January 15, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading we read about God speaking to Isaiah. God proclaims he is “my servant” and was chosen by God from the womb. This servant will restore the tribes of Jacob and be a light to the nations. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist calling out Jesus. “Look! There is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John then said he didn’t recognize him but was called to reveal him in baptizing with water. Further, the one on whom the Holy Spirit rests on will baptize with the Holy Spirit. That one is the Chosen One of God.”

While we will spend most of this year reading from Matthew’s Gospel, today we read from John. While all the Gospels describe the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, John gives us in many ways a different perspective. Many Christians like John because of it’s theological “density.” In other words John spells out many of the doctrines we hold dear. Anyone who has seen an NFL football game knows John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.” It’s also the only Gospel that tells us that Jesus existed before his conception.

But it can also be the hardest to read, or at least the most confusing. For as much as we read about John the Baptist, there is no account of John actually baptizing Jesus. Also John states in this reading: “I confess I did not recognize him, though the very reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Did not recognize him? We know from Matthew’s Gospel that John and Jesus were cousins and that their mothers (Elizabeth and Mary) were close enough to have visited each other when both were pregnant. Perhaps John meant that he didn’t recognize that his cousin was indeed the Messiah he was called to proclaim.

Perhaps, but it does lead us to a much larger question: how do we know who God chooses for different roles? It’s easy in hindsight for us to recognize Isaiah and Jesus as chosen by God but it isn’t easy looking forward. Throughout history we’ve had countless “pretenders to the throne” who claimed power or authority by Divine right. In 1978 Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, convinced over 900 of his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide. In 1993, in Waco Texas, David Koresh led 78 of his disciples to a fiery death.

If our history teaches us anything it teaches us two things. First, God often chooses roles and people that never would have occurred to us. And second, we never figure that out. We can point to countless times when we convinced ourselves that someone (ourselves included) must be God’s choice.

And that’s what makes our first reading so interesting. A prophet isn’t someone who predicts the future but instead is called to deliver God’s word to us. But here Isaiah is called to be God’s “servant.” The word servant has become so common that we can easily overlook its importance. A human master has to be careful in what he asks of a servant and make certain the servant always knows his place. During slavery the slave owners needed to perpetuate the lie that slaves needed to know their place because they didn’t have the skills to do anything else. Part of being a master was continuously claiming superiority, that the roles couldn’t reverse because the slaves weren’t smart enough or skilled enough to be masters. Students of American history (like myself) recognize that our third President and slaveowner Thomas Jefferson argued this point, while owning highly skilled slaves. Some of them were blacksmiths or other craftsmen.

Perhaps we can find our key there. Jesus spoke at great length about how leaders are called not to glory but to service. What made Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others so toxic is that they placed themselves in the role of masters making their followers servants. Jesus never demanded a nicer place to sleep or the best food and he never told his followers how to address him. During my years as a hospice chaplain I had hundreds of patients, family members, and even coworkers ask me how I should be addressed. I told them that if Jesus was comfortable being called by his first name, so was I.

It was a joke but I hoped it made me more accessible. I also hoped it kept me more humble. I do believe that God chose me for that ministry for reasons I didn’t need to understand. But the chaplains I respected the most were the ones who eschewed the limelight. And the ones I respected the least demanded the trappings of respect.

And while we will likely never need to discern if someone is a true Biblical prophet we do these discernments all the time. Should we take the advice of our religious leader? Is my boss really advocating for my career or his own? Is my well meaning neighbor inviting me to her church out of concern for me, or to hit her “evangelization target?” If I donate money to this charity, who will benefit?

If we truly pay attention to what the prophets, John or Jesus try to tell us, it’s this: follow those who bring glory not to themselves but to those most in need. Not everyone who claims to serve God really does and some put God in neon lights as a way to open our checkbooks we need to be aware.

We also need to be patient with ourselves if we, like John, don’t recognize Jesus on first sight. Some of the holiest people I’ve met neither sought nor received adulation. Sometimes they come to us without looking or smelling good. But they attract the “better angels of our nature” as President Lincoln once said.

And if they introduce themselves by first name it’s a good start.