Rev. Chris Mereschuk
Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017
How often do we mistake the sign for the actual thing it is pointing us toward?
The People of Israel were longing for a Savior — the Messiah who would release them from the oppressive Roman Empire occupying their homeland. Generations ago, Moses had led their ancestors from the Land of Bondage and into the Promised Land — but that promise now seemed broken, and they were once again imprisoned. Self-proclaimed prophet after self-proclaimed prophet arose in Israel, announcing that they were the long-awaited savior. Some amassed followings, others were silenced by the religious authorities and still others arrested and executed by the Romans.
And then John the Baptist appears from the wilderness. Perhaps he is the one? Bearded, scraggly, untamed, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist: he sure fit the description for the great Israelite prophet Elijah — the prophet so highly favored by God, the one for whom Jews today still pour a cup and leave an open seat at the Passover seder table. Was John the embodied return of Elijah, bringing with his the punishment of enemies and the promise of salvation?
Lesser prophets would’ve eagerly claimed that mantle, but not John the Baptist:
“He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Though his disciples wanted it to be otherwise, John was the messenger sent ahead, but he was not the message. John knew that he was only a sign pointing the way to the Messiah. In fact, many icons and paintings of John the Baptist depict him literally pointing toward the sky, to some place beyond him, to a lamb, or in some cases to Jesus depicted alongside him. Early hearers of the tales of John would’ve understood what John was pointing toward. In his physical description and through his actions, it would’ve been as if John was holding a gigantic, flashing sign: PREPARE!
Prepare, repent, get right, change your ways. Your salvation is at hand, and you are not ready yet. The Messiah is coming; get busy.
John crying out, emerging from the wilderness: like the desert wilderness the ancestors wandered when God led them out of the Land of Bondage. Prepare for a new exodus, a new beginning, and a new covenant with God.
John’s diet of locusts and honey: signs of both the plague and the promise — the plague of locusts that swarmed over Egypt, leading to the exodus to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.
John’s act of baptism in the waters of the River Jordan: the same river crossed by the Israelites fleeing the Land of Bondage, the border line between the wilderness and the Promised Land.
John’s act of baptism with water: the waters of birth and rebirth, the waters of the great flood, the parting waters of the Sea of Reeds, the waters of justice rolling down and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream, the waters used to wash to make one ritually and physically clean.
But all of these were signs — outward signs pointing toward a call for inner transformation.
And how often do we mistake the sign for the actual thing it is pointing us toward?
How often do we mistake an outward sign for the inner transformation it points us toward?
How often do we put up an outward sign and proclaim that it is sufficient in-and-of-itself for inner transformation?
Follow me a minute into this wilderness. Consider the literal signs around our own church. We need to be sure that we are not mistaking our outward signs as sufficient, that we are not using our outward signs as a claim that our inner transformations are fully realized and complete.
Two signs are planted on our front lawn: Black Lives Matter and welcome neighbors.
Two signs fly as flags on our front lawn and again in our sanctuary: an LGBTQ pride flag and Trans Pride flag.
A sign hangs over our front door: Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds.
A sign is posted on the back door: Refugees are welcome here.
A large sign hangs in the Dining Room: Be the Church — Protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, fight for the powerless, share earthly and spiritual resources, embrace diversity, love God, enjoy this life.
We often wear signs: Spirit-filled, justice-seeking, peace-loving, gay-affirming, anti-racist, child-centered, song-filled, ever thankful, stubbornly hopeful, beloved community, I am the church.
The signs express our stated values — but they are nothing more than signs. These signs are not our actualized values. These signs point us toward inner transformations. These signs are not the inner transformations themselves. These signs point us onward, further through the wilderness, further along our exodus from the Land of Bondage toward the Promised Land. But these signs do not signify our arrival in the Promised Land. These outward signs are a road map on our journey toward true liberation not only for ourselves, not only for those who post the signs, but more than that liberation for those whom the signs point us toward.
All of these signs in and around our church — signs on the lawn, on and over our doors, around our sanctuary, on our walls, worn on our bodies — all of these signs are crying out John’s message from the wilderness: PREPARE.
Prepare, repent, transform.
Don’t mistake the sign for that which it is pointing you toward.
Don’t mistake an outward sign for the fully realized completion of an inner transformation.
Don’t mistake a mile marker sign for your arrival at a destination, your journey complete.
There is something far more powerful beyond that sign.