A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28]
I want to start this sermon in a different way. Please bear with me on this. I want to present to you a piece of music that illustrates beautifully and clearly the role of music in worship. In fact, the only reason I am familiar with this piece is that four decades ago I heard it in church. In fact, most of my musical education has come from the church and my experience of music’s place in our communal life. I owe a great deal to the musicians I have worked with over the last fifty years for being my teachers as well as fellow collaborators: Karen Banta being the latest example.
So any demonic electronic interference notwithstanding, I ask you to return to the gospel text in your bulletins and follow that reading, all the while listening to this music. The music is the work of Orlando Gibbons, a famous English composer and keyboardist: Someone who bridged the end of the baroque period into the emerging renaissance time – that is, from the late 16th century to the first quarter of the 17th.
So now, listen, please, to The Record of John by Orlando Gibbons.
I felt compelled to start this way because the combination of where we are in terms of the calendar (trying exhaustively to balance December and Advent), absorbing news headlines that pass our understanding, with political leaders and commentators sounding like petulant children – I felt compelled to start this sermon with this music because (at least for me) Gibbons musical expression of today’s gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent conveys a clear and telling voice. My intention in using this piece of music is to help us move beyond not only all the noise we unavoidably absorb (especially at this time of the year) and also to help us break through any barriers that our familiarity with this text may erect.
With the aid of Gibbon’s “The Record of John”, both the dialogue and the confrontation of this scene from St. John’s gospel come alive in ways that invite us to be present, involved, and listening. So, in this sermon I would like to focus on the voice that is continuously in our wilderness and what difference risking listening to it can make.
As you know, John the Baptizer emerges quite dramatically on the gospel stage both in Mark and John. A strange, haunting sort of figure, John is clearly seen by the apostolic generation as the forerunner of Jesus. Yet, curiously, no one seems to be sure precisely who he is or what he is up to. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Baptizer is part and parcel to his novel appeal. I say this because John clearly has hit a nerve with the people of the region. How is it that such an outlier attracts so much attention? With a small band of followers, John gains his moniker through his restoration proclamation to the covenanted people of God and by his offer for faithful Jews to repent of their waywardness and to come clean about paying attention to their call of God. As we heard in last week’s rendition, John’s calling card is that he calls the people back to their covenanted life and provides the outward sign of such a return with a water baptism to start their life again. Again, according to Mark’s and John’s gospels, people flocked to this stark, truth-telling man, to his message and his baptizing offering.
We are told that among the many who came to the Baptizer certain emissaries arrived with a specific mission. The ruling authorities from Jerusalem were very curious about what John was up to and needed to measure his impact, lest his publicity erode their own positions of power and prestige. So, they sent their underlings (the “priests and Levites”) to check the Baptizer out. We who read and listen to the text itself already know what the religious authorities want to know: namely, that John the Baptizer is a Godly witness, whose testimony is meant to break upon the people with good and bad news. The good news is that God is on the move. The Holy One’s promise of restoration and deliverance of his people has been cracked open and released in their midst. The bad news is that in order for new life to emerge in concrete terms, the familiar shell must be broken open. (In this fractioning of the familiar, I am mindful of the quote I mentioned to you at Advent’s outset, the one Walter Bruggemann spoke: The life for which you have so carefully been prepared is being taken from you, by the grace of God.) Needless to say, as with us now, not everyone received the Baptizer’s message with equal enthusiasm. John the Baptist, stark, bold, and unwavering figure that he was, is the harbinger of this new, emergent life in and with God.
The response from the authorities is to ask, “With what credential do you say this?” With a combination of defensiveness and curiosity, the Temple minions demand: “Who are you? You can’t be the Messiah. With your minimalist clothing and gruesome diet, you don’t look the part. Are you, then, the prophet Isaiah? Or are you Elijah, the Messiah’s precursor? ‘What do you say about yourself?’ We’re taking notes!”
And John’s testimony is as clear and direct as his appearance. “I am the voice,” he says. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.
”The voice”: the one crying in the wilderness. Among all the voices that clamor for your attention (mine included!), do we hear that voice? Do we even listen for it? In the wilderness where we wonder if we will ever be good enough to love and in turn to be loved, is that testifying voice audible; or does it get lost amongst all the other, noisy voices in our life? Moreover, do we dare to recognize whose voice it is and what it might mean? Is it acid indigestion; or is it God? Is the anxiety that haunts our nighttime waking hours the signal for us to prepare God’s way into our lives; or is the worry something a prescription or some organic supplement can take care of?
Last week, a guest came to St. Philip’s and came to coffee hour after worship. Seeing her sitting at one of the tables, I wanted to welcome her. (There is room at our inn!) After some initial introductory banter, she looked at me and quietly asked, “What did you mean by ‘wilderness?’” It was gratifying to realize that our guest had been listening to our worshipping experience, and that the day’s voiced message was clear enough to be recalled. Her question is an important one, one that John the Baptizer implicitly asks.
Yes, wilderness: it can be the place we run to for safety, a place to hide out from threatening pursuit. Or with L. L. Bean’s preparation for its wildness, wilderness can be experienced as the place of stark beauty and unadulterated reality, a place to see and to hear and sense what truly matters. But most often the wilderness is known to us as the threatening place where all that we have built and acquired for our self-made lives gets overwhelmed and dissolved by its uncontrollably wild harshness. In any event, the Baptizer tells us that the wilderness is the context in which the “voice” is clearly and unobtrusively uttered. It can be heard, and – one way or the other – it will need to be dealt with. It is the place (both literally in the barrens or figuratively in our broken and dry hearts) where the “voice” comes, testifying and asking for a response.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord … I baptize with water; but 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 … [because he baptizes with fire –and in that cauterizing, tempering reality, offers the releasing music of new life.] because “hope is hearing the melody of the future. Faith is to dance to it.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.