By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
December 14, 2008
Read: John 1:6-8, 19-28
We have John the Baptist with us again this Sunday. John, a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light. John seemed pretty clear about who he was and who he was not. When he was under interrogation about just who he thought he was, he didn’t waver. He was clear about who he was not and as for who he was, he said. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John was called to point the way to Christ. Not to be Christ, but to point the way to the Light, to Christ, so that all might be saved. There is a great lesson here, especially during Advent, a time of self-reflection.
Rather than asking questions of John, our role is to look at how we might be able to tell the story to our world today – to our friends and neighbors, to our family and strangers. John didn’t come to tell his story or to straighten out the theology of the priests and the Levites. He came to point toward Jesus as the answer to their questions, the one who could offer them eternal life.
When we realize that John the Baptist is merely a witness to Christ, it becomes clear that his role is our role. If the story of Jesus is to be told this year, it is up to us. We are the new “voice[s] in the wilderness” who are preparing the way for Christ. How receptive our world is to that message depends in large part upon the way we open doors and hearts and minds.
For the good news is that Jesus was born. Christ is here now. So, what portrait do we paint of God? Albert Schweitzer once wrote that “Jesus comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has for us. To those who obey, he reveals himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings, through which they shall pass in his fellowship, and they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is. He comes to us as One Unknown.”
In his book, Friedman’s Fables, Edwin Friedman tells this story.
Two men crossed paths on a foot bridge high above a raging river. One could see from a distance that the other had a rope coiled around his waist. As they got closer, the man with the rope began to uncoil the rope, and, when they met, he said, “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end of this rope for a moment?” It took the other man by surprise and, as any of us would have done, he took the end of the rope and held it in his hand. The other man said, “Thank you,” and then added, “Both hands, now. Be sure and hold on tight.” With that, he leaped over the side of the bridge.
The man standing on the bridge held on with both hands and braced himself for the sudden jerk of the rope. Sure enough, with all his might, he was able to keep the other man from plunging to his death. The question was what to do next? If he let go, the other man would surely die.
“Don’t let go,” the man hanging by the rope shouted. “If you let go, I’ll be lost. My life is in your hands.” The man on the bridge tied the rope around his own waist to lessen the strain, then did everything he could think of to save the other man’s life. He tried to pull the man back to the bridge, but he was too heavy. He tried to coax the man to climb the rope, but he wouldn’t try. Finally, he came up with a solution. He told the man to coil the rope around his waist and so, gradually shorten the length until he was within reach of the handrail. But the other man wouldn’t cooperate. He refused even to try. Instead, he just repeated his plea, “Whatever you do, don’t let go!”
Well, not to leave you hanging – the man holding the rope came to a moment of truth: He could only do so much. And so, he said, “It’s up to you. You decide which way this will end. I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up.”
The other man complained all the more loudly, “You cannot mean what you say…I am your responsibility … Do not do this to me.”
The man on the bridge waited for the other man to do his part. Nothing happened. Finally, he said, “I accept your choice,” and let go of the rope.
Well, it’s a great story. It illustrates how we often get trapped into thinking that it’s up to us to do something about the mess other people have gotten themselves into and how, if we’re not careful, that fosters this Messianic complex we carry within us.
You see it all the time: Others put ropes in our hands – responsibilities at home, at work, at school, in the community to solve problems or clean up messes others have made. They tell us in so many ways, “We’re counting on you to help us here. Don’t let us down. You’re our only hope.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do our part, only that there comes a time when the most faithful thing you can do is let go of the rope.
It’s hard not to be the savior, if you think you can be the savior. And that’s the problem. As long we’re determined to rely on our own strength and our own wisdom and our own resources, we hold Christ at a distance.
Only as we recognize our dependence on him – a power greater than ourselves – and confess our need of his grace and love, do we truly experience him as the Lord and Savior of our lives.
In a sermon published in the The Christian Century, John Stendahl writes,
Messianic ambitions for ourselves and messianic expectations of others are not just the quaint delusions of people certified as mentally ill. They are found in us and around us as we seek too much from others or wish to be too much to them. In a song that is at once poignant and cruel, Bob Dylan wrote,
‘You say you’re looking for someone
who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you and defend you
whether you’re right or wrong,
Someone to open each and ev’ry door,
but it ain’t me, babe …
It ain’t me you’re looking for.’
We are not, any nor all of us, the Messiah. That position has already been filled. To let Jesus be our Christ, our anointed savior and rescuer, may still entail seeking to be engaged in his saving work and mission – of course it does – but it also commands us to humility, a letting go of our seducing desires either to rescue or to be rescued by others. We already have a Messiah, and he ain’t us.
(12/3/02, p. 17f)
Try this spiritual exercise: Take whatever is weighing heavily on your heart today and turn it over to God. It may be a problem at work or a conflict at home; it may be a situation you’re involved with at school or an issue you’re dealing with in the community as a volunteer. It may be an individual – a friend or loved one or member of your family you’re concerned about. Whatever burden you happen to be carrying at the moment, turn it over to God and say to yourself, “I am not the Messiah. I can only do so much. It’s not all up to me.”
If you’re sincere and you truly turn it over to the Lord, two things will happen: You’ll feel a great sense of relief, as the weight of unrealistic responsibility is lifted. And ironically, by entrusting the individual or the situation to God, you’ll feel a new sense of strength and hope, as the words of Paul ring true for you:
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
So, who are you? I pray that you are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord. Amen.
The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.