John the Baptizer, John the Pointer

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
John 1:29-42

Epiphany is the season of light.  Now, somewhere out there one of you is thinking, “Wait, didn’t he say Advent was the season of light.  And didn’t he say something similar about Christmas?”

You are right to accuse me of some measure of redundancy and repetition, because, at least in my imagination, all three seasons emphasize light.  In Advent, the light is growing.  Along with our growing sense of anticipation and expectation, we light candles in the darkness, one more each week.  At Christmas we celebrate the light at its fullest – we festoon trees with lights and the nave is lined with candles.  And now, during this season after the Epiphany, we talk about and sing about and ponder light again, but this difference is that the light is now spreading.

God’s light, incarnate in Jesus, shines forth.  It shines forth drawing all manner of people to its source.  Not just God’s people, but those who have never heard the story – magi come from the East to worship.  All nations are drawn to God’s light.

Epiphany means “a manifestation” or “a striking appearance.”  The season after the Epiphany is full of manifestations of Jesus, both his nature and his power – the lectionary readings include Jesus’ first miracle, the wedding at Cana.  We also hear stories of Jesus’ striking appearance — the Transfiguration, and here the baptism of Jesus by John.

The baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels.  As you might expect, each writer puts a slightly different spin and draws out nuances for his own purposes.  The writer of John, of course, uses this moment to shine a light fully on Jesus as the Anointed One – here is the very one that John the Baptist has been waiting for.  Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Not only is the baptism recorded in each of the Gospels but so is this detail about the spirit descending on Jesus like a dove.  In John’s Gospel, only John the Baptist can see it happening, but he testifies to it.  John the Baptizer is an instrument of the Epiphany, of the revelation of Jesus.

I love icons.  I love to “read” them because they each truly tell a story, even if they seem to the casual observer only to be a Byzantine styled portrait of a saint.  Icons tell stories, stories that are meant to be passed down, the good news they tell to be shared and spread.  There are details you would miss if you didn’t know to look for them.  One detail to always take note of, especially if the icon depicts a crowd scene, is what are the various characters doing with their hands.

Quite often you will notice that one or more of the characters are pointing away from themselves and toward the true focus of the story.  Sometimes they are pointing to a text or a symbol, but as you can probably intuit, the person to whom they are usually pointing is Jesus himself.  Many icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus have some kind of this gesturing going on.

As much as you might honor the intent of Rembrandt or Van Gogh in one of their creations, I think it meet and right to honor the intent of the iconographer and the characters portrayed there in – follow the hands, obey the gestures.  Where are they pointing?

In these readings this morning, John the Baptist is frozen in time, the last of the Hebrew prophets, pointing away from himself and toward Jesus.  Here is the lamb of God.

And John’s Gospel doesn’t end the encounter there – John the Baptist literally sends some of his disciples after Jesus – go, follow him!  He’s the one you are looking for!  And they go.  This is the only Gospel that depicts the calling of the first apostles this way.

Do you see the nature of this season here?   Remember that in our use of the term, Epiphany can also mean a personal revelation.  The light bulb appears above someone’s head – an “aha!” moment.  These followers of John are shown the true messiah, the anointed one.  John pointing away from himself – there he is!

Now, we Episcopalians are not known for our evangelistic zeal.  We would be the last on the street corner preaching to others about Jesus.  We are a bit too civilized and polite for such antics.  We are more likely to respect another’s personal spiritual journey rather than go around trying to scare strangers into coming to our church because we have all the answers.  No, typically our evangelism moves at a much slower, more deliberate pace – built on relationship not fear or zeal. 

I had a conversation just yesterday with a college student in another diocese who is bringing one of his friends to church with him today.  He is a recent convert to the Episcopal church himself, and he is bringing one of his best friends with him to their cathedral this morning to help prepare her, he said, for his confirmation.  I don’t know what her background is, but my guess is that the Episcopal liturgy, especially in a cathedral setting, may come as a bit of a shock.

But isn’t that one of our greatest secrets — we Episcopalians do evangelize.  No, we aren’t out on the street corners, our evangelism is our liturgy.  We as a group of individuals gathered here practice pointing away from ourselves to one who is greater.  We draw near with faith and we receive forgiveness and grace, not in imaginary dreams, but in real bread and wine, as tangible as flesh and blood.

This season after the Epiphany is quite short this year – just about as short as it can get.  In just two and a half weeks we will begin our journey yet again through Lent.  In case you haven’t heard we are already pondering what that journey will look like for us as a group, believers, non-believers, skeptics and prophets.  We will spend our Lenten sojourn “Seeking the Divine.”

Now, I doubt Christians from more evangelistic traditions would think that this would qualify in any way as evangelism, but I believe it is.  This Lent we will not spend our time navel-gazing or running through a litany of our sins.  We will point away from ourselves to the other, to the divine, and in doing so, we may yet encounter one of the great mysteries of our faith.  Through the various practices and traditions we will try, when we do encounter the divine in those “thin places,” the places where God draws near to those seeking God, as we point away from ourselves often we discover the extended hands of the divine pointing right back at us.  Amen.

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