Most of you have heard enough of my preaching and teaching to know that when it comes to either/or questions my default response is “yes.” Is it this or is it that? Yes. This isn’t about playing a game, being evasive, or trying to be difficult. I am simply trying to be faithful. We encounter this kind of yes in the church all the time. Is God one or is God three? Yes. Is Jesus human or is Jesus divine? Yes. Is Mary virgin or is she pregnant? Yes. Is it this or is it that? Yes.
That “yes” is not so much the answer as it is a way of trying to hold the tension and to stand in the paradox. It is an attempt to break down and move beyond our usual categories of how we see, relate to, and understand God, the world, each other, and ourselves. It is an attempt to see in a new way, a bigger way. It is an attempt to move deeper than where rational fact-based analysis and understanding can take us. It is an attempt to step outside the box into a larger understanding of God, the world, and life.
We all live with certain categories that make sense to us. We use them to construct our worldview and our understanding of God. We use them to try and make sense of people, circumstances, life, and relationships. Categories by their nature involve definition, limitations, and expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that until there is, until those categories begin to close us off, narrow our vision, and impoverish our life. At some point they always do.
We’ve probably all experienced times when we’ve thought or said something like “I can’t put my finger on it,” “I’m just not sure what to make of this,” “I can’t wrap my head around that,” “I can’t figure him out.” In those times our categories aren’t working. The person or situation doesn’t fit within our boxes and definitions.
John is one of those people. The wilderness is one of those situations. The Pharisees don’t get it. John and the wilderness don’t fit. They are outside the usual categories of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. When that happens the temptation will always be to re-categorize. That’s what the Pharisees are trying to do. They send the priests and Levites to get some answers.
What if, however, we weren’t so quick to re-categorize? What if we didn’t try so hard to pin down an answer? What if we let the failure of our categories expand our vision? What if “yes” became our way of seeing? When people, situations, or even God no longer fit the definitions and expectations of our categories maybe it’s time to look again, to open ourselves, and to consider that there might be something more.
I wonder if that’s why today we hear another gospel account of John and the wilderness (John 1:6-8, 19-28). We just heard about John and the wilderness last week (Mark 1:1-8). Twice in two weeks we hear about John and the wilderness. What’s that about?
Maybe it’s the Church’s way of telling us to look again. Maybe it’s saying to us that there is more to be seen than what one gospel account can show us. Maybe it’s saying there is more to be told than what one account can tell us.
Last week John is portrayed primarily as the baptizer. This week John is portrayed primarily as the witness and testifier. So which is it? Is John the baptizer or the witness and testifier? Yes. Last week the wilderness revealed our un-self-sufficiency. This week it expands our vision and awareness. So which is it? Un-self-sufficiency or a new vision? Yes. Last week the wilderness deconstructed our lives. This week it reconstructs them. So does the wilderness deconstruct or reconstruct? Yes.
The priests and Levites come to the wilderness and to John with their categories, expectations, definitions, and limits. They expect John to fit. He doesn’t. He won’t allow that. “I am not the Messiah,” he tells them. They want to know then if he is Elijah. “I am not,” he says. “Are you the prophet?” “No.” With each negation John avoids one of their categories.
If they can’t pigeonhole John they want him to. They want John to categorize himself. “Who are you? Let us have an answer,” they demand. “What do you say about yourself?” John refuses to let himself be boxed in or categorized. How could he? He is the witness and testifier to the light. He has to reflect in his testimony the reality and truth about the light and the light of Christ is beyond all categories.
Let me push this “yes” idea a bit further. The gospel writer has used light as the metaphor and symbol for the coming of Christ. What do we know about light? Is it a wave or is it a particle? Yes. That’s what science has taught us. This isn’t, however, just anachronistic thinking. The thinkers and philosophers well before Jesus’ time were wrestling with how to understand light. The Pythagoreans thought is was a stream of particles and Aristotle thought it was wave like. John, the wilderness, the light; everything about this gospel is pushing us to see beyond our usual categories.
The priests and the Levites just don’t get it. They are hanging on to their categories, limitations, and expectations. “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” Their categories have kept them from seeing and knowing the one who already stands among them. Sometimes our categories do that to us. They keep us from recognizing the one who stands among us.
What categories do you live with? In what ways have you defined your life or the life of another? How have your expectations of when, where, and how Christ shows up closed your eyes to his presence and his coming?
John has only one response to the priests, the Levites, and their categories. “Make straight the way of the Lord.” That’s also his response to our categories. I wonder, though, if we hear that as meaning we better put ourselves in a different category, a category more acceptable to God. What if that’s not at all what John is saying? Maybe John is telling us to open ourselves beyond all categories. Maybe John is saying that despite all the ways we try to categorize God, ourselves, and each other the light is already among us. Maybe John is telling us let go of our categories and say yes to the one who is coming.
So let me ask you this. What do you see? Is this one already among us or is he coming to us?
The Season of Advent 2014