Today's sermon leads us once again into very deep waters. The mystical implications of John 1:6-8 are almost as vast as "In the beginning", only they even more hard-hitting because they bring the Word home to us:
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
Once we get over being intimidated by the specialness of the two personalities involved, i.e., the "man sent from God", and "the Light" Itself, we must face the possibility that ALL of us have been sent "to bear witness of the Light, that all men might believe". In John the Baptist, we are given an example of the special relationship that should exist between Jesus and His true disciples. This is the direction today's sermon is taking--but before we get into that, I have a lot of interesting background material on John the Baptist to present.
"John the Baptist (Hebrew: יוחנן המטביל, Yoḥanan ha-mmaṭbil, Arabic: يوحنا المعمدان Yūhannā al-maʿmadān, Aramaic: Yoḥanan)(c. 6 BC – c. AD 30-36) was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical gospels. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus, who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Some scholars maintain that he was influenced by the Essenes, who were semi-ascetic, expected an apocalypse, and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism, although there is no direct evidence to substantiate this. John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Mandaeism.
[Sidebar: I didn't know what Mandaeism was, so I looked it up:
"Mandaeism or Mandaeanism (Modern Mandaic: מנדעיותא Mandaʻiūtā, Arabic: مندائية Mandā'iyyah, Persian: مندائیان Mandå'iyyån) is a Gnostic religion with a strongly dualistic worldview. Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram and especially John the Baptist. They are sometimes identified with the Sabian religion, particularly in an Arabian context, but the Sabian religious community is extinct today."]
Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus at "Bethany beyond the Jordan," by wading into the water with Jesus from the eastern bank. John the Baptist is also mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus, in Aramaic Matthew, in Pseudo-Clementine, and in the Qur'an. Accounts of John in the New Testament appear compatible with the account in Josephus. There are no other historical accounts of John the Baptist from around the period of his lifetime.
John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces Jesus's coming. John is also identified with the prophet Elijah. Some of Jesus's early followers had previously been followers of John."
From the New Advent website:
"The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these St. Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Precursor and items on his ministry and death. St. Matthew's Gospel stands in close relation with that of St. Luke, as far as John's public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From St. Mark, whose account of the Precursor's life is very meagre, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of St. John after the Saviour's baptism. Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts 13:24;
"24 John first preaching, before his coming, the baptism of penance to all the people of Israel. 25 And when John was fulfilling his course, he said: I am not he whom you think me to be. But behold, there comes one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose. 26 Men, brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you fear God: to you the word of this salvation is sent."
"4 Then Paul said: John baptized the people with the baptism of penance saying: That they should believe in him, who was to come after him, that is to say, in Jesus. 5 Having heard these things, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had imposed his hands on them, the Holy Ghost came upon them: and they spoke with tongues and prophesied."
[Notice that John's baptism of water was a mere precursor to the "Baptism of Fire" attending the Baptism in the name of Jesus, which led to speaking in tongues, and prophecy.]
"As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Precursor was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ's nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ's birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. . .
Of John's early life St. Luke tell us only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel" (Luke 1:80). Should we ask just when the Precursor went into the wilderness, an old tradition echoed by Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon), in the hymn, "Ut queant laxis", composed in honour of the saint, gives an answer hardly more definite than the statement of the Gospel: "Antra deserti teneris sub annis. . .petiit . . ."
(Thou, in Thy Childhood, to the Desert Caverns)
Other writers, however, thought they knew better. For instance, St. Peter of Alexandria believed St. John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Precursor, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the new-born Saviour. It was added also that Herod on this account had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messias (Baron., "Annal. Apparat.", n. 53). These are worthless legends long since branded by St. Jerome as "apocryphorum somnia". (As near as I can figure out, this means "sleeping legends" possibly "old wives' tales".)
Passing, then, with St. Luke, over a period of some thirty years, we reach what may be considered the beginning of the public ministry of St. John. Up to this he had led in the desert the life of an anchorite;"
("In Christian terminology, men who have sought to triumph over the two unavoidable enemies of human salvation, the flesh and the devil, by depriving them of the assistance of their ally, the world.")
"now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world.
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. . .the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching",
clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier, but in those "of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins"; he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking, and "his meat was locusts and wild honey"; his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind manifested undaunted constancy."
"7 And when they went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: What went you out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind? 8 But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings. 9 But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before your face, who shall prepare your way before you."
"A few incredulous scoffers feigned to be scandalized: "He hath a devil" (Matthew 11:18). Nevertheless, "Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan" (Matthew 3:5), drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly a prophet). "Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.
Pharisees and Sadducees were there; the latter attracted perhaps by curiosity and scepticism, the former expecting possibly a word of praise for their multitudinous customs and practices, and all, probably, more anxious to see which of the rival sects the new prophet would commend than to seek instruction.
But John laid bare their hypocrisy. Drawing his similes from the surrounding scenery, and even, after the Oriental fashion, making use of a play on words (abanimbanium), he lashed their pride with this well-deserved rebuke:
"Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire".
It was clear something had to be done. The men of good will among the listeners asked: "What shall we do?" (Probably some were wealthy and, according to the custom of people in such circumstances, were clad in two tunics.
"And he answering, said to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner".
Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law. To the soldiers (probably Jewish police officers) he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay. In other words, he cautioned them against trusting in their national privileges, he did not countenance the tenets of any sect, nor did he advocate the forsaking of one's ordinary state of life, but faithfulness and honesty in the fulfillment of one's duties, and the humble confession of one's sins.
To confirm the good dispositions of his listeners, John baptized them in the Jordan, saying that baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice. This feature of his ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed "the Baptist" (i.e. Baptizer) even during his lifetime (by Christ, Matthew 11:11; by his own disciples, Luke 7:20; by Herod, Matthew 14:2; by Herodias, Matthew 14:3). Still his right to baptize was questioned by some; the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to comply with this ceremony, on the plea that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messias, Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15."
"15 The Lord your God will raise up to you a prophet of your nation and of your brethren like unto me: him you shall hear:"
"John's reply was that he was Divinely "sent to baptize with water"
"29 The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him; and he says: Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world. 30 This is he of whom I said: After me there comes a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me. 31 And I knew him not: but that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. 32 And John gave testimony, saying: I saw the Spirit coming down, as a dove from heaven; and he remained upon him. 33 And I knew him not: but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me: He upon whom you shall see the Spirit descending and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizes with the Holy Ghost. 34 And I saw: and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God."
Later on, our Saviour bore testimony, when, in answer to the Pharisees trying to ensnare him, he implicitly declared that John's baptism was from heaven.
"28 And they say to him: By what authority do you these things? And who has given you this authority that you should do these things? 29 And Jesus answering, said to them: I will also ask you one word. And answer you me: and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from men? Answer me. 31 But they thought with themselves, saying: If we say, From heaven; he will say, Why then did you not believe him? 32 If we say, From men, we fear the people. For all men counted John that he was a prophet indeed. 33 And they answering, say to Jesus: We know not. And Jesus answering, says to them: Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things."
Whilst baptizing, John, lest the people might think "that perhaps he might be the Christ" (Luke 3:15), did not fail to insist that his was only a forerunner's mission:
"I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire".
Whatever John may have meant by this baptism "with fire", he, at all events, in this declaration clearly defined his relation to the One to come."
[Sidebar: We heard about this a few minutes ago in the quotation from Acts.]
Thus ends the Wikipedia background material.
L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, has this to say in his article JOHN THE BAPTIST AND THE RITUAL OF BAPTISM:
"Our knowledge of the figure of John the Baptist is very limited. We have only those references to him in the Christian gospels, where he stands alongside of Jesus. We also have references to him in the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was writing toward the end of the first century. So John the Baptist is clearly a very important figure of the time. He was a renowned kind of eccentric, it appears, from the way that Josephus describes him. But he seems to have this quality of a kind of prophetic figure ... one who was calling for change. So he is usually thought of as being off in the desert wearing unusual clothes ... a kind of ascetic, almost. But what he is really is a critic of society, of worldliness, who seems to be calling for a change in religious life. But I think we have to think of John the Baptist primarily as one who was calling for a return to an intensely Jewish piety ... to follow the way of the Lord ... to make oneself pure ... to be right with God.
And why did he baptize people, and what was baptism?
John the Baptist, of course, is known for having practiced baptism. But then, so did lots of other people. We hear of other groups around this time, besides the Sadducees and the Pharisees and Essenes. There are the obscure little groups. We only know their names, but one of them is called Morning Dippers, or Hemero-Baptists, they're called. This seems to refer to a group that practiced self-washing ... ritual washing as an act of purification. We also know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Qumran community practiced ritual washing as an act of purification as well, to keep themselves pure before God. So, the idea of baptizing, or washing as a sign of purity seems to come, actually, out of the Temple practice itself.
And what's the significance in terms of the quest for Jesus?
In terms of the Jesus tradition, then, to have Jesus either submit to baptism, or himself baptize others, suggests that we are part of a culture that was looking toward Temple purity as its ideal of religious life. By Temple purity, I mean the notion that one should be pure ... should be washed ... should be cleansed before you can go to the Temple and offer your sacrifices or your worship to God. So one of the concerns of the Temple, you see, and of the Priests who ran it, was that proper purity regulations be followed scrupulously. In some cases, however, it seems that these purity regulations, though, were made also a practice of kind ... what we might call personal piety among some Jewish groups. This seems to be what's going on in the Essene group. And it may also be what's reflected in the story of John, who practices baptism. And it seems to be that he calls for baptism as a sign of rededication or repurification of life in a typically Jewish way before God."
This is from SDA Global:
"Jesus said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me." John 13:20.
[Sidebar: On the subject of "being sent" (which we will take up again presently) notice that Jesus sees John as being sent to herald the coming of Jesus, and Jesus is sent as an access point between Man and God. This goes to show how we are all interconnected; all of us are sent to redeem each other in truth, just as John and Jesus were sent to us for our redemption. We were each "chosen" to complete a specific task.]
"Moses was chosen of God to be His spokesman. But he met many who opposed him. Miriam and Aaron were the first, then came Korah, Dathan and Abiram. In every confrontation God upheld His prophet."
I repeat: "In every confrontation God upheld His prophet."
Thus ends the review of background material on John the Baptist. Now, to return to the scripture for today, it was:
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
I get two major implications from this text, the "Moral Imperative" part, and the "Destiny" part.
I find there to be a moral imperative embedded in the concept of "being sent". This is big admission for me, because I find that most of what people identify as "moral" is merely custom or tradition, which may or may not have its roots in an a priori (self-evident) spiritual truth. What's worse is that people decide to condemn, deride, and shun me because they figure that anyone who violates their moral code makes me an infidel, a sinner, a danger. Never mind that there are a multitude of conflicting moral codes, not only all over the world, but even within a little parochial community like Glennallen, which is supposedly a committed Christian community. Nowhere else in the world is there such rampant back-stabbing and vicious gossip, as in a small town like this, where the stakes are so low. I do things every day that many people would call immoral, but my conscience is clear because I have a good idea of my purpose on this earth, and I make it a point never to do anything that stands between me and the reason God has put me here.
Being sent implies purpose, being sent for a purpose, such that: as we are sent for a purpose, we must therefore be OBLIGED to perform a certain task, or fulfill some extended program of accomplishment; our very existence proclaims the necessity of obedience to a higher purpose, a higher mind, a mind we cannot grasp with our puny brains and must therefore accept through faith. Thus, being sent brings with it the added baggage of LAW; moral law gets its impetus from fundamental motivations born of spiritual responsibility which, in its variegated human manifestation, may be different for every human being on Earth. We are all sent into the world, like John the Baptist, with a divine commission; some of us get small tasks, some of us get big tasks-- the magnitude of the task doesn't matter--only how faithful you have been in its execution.
As an example of the destiny aspect of being sent--the "this has-to-have-been planned" part-- I thought it would be fun to recount the events that led me to Alaska. I have no doubt that I have been called to this place; there were just too many co-incidental synchronicities piled up on top of each other to land me here, for me to think for one second that it was an accident.
In the spring of 2004, Louise had just returned from a long trip to Alaska. All this interest in Alaska motivated her to do more research into the possibilities of my involvement with that state. She knew that many many villages in the Alaska bush were cut off from any kind of big city culture, and that there were a certain number of grants available to fund plane trips by itinerant artists into that back woods to teach music, art, writing, etc. Consequently, one night she did an Internet search for "itinerant music teacher" . She came up with a hit from the Copper River School District advertising for, of all things, an itinerant music teacher.
Now, one of the professional possibilities that I had considered closed to me, because of my inability to get any kind of institutional employment, was the idea of teaching music in the public schools. The fact is that I had had a job in a San Jose school district for a semester, when we lived in Santa Cruz; it was an emergency situation, and I had been hired as a " consultant". I was a huge hit, and had actually begun the process of getting my teaching credential, when I learned that the school district had had its budget cut by $1,000,000, and my music program had evaporated into thin air.
I also once applied for a job in our town in Idaho, but the small-town gossip had prepared my way, and I had no chance. Therefore the thought of wasting my time going to college for another two years to get a teaching credential, so that I could be disappointed once again by the news that no one would hire me, I never considered this to be a real possibility. Imagine my surprise when the Copper River School District not only expressed an interest in me, knew of a way I could come on board right away without a teaching credential, but were willing to pay half my air fare to come up and interview for the job. I told them right up front about my Asperger's condition, and not to waste my time and money if they had a problem with it; the superintendent told me that not only was it not a problem, but they would be in violation of the law to hold such a disability against me in the hiring process. This phone conversation took place on Tuesday; by Friday I had the job, and everything was changed, and events were set in motion which would roll over us like a storm.
Several things indicated that fate was on our side in this move to Alaska. For one, that summer I was going to lose fully half of my students. This kind of thing had been happening every few years for as long as I could remember; since many of my students were the children of graduate students, every once in awhile they all graduated and left town at the same time, like a wave. They were generally replaced by new recruits, and my schedule again filled up--but this time it was even more severe than usual, and I was worried what the fall held in store for me. The move to Alaska alleviated that problem. There were still plenty of people who were sorry to see me go, but not near enough to keep me, if there were a new opportunity in store. The fact is that my take-home pay from the school district in Glennallen was going to be slightly less than what I was making freelance in Idaho; but the fact that my teacher's salary included income-tax taken out, and very cheap medical benefits, more than evened the scale. Anyway, it was Alaska at last.
I could go on with many details about how things just fell into place, (and trust me there were a lot more)--about how I was literally propelled, against my will, or at least without my will, into a place, a world that was strange and difficult, a complete surprise (epiphany); I say, I could go on with that, but I want to get into the moral imperative that all those synchronicities necessitate.
I was sent to do a certain thing--well, duh, to teach music to Alaskans--and I have to stay here and do that thing no matter what my personal preferences might be. I couldn't leave if I wanted to, I don't have the money nor the youthful energy to start over again, so instead of thinking of Alaska as a prison from which there is no escape, I must think of it as HOME AT LAST. Thus, my divine commission is fulfilled with joy and thanksgiving.
Are we able to purify others with our inner light? Are we sent to bear witness to the light, or to bear the light? Is not bearing witness to the light, in fact speaking the word that brings the light with it? We all need to examine our lives to make sure we are following the path that was laid out for us before we were born. Only by alleging our petty human objectives with the larger cosmic picture can we truly be happy and free.
Sometimes, when I look back on the trials I have endured, and the sacrifices I have made, I am tempted to compliment myself on my strength of character, my courage, my purity of heart; then I remember that I am merely doing the Father's Will, and deserve no credit for merely providing a channel through which His Will may be manifested in the world. I chose, a long time ago, never to choose, but to be led. From this I can claim no virtue, but only gratitude for the wave upon which I ride effortlessly into Eternity.
Let us pray: Jesus, thank you for all the links in the chain of causality that are the natural consequences of being sent. Keep us on the path you have dispensed in Your wisdom, and remind us that our purpose here is not done until You say so. We may sometimes cry to let this cup pass from us, but, as in all things, let Thy Will be done. Amen