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A Voice in the Wilderness

Advent III: John 1:6-8,19-28

· advent,metoo,churchtoo

John 1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 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.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[h] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

A few weeks ago, following the many accusations against Hollywood executive, Harvey Weinstein, a campaign on social media broke out where thousands of women wrote MeToo. MeToo became a kind of rallying cry for women to share their own experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault, that they too had been abused. It was this incredible moment of solidarity where many women took back the narrative and spoke against those who had abused them, and have the ability to cast off even just a small amount of the shame that surrounded them and forcing those of us watching to bear witness to their pain.

MeToo focused on the work place and the entertainment industry, but in a twist that focused a bit closer to home, many women began to write ChurchToo. This time it wasn’t liberal Hollywood or corrupt Washington that was being accused of gross negligence in the way women were treated, no this time it was our beloved church. Stories of preachers, youth pastors, elders, deacons, fellow parishioners all came flowing forward from the mouths of the brave men and women who spoke their truth and demanded justice. They were often forced from their churches, kicked out of their communities, and banished from ever returning again. I’d like to read a couple stories from two of the women, but I would like to give a short warning that it is tough to hear, especially if you have experienced trauma or abuse in your life. If you need to close your ears or take a moment to gather yourself, that’s okay.

One woman says, “When I was 13, a prominent church member molested me and I reported him to the church. The church covered it up, fired my father, and made the church member an elder. Another woman said that she went and reported to a female volunteer at her church that she had been rape, but instead of reporting the man, the volunteer asked if she had repented of her role in what had happened.

These stories are not isolated incidents, but they represent widespread trends throughout the church. Those pastors and leaders who had abused their power would not lose it easily.

The Gospel of John tells us about another who cried out from the margins of society. Many scholars believe that John the Baptist was an Essene, a radical separatist group that lived ascetic lives in the desert. Another gospel describes the Baptist as wearing clothes made from camel’s hair and living off of locusts and honey, dunking people into the water and shouting crazy things about a kingdom that was coming and a God who demanded repentance. John’s lifestyle was so radical that he began to bring unwanted attention to the lavish lifestyles of those religious leaders who were abusing their power. You see, the religious leaders in Jerusalem had grown quite comfortable in the power they had attained as super donors and pundits for Rome. In Matthewm the Baptist said that “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” A thinly veiled accusation that those in power would soon find themselves taken down.

He apparently was causing so much trouble that those leaders decided to send a group to deal with him, maybe embarrass him, find evidence that he was just insane, or at least convince others that he was crazy, so he could be discredited and cast aside once more. I believe the term is gaslighting where someone makes another person believe they are crazy. Now, John’s Gospel specifically is often accused of being anti-Jewish because of the way in which it uses phrases like “the Jews” as the Gospel’s primary adversaries, but I want to be clear here that in this passage the writer is talking very specifically about those leaders in the Jewish community who were in power. They were those who working with Rome, contributing to the oppression toward the people they were supposed to be serving. Those were sent to confront the Baptist were not simply lay people who were curious about what was going on, no, they were those in power who had a very specific agenda.

They came to him and asked “Who are you?” It then says that he confesses that he is not the messiah. This word confess is similar to when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. The Baptist is confessing that while he is not the messiah, he is devoted to the one who is. “What about Elijah? Are you the Prophet?’ This question seems simple enough, and it calls to mind a prophecy in Malachi that says Elijah will return and make way for the Messiah to come, a messenger of the Lord. But you see, if those in power can have John the Baptist go on record of calling himself the prophet Elijah then surely they can convince everyone that is just insane and they’ll stop listening to him. But John answers, “No.” He will not play into their hand as they try to discredit him. “Who are you?!” they ask.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” He quotes the prophet Isaiah, which, in that passage describes the valleys, those low places, being brought up, and those mountains, those who are high up, being brought low, so that there is no low or high but everything is even. This statement is so subversive to those with power, those who think themselves to be up high, but the delegation does not waver. “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah nor Elijah?” They ask, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” Among you stands one whom you don’t know. John is saying that he does know. This is the one who is to come, the Messiah, the Christ. We must see that it is those who have the power and privilege who do not know who the Messiah is, but the raving ascetic living on the margins has seen him and knows that he is here.

Over and over again the delegation from those in power ask pointed questions to the Baptist, hoping to trip him up, hoping to find fault within him, hoping to discredit his message so that their power will not be in jeopardy. But each and every time he points away from himself and he points to the one who is to come, he points to the Christ, to Jesus. Many gospels portray John the Baptist as primarily that, a Baptizer, but John’s gospel states that his primary mission and purpose was to witness and testify to the light, to point to Jesus the Christ and nothing else.

John is the voice of a marginalized person who is calling attention to the injustices of the world, calling out the opulence of those leaders who are working with the oppressive Roman government, and yet, when he is confronted he can only point to the one who is greater than he is. He only points to Jesus, to the extent that he is eventually imprisoned and beheaded because he threatened to destroy the powers of Rome.

This brings us back to the women that I spoke of in the beginning who wrote ChurchToo and accused those who had power within the church of becoming too comfortable in that power. As I’ve seen these women write on Twitter and other websites about their experiences with abuse, they have subjected themselves once again to reliving that trauma as delegations from those churches have come and asked them “who do you think you are? How dare you accuse these great men of doing any harm? Surely you must be crazy if you think that happened. You’re just lying for attention and you want to be famous!” But each and every time I have seen them point away from themselves and toward the life of Jesus. The point toward the one who came to destroy the systems of oppression and power that created those who lived up in their palaces on the mountain and those who resided in the slums of the valley. They said that they would no longer be silent to the oppression and abuse of churches who would rather keep the peace than rock the boat, who would rather allow an abuser to remain in power than risk losing that power altogether. “Who do you think you are?” they ask. Who I am does not matter, they say, but it is he who is to come, he who has come, that I follow. It is that life that I seek to lead.

The question remains, if the women are like John the Baptist, crying out from the wilderness, calling out injustices, and pointing to the life of Jesus, who are we? How are we as the church to respond to their accusations? Do we have the humility and the grace to say, “I believe you.” Or are we going to poke at them with suspicion? Right because so much of the problem is that people in the church don’t feel listened to. They feel ignored, shut down, or forgotten. We are now in this season of Advent, approaching Christmas, where our entire belief system about the Christ is based on believing a woman about her sex life and what happened to her. How many people didn’t believe Mary, wanted to stone her for what they saw as sin, only to find out that she was in fact telling the truth. Are we going to listen to people about their brokenness? How are we going to respond to people in pain?

We must seek to listen to those oppressed voices on the margins of our society who do not seek to be Christ, but whose lives point to the life of Jesus—taking care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, those who have been abused. We too must be voices crying out in the wilderness. But too often we may find ourselves with the delegation, questioning those voices, accusing them of lying, gaslighting them so that they too believe they are crazy. But if we are truly looking for Jesus, if we seriously want to know where the Christ is, we must look to those radical subversive voices that are pointing us to the life of Jesus. We must be willing to rearrange our lives so that they too point to the one who is to come.

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