantine calculus of a human-invented divine meritocracy—is how poor John the Baptist’s head winds up on a platter, and why a sword pierced blessed Mary’s heart. Tell the powers that be that they aren’t the light, and you should prepare for a scuffle.
Our yeses to all the humble, hidden, daily annunciations that litter our lives magnify the Lord in that they open a little space for God to act, for something new and unpredictable to break through, for the old order based on insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, goodies and baddies to come tumbling down. That’s the advent we’ve all been waiting for—the advent of the living God who’s thrown out the scales, burned the ledger books, and broken the squinting bookkeeper’s pencil in half. That’s the God who’s waiting to be born in the manger of your heart. All it takes is the mustard seed of your yes and Grace takes care of the rest.