Who am I, that I should dare to cry out? Who am I, that I should dare to even try to act as a messenger of God's word? These are the questions that arose for me when I first began contemplating today's texts.
In the passage from Isaiah, we are told that “people are grass,” that we wither, that we're inconstant, and that, many times, we need to ask what it is that we should be crying out, even in those rare moments when we recognize a voice instructing us to speak up. I don't know about you, but these aren't exactly things that build my confidence.
These questions were even more relevant for me when I thought about my circumstance today: What can I, a recent college graduate, 22 years old, have to offer all of you in a sermon? I've asked myself similar questions in other moments of opportunity—such as wondering, the semester I was a leader of a campus Christian group at college, if I could actually be able to mentor other students. That seemed outrageous when I also happened to be a confused 20-year-old. I suspect I am not alone in being able to easily convince myself that I am too sinful to adequately serve as a messenger of God's word, or that my walk with God is too fragile, unstable, or dull for me to be a positive influence in someone else's.
The story of John the Baptist, as laid out in this Gospel reading, provides a compelling challenge to the self-doubts that could otherwise silence us.
How so? Well, let's look at John's declaration: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
Here, John the Baptist is stating the distance between who he is and who the Messiah will be—who Christ still is to us now. The Messiah is much more powerful than John the Baptist is, much more glorious, much more worthy of praise. John the Baptist basically admits that he is only the opening act. The main event, Jesus—that's what really worth the people's excitement.
Perhaps we can find some guidance in this. The extent to which we are not God, be it because of our powerlessness, our mortality, or the evil in our hearts, is not a reason we should shy away from proclaiming the word of God. That distance can compel us, all the more, to cry out to others about who God is.
Our not-God-ness? This is a starting point for speaking about God. The Gospel of Mark makes this clear. As the passage says, this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The beginning is not Christ himself, but a man, a wholly human man, a man who is not divine even if he is a prophet, a man, not-God but being worked through by God, preparing the people for the one who is coming, the one who is God. While John the Baptist's particular call as a forerunner to Jesus may not be ours, it is nevertheless true that, for many, the experience of the “good news of Jesus Christ” does not start with Jesus himself—at least to their perception. It can start with someone else, someone just as human as they are, pointing the way.
Though some of us might want to deflate our callings, not thinking we can claim such a role, others might be tempted in a different direction. “Crying out” can become abut the attention we can attract for ourselves rather than delivering the word of God.
That route would've been quite easy for John the Baptist to take. He's attracting enormous crowds. The people want to buy into his greatness. Though he could easily embrace that, however, he does the opposite. 'You think I'm a big deal?' he says. 'Wait for what's next; for who's next.'
We must walk a tightrope—a thin line between not allowing our sense of self to be so diminished that we feel we can't tackle our callings (even with the grace of God) and not letting our sense of self become so bloated as to lessen our sense of God's greatness.
We might lean one way or the other, for various reasons. For some of us, factors in life may lend our voice and our life more importance in this culture. Maybe we were raised in supportive homes where our thoughts were valued. Maybe we've been told about our leadership potential. Maybe we have traits that our societies value, like being wealthy or being college-educated. Or maybe we have been told that our voices and lives are worth less than others in the eyes of our society—be it because our gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background,education, or race, as recent events around the country, including in New York City, Ferguson, and Cleveland, remind us.
How do we address this imbalance? First, we must acknowledge our own tendencies to shut out certain voices and downplay certain lives, because we are bound to miss out on the presence of God in someone else. We must also be thoughtful as we encourage one another in the task of proclaiming God's word. Are we excessively emphasizing humility to someone whose sense of self and purpose are already beaten down by those around them? On the other hand, are we inadvertently glorifying a messenger for their skills, charisma, or perceived holiness in a way that distracts both that messenger, and us, from God?
It is important to think about how we, as a church, nurture one another as messengers of Christ, because the message that we have is valuable. Let's take a look at what that message is. Just from these passages, we learn that it is a message that can comfort, that can be told tenderly, and that it is for all people. It is a message of a God who gently leads us, a God who cares for us like a shepherd, a God who gathers us into his arms and carries us. It is the message of Jesus Christ, who is so much greater and more powerful than even a dynamic prophet like John the Baptist, Jesus Christ who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. It is message of a God who will dwell in us and work in us.
At a time where many of us have become more aware or are feeling quite acutely the ways in which our society is infected with injustice, prejudice, and violence, we can take comfort in the message that God is, in some ways, so unlike us. God is not like us, people who hurt and dehumanize one another, be that through conscious or unconscious participation in broad, systemic injustice or in the particular ways we wound each other in our most intimate relationships.
Again, I return to these words of John the Baptist: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.” These words may be ringing particularly true for some of us this week as we enter into reflection about our society and ourselves.
I pray that we do not just sit with these unworthy feelings, allowing them to lull us into inaction. Instead, may they help us overflow with gratitude for the God whose worth is beyond measure and who finds us utterly valuable, though we are very flawed. May our characters and actions be shaped, more and more, by this God who is so unlike us—but may we not wait until we've arrived at some arbitrary standard of being like God or worthy of God to cry out. May we let those ways in which who we are is so far from who God is prompt us to proclaim God's greatness and boldly speak the message of God with which we have been entrusted. Let's prayerfully enter, together and as individuals, into that important question: “What shall I cry?” Amen.
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