Tuesday, February 07, 2012

SERMON: "Touch and Go with Jesus"

Sermon title: "Touch and Go with Jesus"
Sermon text: Mark 1:29-39

I preached this sermon on Super Bowl Sunday as the whole country gathered around their TVs seeking healing through a communal activity. We have community  here. How do we get the word out? According to the gospel story, it began for Jesus with prayer away from the maddening crowds. So it may begin with us. May God richly bless you now and may you become aware of how you are a blessing to many others. (By the way, I forgot to mention in the sermon the part about "Eli's coming.")

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

We Would Be Known as Healed Healers

The sermon from January 29, 2012, is called "We Would Be Known as Healed Healers" and is based on the gospel reading from Mark 1:21-28. Later in the service many people came forward for prayer for healing of body, mind or soul. Like the man with the unclean spirit, our healing starts with Jesus in the sanctuary. But as with Jesus, whose fame spread throughout the land after this healing, God wants to extend our healing and our influence beyond the walls of our sanctuary. We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. May God bless you today. You are already a blessing to me and to many others.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Three Steps You Must Take in 2012 1. Decipher Where You Are; 2. Envision Where You Want to Be; 3. Take Action to Get There

2012 lies before you like a path not taken. This new year brings you new opportunities in your spiritual journey. Today, January 1, is a time for reflection and preparation for a new leg on your spiritual journey.

The sermon scripture for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for God's word to you.

2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

2:2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

2:5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

2:6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Here ends the reading.

- - -

Life is a journey. The wise men were on a journey to find Jesus. They were experts in the field of astronomy. They had come perhaps from the royal courts of Persia to visit King Herod in Jerusalem. When they saw a special star or a shining angel above Bethlehem they knew it signaled the birth of the Messiah. They knew this because they knew both astronomy and the holy scriptures that spoke of the birth of a messiah.

The wise men presented baby Jesus with certain gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts have been given many symbolical meanings. Traditional Christianity says the gold symbolizes Jesus' royalty, frankincense his priestly duties, and myrrh points to the prophet's death he would suffer. More important than the gifts was the thought behind the gifts. The magi believed this baby was the Messiah and had come to worship him.

The wise men brought gift to baby Jesus. They brought the newborn king gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Like the wise men, you may have the gift of giving. You may have the gift of giving as expressed in giving money, time or talents in service to Christ. The magi had the gift of encouragement. Their gifts would have encouraged Mary and Joseph. You may have the spiritual gift of encouragement. You notice what other people contribute and thank them for what they do. We need more of that gift in our world today.

The wise men had studied astrology and the sacred texts. They also kept abreast of what was happening in the world. So they noticed the new shining star that appeared in the heavens and knew what it foretold. What signals or signs help you to locate the Christ within? You have the sacred texts, study opportunities, prayer groups, meditation times, and other spiritual disciplines. You know what is going on in the world and all the challenges we face as a species. The first step you need to take today is to decipher where you are in your spiritual journey.

Along the journey we encounter certain road blocks. The wise men encountered an evil ruler who wanted to use them to thwart God's plan. King Herod wanted to kill the Messiah. He wanted to shut up the Truth. He wanted to use the wise men to accomplish his evil purpose. But God reached out to the wise men in a dream and helped them find a way around the road block of King Herod. God warned them in a dream not to return by the same road. God will help you find a way around the road blocks in your life. God will show us the way forward even when we feel trapped. Yet God's purposes cannot be thwarted; God's purposes will prevail. The second step you need to take today is to envision where you want to be and trust God to help you get there.

There is a medieval woodcut that shows the earthly world contained within a great bubble. Outside the bubble lies a celestial realm filled with stars and moons and with the mechanisms that make creation run. In the picture, a man is poking his head through the bubble and gaining a glimpse of that wondrous creative realm that had previously been invisible to him. The wise men were aware of a spiritual realm beyond our five senses. Their heavenly vision was based on a combination of the science of astronomy and a spiritual discipline that connected them with a realm beyond this earth. We too have moments when it is as if our head has momentarily burst through that bubble and we get a taste of a new world spread out before us. [Spangler, David (2008-10-01). Everyday Miracles: the inner art of manifestation (Kindle Location 281). Lorian Press. Kindle Edition.]

The wise men took action on what they knew and believed. Taking action is what you must do as well. When we act on our knowledge and faith God honors our energy and things change for the better. Perhaps today you know what is happening and you see what God wants you to do. Take action now. Get yourself going in a way that is in alignment with God's will for your life. Take action to get where you want to be. That action may be subtle rather than forceful. We do not acquire what we desire, we become it. The smallest change can have a very large effect. This has become known as the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect suggests that something as seemingly tiny and inconsequential as the flutter of a butterfly's wings can set up a chain of cascading consequences, such as a growing interaction of atmospheric disturbances that eventually could result in a tornado or hurricane many thousands of miles away. Any small change we make in moving toward our goal may make a huge difference in our lives and in the world. So let's not feel overwhelmed or underprivileged. Let's not get discouraged with the enormity of the change we desire and say there is no way we can achieve that goal. Let's just take an action, however small, in the direction we want to go. God may multiply our small step way beyond what we had thought possible.

We are not astrologers so we may never see a sign in the heavens such as the night star over Bethlehem. That star led the wise men to Jesus but that is a star we will never see. There is another star that we may see every day. That star may lead us to Jesus birth. That star is the sun. We sit with God in silence in the morning time. We read and meditate upon God's word. And as we pray, there, through the window, we see another star rising. It is a star called the sun. The sun rising, shining through our window in the morning, that is our sign that the Christ wants to be born anew in our heart this day. Let's take that sign of the sun star rising as God's sign to us that this is a new day, a new year, a new era in our lives and in the life of this congregation. As we focus on God's star we find a wise way on life's joyful journey.

There are three steps you must take today: 1. Decipher Where You Are; 2. Envision Where You Want to Be; 3. Take Action to Get There. This is important to you because today, on the first day of 2012, you have the opportunity to turn your life in a more positive direction. God has a claim on your life's journey. You have a purpose in life. The wise men's purpose was to find and worship the Christ. Your life's purpose is to find and connect with the Christ within you.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035 on January 1, 2012, Epiphany Sunday. Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Whimper and the Roar of Christmas Day

Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

- - -

Some of you with small children had an exciting night last night. Christmas Eve at my childhood home on 7th Avenue in Morton, Mississippi was an exciting time. There were already many presents under the brightly colored tree. We had a live cypress(?) tree with those large colored light bulbs with red, green, blue, orange and yellow lights. My body literally shook with excitement when I thought about my presents under that tree. I had closely examined my gifts under the tree. I gently shook each gift to see if it made a sound. One gift sounded like a board game when I shook it. Hopefully, it was the Risk game or maybe Monopoly. Another gift made no sound when I shook it. It was probably a book, a pretty heavy book, most likely a new Living Bible. Mama had made a cake for Santa Claus and it was time to put it on the table along with a glass of milk. Why, that big, hefty, lovable ole Saint Nick would certainly be hungry when he got to my house, considering all the heavy lifting he would have to do bringing in my gifts, hopefully he would be bringing me a new bicycle, one with the twisted handlebars like a ram's horns. That would be so cool!! And now we were watching Santa Claus on our TV. There he was, right there, making his way across the state of Mississippi. You could see the outline of Santa and his reindeer on the radar right there on the screen. Oh my goodness, there had been another Santa spotting two counties over from where I lived. It was be time to get to bed about now. If we were awake when Santa came with our stuff, we may scare him away. Best to get to sleep and awaken early in the morning to see what he brought us. So off to bed we went. My older brother and me slept in the same bedroom. It was night, night and sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs night. No, no, no. Not on Christmas Eve.

We live in fear with good reason. Death is ever near. There is no guarantee that any of us will make it home alive today or any day. Life is contingent. I was never afraid to die but always afraid to live. Why? Here are three of my fears that are common among many people: I fear will make a mistake. I fear rejection. I fear I will not achieve God's purpose for my life.

Some variation of "Be not afraid" or "Do not fear" occurs 40 times in the New Testament. This theme of do not fear carries over from the Old Testament in texts such as Psalm 23: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." So in our text today an angel says to a group of shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

Banishment of fear is a common thread throughout the synoptic gospel birth narratives. Mary was afraid the first time the angel of the Lord appeared to her to announce she was carrying the Christ child within her. The angel's message to Mary was "Be not afraid." The shepherds were afraid when the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus. The angels told the shepherds: "Be not afraid."

We are afraid when we become aware of the potential to bear the Christ child within us. The angel says to us: "Be not afraid."

The shepherds and angels bear witness to what God is doing in your life. Think of the shepherds as the human mentors who have guided you through your life. These include parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and friends. The angels are the spiritual entities who accompany your spiritual journey. They have been called guardian angels. The shepherds and the angels in your life bear joyful witness to the birth of Christ within you.

A lost lion was adopted and raised by a herd of sheep. When he was three years old, the lion was bleating in the field with his brother and sister sheep when an older lion found him. The older lion was shocked to find this young lion acting like a sheep. So the older lion said: "Hey, what are you doing?! You are bleating like a sheep. You are not a sheep. You are a lion. Wake up. Get yourself together. Be a lion." The young lion was amazed to hear this and even more amazed to see this older lion since he had never before seen a lion. The young lion did not respond to the older lion but it made him start questioning his identity. A few days later the young lion who thought he was a sheep was standing by a stream when suddenly he saw another lion. It was his own reflection in the stream! And when he saw his reflection in that stream, he suddenly realized that he really was a lion and for the first time in his life, he roared! In a similar way, we have lost sight of our true identity. We have forgotten that we are made in God's image. We are God's children. We are not mere descendants of apes. We now stop acting like apes. We stop living out our animal nature. As we stare in wonder into the eyes of the baby in the manger, we see our own reflection staring back at us. We get in touch with the wonder and innocence of life. We bring that back to the world. Boxes and bows are good. But Christmas is about the gift that's inside the package. Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us.

In the jungle, a middle aged man hears the roar and footsteps of a tiger behind him. He takes off running as fast as he can. Up ahead he sees a precipice that leads to a his sure death if he jumps over it. Yet in his fear of the tiger behind him the man decides to jump over the cliff. As he falls down over the cliff he hits the side of the mountain and grabs hold a blueberry bush. Hanging there between heaven and earth, he notices that the blueberries are ripe on that bush. He reaches out and takes a handful of those blueberries and puts them in his mouth. They are the best thing he has ever tasted! (The stories about the lion and the tiger are adapted from some stories told by Anthony de Mello, a list of whose books are available for sale here.)

In our daily lives, we find ourselves between a rock a hard place. We realize the wonder and joy of life without fear. The man being chased by the tiger finally reached a point of not fear. He didn't cae whether he was eaten by a tiger or whether he was crushed on the rocks below the cliff when he juped. Every day of your life we have a similar choice. Every day we can choose to be not afraid. Thus, every day can be sublime. I have heard more than one story of a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and then, only then, were they able to really live without fear.

Back when Jesus lived 1 out of 4 infants or mothers died in childbirth. Yet, Mary gives birth to Jesus without fear. Your job and mine is to give birth to the Christ within us. Let us do that today, on this Christmas Day, without fear. Do not be afraid of the good news that Christ is ready to be birthed in your heart today.

Early on Christmas morning, really really early, while it was still dark, someone awakened me.

It was my older brother, Tim. "Jon, Jon, get up! It's Christmas morning. Let's go look at our gifts. Let's go see what Santa Claus brought us."

"No. I'm still asleep. You go see what he brought and come tell me," I mumbled, half awake.

"No!" said my older brother. "He might be still in there!! I'm not going alone. You come with me."

"Okay. Okay. Let's go!"

So we fearfully and expectantly crept from our bedroom through the hallway into the living room, hoping that Jolly Ole Saint Nick would not be still in the house or we would scream in fright.

When we got to the living room, hey, no one was in there. We could see from the glowing lights on the Christmas tree a brand new bicycle! A blue one! With ram's horn handlebars!! Wow. Unbelievable! Santa Claus really came through this year! We were thrilled with the mystery and wonder and joy of life on that Christmas morning.

It's hard to put in words what it feels like Christ is born in your heart. Let's just say it feels something like the combination of joy and wonder and dread I felt when my brother and I were creeping down the hallway to peek into our living room to see what Santa had brought us. What is the present you were hoping for today? What is the bicycle you want for yourself? Imagine yourself getting that for Christmas. May such joy come into your life as Christ is born in your heart today.

Your role, like Mary, is to treasure all these words and ponder them in your heart. May this Christmas day be a day of treasuring what God has done in your life. Ponder what God is doing in your life now. The mystery of how Christ gets born in your heart is the greatest mystery in the world. May you, like the young lion who thought he was a sheep, see your own reflection in the eyes of the baby in the manger and may the Christ within you roar!

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2011, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God's Christmas Wish for You: Experience Miracles Like Mother Mary

You are a walking miracle and you don't even know it. You are blessing people right here in this church and all over the world by being who you are and doing what you do. The difference between a life filled with wonder and a boring so-called life comes down to one word: Perception. Let us see what we find as we look and listen for God's word to us today from Luke 1:26-38.

Text: Luke 1:26-38

1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

1:34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

1:35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God."

1:38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Ramp: Last week I ate some delicious home baked gluten free bread. I put some raspberry jam on it after toasting the bread. It tasted fantastic. My wife had cooked the bread in a little bread oven. She had bought it the day before at the Kroger grocery store. It tasted great.

An American businessman was in a small town in Israel when he came across a Jewish bakery. He first smelled it from a block away. His mouth was already watering by the time he came to the bakery door. He loved fresh baked bread. Put some butter on top of it. Watch the butter spread like sunshine on the bread. So he could hardly wait to get his hands on some of that fresh baked bread he smelled. He could tell it was his favorite kind: Irish sourdough bread. But when the pushed on the door to enter the door did not move. With and a tinge of anger, he noticed the "Closed" sign on the door. He had just missed the deadline and with a sense of great disappointment he kept on walking down the street. A few blocks he later he heard a loud whistle. It was a policeman, standing with one hand behind his back, motioning him to come hither. The surprised man walked to the policeman who took his hand from behind his back and presented him with a loaf of fresh baked bread. The policeman had seen the man standing at the bakery door and could tell he was disappointed it was closed so the policeman talked to the baker and brought a free loaf of bread as a sign of good will for the American tourist. The American businessman sure did enjoy that bread.

Which of those two stories tells about a miracle? In both stories a man gets to eat some delicious bread. But the second story seems more miraculous because of the dramatic delivery mechanism. What makes that story seem miraculous is not the outcome but the process by which that outcome appeared. In the story of the American businessman there is wonderment involved, a sense of something happening that transcends the boundaries of the normal world most of us live in. In short, there is a feeling of the miraculous. What differentiates what we perceive as miraculous from other forms of acquisition, then, is not the results but the process by which the results are achieved. (Spangler, David (2008-10-01). Everyday Miracles: the inner art of manifestation (Kindle Locations 247-250). Lorian Press. Kindle Edition. )

Your birth was full of mystery. If you have given birth or witnessed the birth of a baby you may have felt like this birth was somehow a miracle. A birth gets us in touch with the sacred. Yet there is something about the birth of Jesus that goes beyond even the natural feeling of miraculous that we experience at the the birth of any child.

The miraculous nature of Jesus' birth goes back to the very announcement of her pregnancy. The Angel Gabriel announces that Mary will give birth to a Messiah who will sit upon the Throne of David. Mary wonders how she will give birth when she has never slept with a man. Gabriel tells Mary even her cousin Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)

According to our text today, the Angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary. She was a young Jewish girl whose fiancee was from the royal lineage of the House of David. Mary allowed God to work a miracle in and through her even though she had 3 strikes against her in the eyes of her culture as a poor, pregnant, unmarried woman. Mary had some things going for her. She was engaged to a man from the royal House of David. She was looking to God. She was open to miracles in her own life. She was open to the "revelation of the mystery." Mary responded to God in faith.

What are the strikes against you? Do people say you are too young or too old? To pretty or too ugly? Too rich or too poor? You can hinder miracles in your life by focusing on the wrong things. You can facilitate miracles in your life by focusing on God.

Members of this congregation are good at looking to God. You are among the most generous people I have ever known. Remember the church with an end of the year if you are able. Rest assured whatever you give to this congregation will be multiplied many times over in vital ministry. If you spent as much time as I do in the church office building, you too would be astounded at all the ministry and outreach that goes on here. The loving energy that passes through this building and out into the world is palpable. And this is but one hub for the ministries that each of you carries out in the fullness of your life at home - listening to a child, caring for a parent, praying for a friend; and at work - dealing with difficult situations, meeting deadlines, being a peaceful presence for your colleagues.

Your life is a gift to God that is expressed in many ways, one of which is in and through a faith community called St. John's. Let me take this opportunity to THANK YOU for your generosity to me, the church staff, this community, this city and the world. You are inspiring people. You are gifted for ministry. You are committed. And you are generous. Do not hesitate to express your generosity with an additional gift to St. John's at this time of year. You may think of it as your Christmas gift to Jesus. No doubt you will a Christmas gift to every other important person in your life. Consider also giving a special gift to St. John's above and beyond your pledge.

Speaking of pledges, if you have not pledged for 2012, cards are in the pew racks and in the church office. If you've never pledged, it is a wonderful spiritual discipline that will help you grow in your faith. If you've never done it, perhaps you may start by pledging a dime a day to support Christ's ministry through this congregation next year. The attitude of commitment to Christ and the desire to be a part of this successful enterprise matters more than the amount of money pledged for those who are new to this spiritual discipline.

Christ's birth may not be acknowledged in the secular world but it will most certainly be acknowledged in our hearts, in our lives, and in the worship and ongoing ministry of St. John's Presbyterian Church. If God has blessed you in such a way that you are able to do so, write an additional check to St. John's today in honor of the baby who was born in a manger long ago and who is reborn in our hearts during this holy season. Think of this additional check as a way of acknowledging the true reason for the season, the birth of Christ our Lord.

Closing: The biggest miracle you may experience is the miracle of learning to view life in a different way: As a gift from God to you. Just because you purchase your daily bread from a local grocery store does not mean it not a miracle. God gave you the money to buy the bread. Use of some of God's bread money to you to feed the world. Get excited by the possibility that God wants to work miracles in and through you. Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. God's Christmas wish for you is that you will believe that nothing is impossible with God and allow the Holy Spirit to work miracles in and through you.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 18, 2011 - Advent 4B, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 | sjpresby.blogspot.com

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know

It's easy for us to get distracted this time of year. We have coaching changes in college football. There are the important questions of which is better: The iPad2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab? We have family arrangements to consider. Who will be home for Christmas? What presents will we give them? In the midst of such considerations comes a strange man in weird clothes with one of those off-beat Southern California kind of diets. His name is John the Baptist. His message sounds like it is straight out of a science fiction movie about aliens in our midst. He claims there is one among us whom we do no know.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."

1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."

1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

1:23 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.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"

1:26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

= = =

One of my favorite sci fi movies is called "They Live." A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. The turning point in the movie comes when the drifter wears those special sunglasses for the first time. As he walks along a busy sidewalk in the city, words on signs and magazine covers morph from advertisements into blunt propaganda such as "OBEY." "STAY ASLEEP." "DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY." Money now changes from regular bills to papers that read "THIS IS YOUR GOD." And what's even spookier is that certain people's faces now look like scary reptiles. Clearly, all is not as it seems on the surface. Some of the most successful people are revealed to be reptilian aliens who are in control of the media and politics. The drifter forces a friend to wear the sunglasses and together they seek other humans aware of the situation. They organize a resistance against the powerful aliens from Andromeda and their associates.

Like the drifter in the movie "They Live," so John the Baptist is hard to classify. He's not an Old Testament prophet and he's not one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is a first cousin of Jesus to whom he was introduced while still in the womb. His mother and Jesus' mother were very close family members. John baptized his followers in the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the early days after Jesus lived there was a competition between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus. Some of the original disciples, such as Andrew, were first disciples of John the Baptist. His followers today, the Mandeans, of whom there are about 70,000 members, still baptize themselves today as a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist shares much in common with Jesus. They are related by blood and faith. They are cousins whose mothers are close. They share a Jewish heritage and the Jewish Bible. John the Baptist dies beheaded by King Herod. Jesus dies crucified by Pontius Pilate. John the Baptist's head is said to be entombed in the Umayyad (meaning "Great") Mosque of Damascus in Syria. It is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and it is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist which heralds from the time of Roman emperor Constantine I. Back in my seminary days, I had the pleasure of visiting this mosque and seeing the Christian basilica within it that is said to entomb the head of John the Baptist.

In the gospel stories, John the Baptist points the reader to "one who stands among you whom you do not know." That one is Jesus. Jesus is the one we do not know. He is the one who comes to us from God. "He came from God but God's own people did not know him." The unique quality of Jesus is that he is God come down to us in human form.

John's gospel goes to great lengths to show us that John the Baptist is inferior to Jesus. We read in John 1:20 where John the Baptist says: "I am not the Messiah." John the Baptist says of Jesus: "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

John the Baptist refers to Jesus, saying, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one he refers to is Jesus. You do not know him, says John. John the Baptist says, "Follow Jesus not me."

The one we do not know is the Christ within us. We are not well acquainted with the Christ within. We either ignore the Christ within or try to subdue it out of fear. We are afraid of letting Christ loose in our hearts. Changes may come. We may become more vulnerable. Getting to know the Christ within can be scary and uncomfortable. It sometimes feels as if the Spirit is shining a light around in the basement of our unconsciousness. Hidden sins are brought to light. This is what John the Baptist was all about, revealing the darkness within us.

A BOY was hunting for locusts. He had caught a goodly number, when he saw a Scorpion, and mistaking him for a locust, reached out his hand to take him. The Scorpion, showing his sting, said: "If you had but touched me, my friend, you would have lost me, and all your locusts too!" [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop'sFables (p. 16). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] We fear if we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist we will lose ourself and everything we have worked for but the exact opposite is the truth. As we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist, we discover our true self. As we see our inner sinfulness mirrored back to us in the waters of our baptism we come to know our true nature as sinful human beings. Yet is is precisely sinful human beings whom Christ comes to redeem.

A DOG, crossing a bridge over a stream with a piece of flesh in his mouth, saw his own shadow in the water and took it for that of another Dog, with a piece of meat double his own in size. He immediately let go of his own, and fiercely attacked the other Dog to get his larger piece from him. He thus lost both: that which he grasped at in the water, because it was a shadow; and his own, because the stream swept it away. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 18). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] When we fight our inner John the Baptist we fight against ourselves. We waste our energy attacking shadows. We do not realize we are seeing another aspect of ourselves.

A GOATHERD had sought to bring back a stray goat to his flock. He whistled and sounded his horn in vain; the straggler paid no attention to the summons. At last the Goatherd threw a stone, and breaking its horn, begged the Goat not to tell his master. The Goat replied, "Why, you silly fellow, the horn will speak though I be silent." Do not attempt to hide things which cannot be hid. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 22). Amazon Digital Services, Inc..] Do you think you can hide your inner nature from others? Well, you can't. It's impossible. Some people know you better than you know yourself. Certainly, God knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet, here is the amazing part, God loves us just as we are. Self acceptance is the foundation of charity.

John the Baptist reminds us, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one you do not know may be Christ. Or the one you do not know may be yourself. Or the one among you whom you do not know may be the Christ within you, the hope of glory. Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. The part of us that we try to avoid. The part of us we think is secret but it is there for everyone else to see. The connection to the Isaiah text would be that we are the spiritually oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives who need to released from prisons of our own making. (See Isa 61:1) The one among us whom we do not know is neither John the Baptist nor Jesus: It is we ourselves. We are strangers to ourselves.

A German city was recently evacuated after unexploded bombs from World War II were found in a nearby river. The dramatic story of the defusing of these weapons inspires reflection on the "unexploded bombs" that lurk beneath the surface of so many of our relationships with family members and friends.

As the holidays approach, what bombs will we encounter as we gather around tables for meals and conversation? Alcohol abuse, infidelity, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual addiction?

What bombs will we bring with us? Anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness? And perhaps the most important question of all: How can we defuse these bombs?

During the Christmas season, we are bombarded by cards, gifts, music, ads and parties. All promise happiness. But many people enter the season feeling hurts, losses, disappointments and grief. How can this pain be acknowledged?

The early disciples interaction with Jesus was experiential. Jesus invited them to "come and see" and they came and saw. They gained insight found only at the level of profound trust. Jesus invites us to experience transcendence for the mystery of our lives is in our midst. Superseding John the Baptist, Jesus invites us to explore the Christ within us. There we may find the "God of peace" that passes all understanding. This Advent may the lyrics of that anthem become our inner battle cry: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 11, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
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