Thursday, January 13, 2011

Are We Answering to the Wrong Name?

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, and John 1:29-42. You can read this week's passages here.

I'm starting to wonder if we've gotten it all wrong. I mean...has anyone noticed that this will be the fourth Sunday out of our past seven that we've had to deal with John the Baptist? He keeps showing up, as one commentator put it, "like the cat who refused to take the hint when I've thrown him off my lap for the twentieth time."

We've gotten a lot of different pictures of John over the past few weeks: one preaching in the wilderness of the one who is to come; one who wonders if it is legit for him to baptize Jesus when Jesus is so much greater than him; but perhaps it is this week's picture of John that brings all the pictures together. If you were to Google pictures of John the Baptist, in almost every picture he is pointing away from himself, towards something else: whether it's a photograph reenactment, a Sunday School picture, or an icon of John, his index finger, nine times out of ten, is pointed away from himself. One person suggested that if John had a Facebook page, his Profile Picture would be a long finger, pointing away from himself, and every response to a Wall Post from his friends would be something like, "Go on over to the Lamb's page." This is because if John was certain of anything, it was his place: "I am not the One," John kept saying. "Don't look at me; look at him." Or, as he will say elsewhere in John's gospel, "He must increase, as I decrease." This, perhaps, is why this is pretty much the last time we'll meet John in our lectionary year after his prominence at the beginning.

John knew his place: He was not Jesus. He was a messenger, a witness, one sent to testify that others may see and follow Jesus. In this way...I wonder if John is a better model for our calling than Jesus is? After all, what John does is what we are to do: use our lives to point towards Christ, being willing to give up our own prominence that Jesus' true place may be honored, doing the work of baptism not for our own sakes or glory but as a way to testify about this One who baptizes with the Spirit? Maybe we've taken the wrong model for our life of faith...maybe, instead of calling ourselves Christians, we should call ourselves Baptists.

Oh, wait. We already do that. Johnians? Well, you get my point, hopefully: John models for us what following Jesus should look like in terms of how it shapes our lives.

Except for one thing: one really, really, really major detail. John, as best as we can tell, never follows Jesus...not physically, at least. He doesn't follow Jesus out of the desert and into the cities like his disciples do; he is not found with him on the Mount for the Sermon, he is not sent out with the 72 into all the towns to share the good news, he is not around to receive Jesus' post-resurrection commission nor the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. As best as we can tell, John never actually follows the pointing of his own finger: he sees who Jesus is and declares this, but never changes the pattern and path of his life to actually follow him.

So I take it back. I have nothing but respect for John's witness in the desert; but why did he never take his witness beyond this? Why did he not lay down his title and follow Jesus, too? Why was he never transformed from John the Baptist into John the Christian?

All of this, I think, can raise questions for our discipleship. How are our fingers pointing to Jesus? This is a part of John's witness that we want to imitate--we want to invite people to behold Jesus. But we want to follow the wisdom of John's disciples, too...being aware enough to go where that finger points, to go on the hard journey of following Jesus out of the wilderness and into the world, even when we do not know where Jesus is leading. How can the movement of our lives point to Jesus as well, making us truly Christians as we walk in his dusty footsteps?

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