Within the Sound of Your Voice

John 1:29-42
© Stacey Steck

There is something to be said about gossip, buzz, chisme, the word on the street. The Hollywood handlers of Oscar contenders are trying to generate, spin, and do damage control on, the publicity of the potential nominees. Governments from Caracas to Washington do their best to coerce their media into accepting their version of events in the wars on poverty or terror or the latest economic data. Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, William Barber, and a host of other preachers try to present their brand of Christianity as the only one worth buying. Everybody and their brother is trying to influence what you see, know, and ultimately buy or give your loyalty to. Everybody and their brother has a point of view they want you to share. But it starts with everybody recruiting their brother.

In the Gospel of John, that “everybody” is Andrew and he literally started with his brother. After spending the day with Jesus, to whom John has alerted him saying, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” Andrew finds his brother Simon, gives him the hard sell, and even takes him by the arm to meet this guy he has learned is the Messiah. The rest is history. This same Simon becomes the Apostle Peter, a leader of the early church, the predecessor to the Pope, and an example of rich, impulsive faith through the ages. And it all started with word of mouth.

They say word of mouth is the best advertising. It is certainly priceless. You can put a dollar figure on billboards, website banners, t-shirts, and airplane skywriting, but true word of mouth, a genuine thumbs up or thumbs down from a trusted source, cannot be bought or sold. Sure, there are legendary stories of creative marketing strategies and clever, award-winning TV commercials, but even the slightest shrug or hesitation from a friend or family member can make you decide not to see that new movie. This is one place where the messenger is often as important as the message. In the first century, an age without mass media, without even mass literacy, what other way could the Gospel spread than good, old-fashioned word of mouth? The old TV commercials for Faberge shampoo understood the power of this method. You tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends and pretty soon the whole world knows. Hey, it worked for John the Baptist. He told two friends, one of whom was Andrew, and Andrew told Simon, and, we may presume, others. And of course, Peter did his share of telling.

My hunch is that the same strategy brought many of you here for the first time. Someone you knew and trusted had good things to say about this church and its ministry, and maybe even specifically invited you and accompanied you. In national surveys of church members about why they first came to their church, the overwhelming reason was that someone had personally invited them. The days are gone when denominational loyalty is the reason why a person chooses a particular church. Far more compelling now, and indeed essential now, is good, old- fashioned word of mouth. Let me explain why.

John the Baptist, Andrew, his brother Simon, Philip and Nathanael who also meet Jesus in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and of course, Jesus himself, were all Jews. They all came from that family of chosen people, living in Palestine, occupied by the Romans, who were not like them. They all knew the history of a promised Messiah, they all had a common vocabulary and common expectations. They all spoke the same religious language, so to speak. In such a context, the word of mouth needed might as well have been a code that only a select few knew, or even needed to know. And that was OK. They would have wanted to keep a low profile from the Romans who might not take kindly to the talk of revolution which would accompany buzz about a Messiah. And so, when Andrew says to Simon, “We have found the Messiah,” his brother knew exactly what he was talking about, perhaps not fully understanding what Jesus as Messiah would really mean, but understanding at least that the Messiah’s coming meant something profound. Among the Gentiles, those Romans and other non-Jews, the same statement, “We have found the Messiah,” would have been met with a shrug, since the idea of Messiah did not carry the same currency among them that it did among the Jews.

All this is to say that the first century denominational loyalty that existed among Andrew and all rest of his Jewish comrades made bringing his brother to Jesus as easy as opening the door. Far more challenging was the later task of the Apostle Paul whose mission it was to bring to Christ those whose social and religious contexts were so much different than that of Judaism that word of mouth was an exercise in patience, as much as it was an exercise in evangelism. It is a situation not that different than today. You see, if you look at current national surveys of religious attitudes, you’ll find a lot of data that indicates a high level of belief in God, or at least a higher power, but far less, and often no, participation in so-called “organized religion.” For more than five decades now in most of the Northern hemisphere, fewer and fewer people have been coming to churches of all kinds. The result is a vocabulary shared by fewer and fewer people. The number of people today you can be assured will understand what you mean when you quote from one of the great hymns of the church, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” is dropping day by day. In much the same way the Romans would have received Andrew’s statement, these days you are likely to get a bewildered look by saying to those who are not already in church, “Jesus is my Savior,” since whether they really need one or not, most people don’t think they need to be saved from anything, so lost from our cultural vocabulary is a notion of sin as something which needs a solution. And so the kind of word of mouth that we use must change. The word of mouth of simple invitation, of coded vocabulary, of denominational loyalty, is in need of some overhaul in a post-modern world full of people who don’t even know what the Protestant Church is protesting.

Conveniently, this same passage offers us some insight into this issue in the person of John the Baptist, who offers some clues about the ways in which our word of mouth might find its way into the hearts of those who need to hear it. John was not the Messiah, but he was a man with a compelling message about God. He had followers, maybe even groupies. Today’s passage describes Andrew and another unnamed man as his disciples. At one level, he has a vested interest in keeping his disciples his. His ministry was godly and he was doing good work. But he wasn’t perfect and so even though he had been announcing that Jesus was coming, it must have been at least a little tempting for him to ignore Jesus walking by, to hold onto what influence he had over his followers. But in a moment of personal sacrifice, he points out Jesus, identifies him as the Lamb of God, and off go his disciples to learn more about Jesus, never to return again. What John teaches us it that we must be willing to put aside our personal agendas, our personal power, maybe even our livelihoods, for the sake of pointing people in the right direction. Maybe it means risking relationships with those we care about by engaging them in a serious conversation about our faith and who Jesus Christ is for us. Maybe it means being willing to learn a new vocabulary, or sing a new style of music, or sit in a new pew, or the opposite side of the church, so that we may authentically reach those who need to be reached. Maybe it even means suggesting that people go to a church other than our own if, in so doing, they can experience Christ more deeply.

But prior even to pointing out the divine, John exhibits for us an openness to experience the divine. In contrast to the stories in Matthew and Luke, in the Gospel of John, there is no understanding of John the Baptist and Jesus being cousins. Twice, in just these few verses, John the Baptist declares that “I myself did not know him!” And yet, somehow, he is able to recognize Jesus and point him out to others. John’s is truly a case of “If you believe it, you’ll see it!” John was in tune with, he was aware of, the divine passing by him. Among the crowds of people who must have passed by him, he is able to pick out the one who is full of grace and truth, the divine one who pitched his tent and dwelt among us. Word of mouth may be powerful, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have any word to pass on. Your own personal experience recognizing God in your midst is the most powerful testimony you have. Your own story of your radical, day by day encounters with Jesus Christ, shared in your own words, is the most convincing story you’ll ever tell. But if we close ourselves off to the grace that is all around us, we’ll miss it and we’ll have nothing to say.

Consider finally the way John wears his passion for Christ on his sleeve. The Gospel writer is keen for us to know that John was very excited that Jesus was made his presence known. “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” John exclaimed. John exclaimed it! He didn’t just say it. He didn’t just mention it in passing. He didn’t just declare it. He exclaimed it. If we are to communicate to people who need Jesus Christ, we need to do it with passion, with conviction, with verve, with drama. Who’s going to believe half-hearted word of mouth? Who’s going to want to follow someone we only seem lukewarm about following ourselves? Now, I know some of you out there are going, “Uh, we’re not really a very excitable people,” and you may be right, you’re may not be, but I know that everyone is capable of showing some excitement. Believe me, those who know and trust us know when we are excited even if it is just a little crack in our uptight armor. And you know, it wouldn’t hurt you to show a little emotion once in a while for the Lord and Savior of the world.

Friends, the gospel is shared, and people are introduced to Jesus Christ, and lives are changed, when we care enough for others that we are willing to risk something of themselves, when we are willing to speak up, when we point out with passion and conviction that which is utterly obvious to us but to which others are utterly oblivious -- the divine in their midst. Within the sound of your voice are people who need to meet Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist, presumably, you are able to recognize Christ, recognize the divine, recognize grace in your midst. And then all you have to do, like John, is to offer, with a little excitement in your voice, to those with whom you are in conversation, your 21st century equivalent of “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And then they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and then the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Jesus Christ, will be alive and well for generations to come. Amen.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

Matthew 3:13-17
© Stacey Steck

There is a fine and often plagiarized story used for helping the chronologically challenged among us. It has made the rounds of management gurus, and I’ve seen it attributed to Stephen Covey, but I suspect it is more likely from some Zen master in the 14th century. If you have heard it before, I ask your patience, and hope the payoff will come for you in a different form than you expect.

It goes like this. A guy walks into a bar with a chicken under one arm and a ...oops, wrong Zen master story. Wait. OK. A professor walks into his classroom carrying an empty 10-gallon glass jar and dragging an obviously heavy bag. He places them on the teacher’s desk. Without a word, he begins placing rocks, just big enough to fit through the mouth of the jar, into the jar until they reach the very top. “Is it full?” he asks. The class nods.

“Maybe not,” he says. He then stuffs tiny pebbles into the jar and the pebbles find their way through the cracks in the rock. “Full now?” he asks. The whole class nods.

He then shovels sand into the jar, occasionally shaking the jar, and the tiny grains sift through the rocks and pebbles. “OK,” he says, “now is it full?” The class nods in unison.

He smiles. He then slowly pours water into the jar until it reaches the very top of the jar. Sticking his finger in causes some of the water to spill over the side.

“The time management lessons here,” the professor says, “are that if you want to move forward in your life or your business, you need to get the big rocks in first or there won’t be room for them later but also that there is always more room in our lives than we think there is. When you think you’re out of time, there is still more available if you look for it.”

Now, this is the conventional reading of this story. You may even have heard it with spiritual twists attached. But as I hear that story, I hear a different moral of the story, one related even to Matthew’s understanding of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ: “It don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in.”

Let’s review: John has been baptizing folks right and left in the River Jordan, declaring to all that will listen, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” He’s a wild man, doing a wild thing, causing people to confess their sins with his powerful preaching, and suddenly there’s this Jesus standing before him, the very man about whom he said, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” And Jesus is lookin’ to get baptized. But John recognizes that something ain’t right here, this is backwards, the lesser is not supposed to bless the greater. It is a humbling moment for John, as he realizes he is standing in the presence of the very one about whom he has prophesied. And so he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus says to him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And so John consents, and then the water gets poured in, and it all means something. Jesus is baptized, God’s will is done, and the amazing public ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin.

Now, people throughout the centuries have paused and scratched their heads and asked themselves, “Why does Jesus need to get baptized if he is sinless? Isn’t baptism done to wash away sin?” And this is a question that even Matthew pondered and decided to address and so he includes John’s protestation. But instead of answering it head on, he reports Jesus’s words and lets them do the talking. He leaves it in the realm of the mysterious but divine when he says “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” You see, the phrase “to fulfill all righteousness,” means doing right conduct that accords with God’s will and is pleasing to God. It means being obedient to God, fully obedient, and living according to God’s plan. And for Matthew, it is more important to place the baptism in the category of God’s plan, then to answer the sin question specifically.

And that is where I want to go back to the story of the professor and his classroom tricks. You can talk all you want about which order to put in the rocks, but the truth remains that that jar simply will not be completely filled until it contains the one and only thing which can fill it. Where the fullness of that jar in the classroom is concerned, it don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in. Biblically, you can put into the jar the patriarchs, and the prophets, and King David, and even Moses, but it won’t be full until you add the Son of God. For Matthew and the people to whom he was writing, there is no question in their minds that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the divine promises regarding the deliverance of Israel. In Jesus Christ is the revealed will of God, and in Jesus’ submission to John in the waters of the Jordan is the fulfillment of his role as son of God and servant of Israel. For Matthew, the jar is now completely full because Jesus obeyed God and was baptized.

Matthew wants to demonstrate to the whole world that the jar is full, that the son and servant has come, that the Kingdom of heaven not only has come near but is now here! This is why his story is different than the other gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus. In both Mark and Luke, the announcement by the voice from heaven of the sonship and belovedness of Jesus are announced only to Jesus. But in Matthew, it is announced to all around him. “This is my son,” not “You are my son.”

Now, you must know what’s coming next, right, because it’s just a short leap from “It don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in” to the jump jivin’ of Duke Ellington, who along with Irving Mills, wrote in 1932 the immortal jazz classic, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Hear now the words of that standard:
What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain’t possessin’ something sweet
It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing

Ol’ Duke Ellington was onto something. He knew that it took more than notes on a page to make a tune complete, more than having the instruments tuned just right -- that there was one thing needed to put it all together and make the music righteous. It’s intangible, that swing, but ya’ gotta have it, or the song just kinda lies there flat and lifeless, kind of like the difference between me reading the lyrics and Ella Fitzgerald singing them. Now, supposing we took that jazz standard and made a spiritual out of it. Then we’re not talking about a song but about a life, and the swing is just as intangible, only this time you don’t call it swing, you call it Holy Spirit. And you recognize that life without Spirit is like life without music, or love, or ice cream sundaes, and you rejoice that Jesus convinced John to baptize him so that the jar might be full and we might have life, and the spirit might come at God’s command to fill us up as well. That, my friends is the fulfillment of all righteousness, the will of God for our lives, and the very purpose of the incarnation. Thanks be to God for the swing in our lives, the swing that makes them mean something.

This morning we will be doing something together that will put a little swing into the life of the church, namely, we will ordain elders and deacons. And to do it on this particular Sunday is appropriate for there is more than a passing resemblance between the baptism of Christ and the ordination of officers in the Presbyterian Church. In the first place, we believe that just as God appointed Christ for his ministry, God calls men and women for ministry in the church and world today. And so, to ordain them is to demonstrate publicly that they are obedient to God not only in their response to the call, but that the church is obedient in cooperating with the call God has extended to these individuals. This is, after all, what John did, as he baptized Jesus, he and Jesus together doing what was in accordance with God’s will and pleasant in God’s sight. Ordination is, in a very real sense, about the fulfillment of all righteousness, in this case for the life of the church.

Furthermore, for Matthew, as Jesus rises from the cold waters of the Jordan, there is nothing different about him just because he has been baptized; it is simply announced to all that “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is no transformation of Jesus’ consciousness of his mission or granting of power to him. The only difference in Jesus after his baptism is that everyone around him knows that he has been sent by God for the purpose of being an obedient Son and servant. And likewise, when these Elders and Deacons rise from under the crush of hands laid upon them, there will be nothing visibly different about these children of God. They will continue to be the faithful disciples of Christ who have, in the words of Presbyterian poet Kathleen Norris, “already incarnated the love of Christ in ways that have touched people and enhanced the life of the church,” the evidence by which this church has recognized that they have been called by God for these specific duties. And though we may not hear it, we might expect that somewhere, a voice from heaven is saying, “These are my servants, my beloved, with them I am well pleased.”

Finally, just as following his baptism Jesus begins his public ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit, these deacons and Elders will leave this place empowered by the Holy Spirit to undertake the common ministry of First Presbyterian Church. They will be exchanging their comfortable places in cushioned pews for the rough and tumble world of ecclesiastical politics and governance, ministry and mission, but they have been prepared, they have been called, and they have discerned that this act is God’s will for their lives for the next little while. They will continue to do what they have always done as people of faith, but now they will do it more visibly, more communally, and hopefully with the same sense of awe and purpose we might imagine Jesus felt when he saw the Spirit of God descend and alight upon him.

One of the key points that Matthew brings out in his telling of the story of the baptism of Jesus is that John cooperated with Jesus in doing God’s will. “It is proper for us,” Jesus says, and John consented. Jesus made John a partner in fulfilling God’s plan. And this is where the shoe leather meets the road less traveled, for what cooperation and partnership are all about is response, response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ, response to movement of the Spirit swinging in our lives, response to the call to ministry that God extends to each of us, and not only officers. For what is life without God but a jar not quite full or a tune that lacks a certain oomph. In the words of that old jazz spiritual,
What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain’t possessin’ something sweet
It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing

May each of us cooperate with that swing that God grants so generously, and may we give it everything we got. Amen.

Savior on the Run

Matthew 2:13-23
© Stacey Steck

King Herod was obviously not a very good student of history, or if he was, he just didn’t care. If he had known his history, he would have known that it was a futile effort to try to catch the Savior of the world in a dragnet of death. It didn’t work for Pharaoh. It didn’t work for Herod. And both Moses and Jesus grew up to be the Saviors of their people. You may remember in the early chapters of the book of Exodus that Pharaoh, King of Egypt, feared the growing influence of the Hebrew slaves building his pyramids and so ordered the Hebrew midwives to see to it that only the female children of the slaves survived. Of course the midwives, normal people in their right minds, could not comply, and so the Hebrews kept adding to their numbers until Pharaoh commanded his soldiers to kill the newborn sons of the slaves. But young Moses, protected by the hand of God and the courage of the midwives, escaped that fate in a basket of reeds and floated down the river to become the leader of his people out of their bondage. There is no frustrating the plans of God.

Whether a poor student of history or just a really awful and ruthless person, Herod fell victim to the same fear that prompted Pharaoh to try to wipe out a generation of threats, the fear that all people who hold absolute power have of losing it. And so the unreasonable fears of one man lead to the unending weeping of others, the little town of Bethlehem awakened from its stillness to chaos as the boots of soldiers pounded the same streets Mary and Joseph traveled just weeks before. The town in which there was no room in the inn, would soon have plenty of space, its population reduced by the slaughter of the innocents in Herod’s vain attempt at a war on terror, a terror he would not even live to see, his death coming but a couple of years later, barely enough time for young Jesus to learn how to count, much less brandish a sword against the empire. If Herod wanted to eliminate the threats against him, he might have started by eliminating the reasons people would have wanted to threaten him in the first place, but instead he created a whole new level of animosity so that anyone in Bethlehem who hadn’t already been against him certainly was now. Some people never learn, and some people never care.

Thank God we must only read about this ignorance and fear once every three years, as the slaughter of the Innocents is only recorded here in Matthew. Thank God we must only put a damper on our Christmas cheer in Year A of the Lectionary, for in other years we may continue the celebration remembering Simeon and Anna greeting Jesus in the temple, or admiring the wisdom of the Christ child impressing his elders at a tender age asking questions of the Rabbis. But even if we can avoid it in church some years, the slaughter of the innocents continues in every nation at every hour in every generation, whether or not hope has entered the world again on December 25. It happens every day as children continue to be used as soldiers in adult wars, slaves in adult factories, and punching bags for adult problems. The most vulnerable of the world suffer the violence of the most powerful.

And yet, and yet, in the midst of all that suffering, our mischievous God sends angels in dreams. And refugees take to the highways in search of a place to lay their weary heads without fear for their lives. And the savior of the world survives the slaughter of those who would be his playmates. Is it just that Jesus survived and the rest did not? Of course not, but does that mean we do not celebrate it? Was it God who killed hundreds or thousands, or Herod? Was it God, or Herod who saved even one? I am as disturbed as the next person at the price paid by those unfortunate enough to be born at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I am grateful for that one who was saved, even if he had not been the one who survived to save me. I am grateful that God was paying attention and that angels were at the ready, and that there were safe places in the world for those on the run, and, that Matthew did not shudder so much at this horrible history that he left us to discover again on our own the perils of forgetting our history. As the old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Exhibit Herod.

There are, of course, two histories here to consider in this light, the recurrence of the history we would sooner forget, and the recurrence of the one we must remember. Ironically, in an era when there is more information available than ever to the average person with access to the right side of the digital divide, subjects like history and philosophy seem to be casualties of the information age rather than its heroes. Knowledge is increasingly specialized, with increasing numbers of persons seeming to choose depth of information over breadth, perhaps overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of data about everything under the sun. The vastness of the choices makes synthesizing data daunting; it is far easier to become an expert about one thing than a competent commentator on a wide range of subjects. And so subjects like history, philosophy, and the humanities lose out to more specialized information, and the so-called Liberal Arts are on the wane, at least for a generation or two, and thus the possibility of repeating our historical errors becomes more likely, and we forget that Stalin murdered millions in Russia and for what?; and that African-American men in Alabama were misinformed and then purposefully denied treatment for syphilis to study that disease’s effects, and for what?; and that church officials of every denomination denied the sexual abuse of children that took place by clergy under their watch, and for what? So we can wonder how it can happen again and again? And so, thank God that Matthew does not spare us the details of an atrocity like the slaughter of the innocents in a book which still sells more copies each year than almost any other. For if the story of Herod’s terror saves even one child its repetition, if it teaches even one person the folly of trying to outwit, outlast, or outplay God, it will have been worth our discomfort reading it so soon after Christmas. May the gift of the Bible, even with all its discomforting moments, help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.

In addition to the history which we must not forget, there is also the history we must remember: the history of God making a way out of no way, the history of God working out God’s purposes, the history of a promise keeping God. No fewer than three times in this passage does Matthew remind us of prophecies fulfilled, not to mention the undeclared allusions to Moses whom God saved similarly, and to the namesake of Jesus’ father, the patriarch Joseph, whom God similarly led to Egypt. In all of these ways, Matthew is reminding us that our God is the God of history, and acts through history, and in spite of history to reveal the grace we celebrate at Christmas. God did not drop Jesus in Bethlehem like a paratrooper behind enemy lines to accomplish his mission on his own and neither are we left to our own devices to live in response to the gift of the Christ child. You see, we have the whole history of God’s grace, including this episode, to remind us that God has never given up on us, not from the beginning of time, even if we have given up on God from time to time in our lives. That’s why we have more than just the Christmas story, and more than just the Crucifixion story, to show us God’s presence with us across the breadth, as well as the depth, of our lives. Unjust, yes, the murder of innocent children, but not the last word. A savior on the run, yes, but a savior nonetheless. A king in hiding, yes, but a king who rules with compassion, and justice, and makes enemies for doing the right thing, rather than the wrong thing. All of these promises must be remembered all of the time, if we are to avoid falling victim to the same fears which filled Herod’s heart, and Pharaoh’s before him, and which forced their hands to bring suffering to those under their power even when it would do them absolutely no good.

I’ve spoken a bit about the power of history this morning, but I would be remiss if I left you with the impression that I am talking about ancient history. Yes, the story of the escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents happened a long time ago, but it is not the end of the story of the great truths revealed therein. You see, the truth is that we are the living story, and that we give testimony to the grace and promises of God as we both remember the ancient story and tell our own stories of how God has kept promises, and made a way out of no way and worked God’s purposes out in our own lives. Our testimony is in talking to our children and grandchildren about things that really matter, even if those conversations make us uncomfortable. Our testimony is to the least, the last, the lost, and the luckless in our service and generosity, even if that time and money really costs us something. Our testimony is in naming sin when we see it, in ourselves or in our systems, even if the road to repentance is a long, difficult, and painful one. May God help us in all these ways to live the story, to remember and celebrate the history of God’s grace in our midst, even in the midst of so much tragedy in the world. Amen.