By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 9, 2022
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Luke 3:15–17, 21-22 (ESV)
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
There are a few people in scripture that have attracted my attention to such a degree that I can hardly pull myself from their story, John the Baptist is on of those people. I find his life fascinating, though scripture does not give us much information about it. This leads us to speculation. Speculation is a place of imagination that can be beneficial when we do it with knowledge, but it can also be detrimental when we put too much trust in our own interpretations. We speculate when we lack information. We make attempts at filling the gaps with our own collected knowledge and we move forward with that information. We fill the gaps but with what do we fill those gaps?
Speculation is something we all participate in. We fill the gaps of our knowledge with many things. We do not fully understand the nature of our economy so we speculate. We do not understand the full nature of the origin of life so we speculate. We do not understand the mysteries of God, so we speculate. We do not fully understand the intricacies of interpersonal relationships so we speculate. We speculate all the time and we do it without even a second thought. Children seemingly do this with ease. They do not understand what is going on around them so they develop a story that will help them explain just why they are afraid of the dark. It does not make sense for them to be afraid, they know everything in their room and yet they are afraid, so they in their speculation will place a monster in their closet or under their bed, just to fill the gap within their experienced story so that they can cope with the unknown.
The monster, in the mind of the child is real. You cannot convince them that it is a figment of their imagination, and when you attempt to use reason or logic you will find yourself with a fearful child that does not trust even their parent. So how do we assist the child? How do we move them into reality and away from errant speculation? We walk with them. We bravely take their hand and approach the closet, like the courageous heroes of their stories and we face the monsters. We walk with them; we listen to their stories and acknowledge that in their mind they are real. And we ask them to join us on a quest to vanquish the foe. We sneak toward the closet door, making sure they are right behind us, and we turn on the light. What do we find? We find the error in their speculation and we provide space for them to process in their own mind what has caused the error in their thinking. We walk with them, we think with them, and we overcome with them. We participate with their story so that they can develop the mental pathways within their own mind to fill the gaps between knowledge in a way that will be accurate and healthy.
We might laugh at the speculations of a child, we might even mock those young minds when we ourselves are tired and do not have the time to participate in a knight’s quest to rid the realm of imagined dragons, but do we realize that adult speculation and the adult imagination can be similar?
Our lives are filled with incomplete information. We do not and cannot know what our future will hold so just like the child we fill the gaps of our knowledge with imagined solutions to our problems. We do not know so we speculate. But what do we use to fill those gaps? Do we bravely adorn our bodies with armor to boldly approach the unknown to find answers, or do we fill the gaps of our knowledge with imagined superstition? There are dragons all around us. Dragons that threaten to keep us cowered in place. Dragons that threaten harm if we attempt to take a step forward, or that will breathe fire to consume the bridge we might try to cross. Will we brave the dragons of our own imagination?
I speak of speculation because everything I know about John the Baptist is just that. It is a construct of a man that I have made in my own mind that I believe is based on the understanding that I have gained from study. Everything I know is just that, speculation, no matter what I am speaking about. I might be right or I might be wrong. The words I speak might be helpful in moving me forward in the perceived quest I have entered in my life, or they might be the words that a child speaks in their mind that will keep them awake at night unable to move their feet from their covers for fear of the monster under the bed. We must acknowledge our limitations. We must recognize that we are finite beings with limited understanding. We make our decisions and move forward in equal parts courage and fear because we speculate.
Today we meet John the Baptist once again on the banks of the Jordan. We are told that the people gathered there were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. I want us to recognize this for what it is. The people were in expectation. They wanted something, they hoped for something, they longed for something. For what were they longing? The Christ. They were out there in the wilderness looking for something and they were wanting to find their answer. Could the answer be John?
What is going on in the first century that would lead adults to seek out answers in such a manner? This was a nation of people that had a long history and distinct history. We look at and study scripture and we make assumptions about Israel that may not be reflected in the narrative of history. We often see them as a great and mighty nation, but they were never great in the eyes of the world. We make assumptions of greatness based on our understanding. Israel was small. It was always small by worldly measures. The land that they ruled even at their greatest strength was about as great as the smallest nation in Europe. Their military might we imagine was mighty, but in reality, they were always a step behind the technological advancements of the surrounding nations. We see this early in their history and it continues. We are often told that history is written by the victors, but why is it that we know the history of Israel? They were a small nation conquered, exiled, and ruled over. They were and are great not because of who they are, but because of what they are. They were the people through whom God chose to reveal Himself.
This can be deceptive. For some, the idea of this chosen status means that they can do no wrong. If this is something that you believe I want you to read the writings of the prophets. Israel can do wrong, and they did do wrong. Some might believe that this chosen status means that they have a divine mandate of existence. That is closer to the truth, if God chose a people to reveal himself through, then there must be a remanent of that people in existence for the revelation to continue. But what does the revelation mean?
This is where the expectant people find themselves as they approach and listen to John. Each of them has some understanding as to the purpose and nature of their people and their nation. Some believe that their existence is one of knowledge, some believe it to be political, some merely religious. They bring all these speculations to the table and they project them to John, because in those speculations there is this hope of messiah. This anointed one that will move them forward into their divinely appointed future. What is our definition of future success? How do we know that success has occurred?
They are out there in expectation. They are in the wilderness with questions in their hearts, and speculations in their minds. They want something and they think they know what it is. They believe that this man, John, could be the fulfillment of that, but why?
What do we know about this man? We know that his birth was special, in fact it resembles the birth of their own nation. God called Abraham to follow him out of all the nations and people of the world. It was through this one man that God was going to reveal himself through to the entire world. The only problem was that this one man and his wife were unable to bear a child. All this divine knowledge, all the blessings from God, and they had no family to pass it to. It was only after a ridiculous time, when the prospect of giving birth to a child had passed from possible to comedic did the promise become fulfilled. And Sarah laughed. Who would not laugh at the prospect of a century old woman giving birth and raising a child? We have women nearing that mark in our Meeting, they know and we know that their bodies have long since stopped preparing itself for that prospect. Yet it was just such a body used by God. It was just such a situation that God brought hope to the world. When all our speculations and imagination cannot manifest a reason, God is there.
John’s mother was barren, she was beyond the age women normally bear children. She like her ancient mother, Sarah, had given up hope of ever knowing that aspect of life. We may not realize just how dire and amazing this truly is. There is more to the story. In our day and age, we speak a great deal about marriage and human relations but I think we have missed the point. I have over the past few months considered the point of it all. Again, it is speculation. What if the point of marriage is less about the things we think and more about the community and faith? I base this speculation on the traditions of the Jewish people. The fact that John’s father and mother were still married is amazing. In their tradition they should not have been married if procreation was the sole purpose of marriage. Elizabeth was barren, she was unable to provide her husband with progeny to carry on the name. Zechariah was well within his rights to have divorced Elizabeth both socially and religiously. Yet he did not. The relationship was more important. To Zechariah and to his family it was more important to have Elizabeth included in the community than the prospect of a child. I want us to think about this for a moment. It was more important to the community that Zechariah and Elizabeth be there, together, than a baby.
Offspring are a blessing from God, no matter where or when they come into a family or a community. They give us an opportunity to bless others, they give us an opportunity to encourage and to extend our cultural identity into the next generation. We should cherish the gift, but that gift is not the point of the relationship. It was more important to Zechariah to continue in relationship with Elizabeth even through the blessing of offspring had passed them by. We often miss this because they were eventually blessed with a child. We miss the years of barrenness because we focus on the blessing.
The people in the desert in expectation also missed the point. They also failed to see the deeper story because they instead looked at the blessing. Could John be the Christ? His advent was miraculous just as Isaac to Sarah. Is God revealing Himself yet again? The short answer is yes. But we miss the point if we base our speculation on only part of the knowledge. When Jesus spoke of John he said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus like the people in the desert, knew that John was important, but unlike the people in the desert Jesus knew the true reason why. The people of the desert came out to John, they came in expectation, with questions in their hearts concerning John. They came out knowing that John had a very public a miraculous story. John, in all likelihood, would have been given every possible advantage their society had to offer. He could have stepped into any messianic role offered. At a word he could have inspired an army to form to begin the battles of independence. Why, because they all knew that he was the child of a barren mother. His life reflected their history. In their mind God could have been ushering in the new kingdom just as in days of old. John could have become everything the human heart could imagine or desire.
But that is not the path that John took, because, like Jesus, John knew more of the story than we know. John answered the people saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John could have walked the paths of human greatness. He could have commanded armies. He could have demanded the riches of a king. But John knew that there is something beyond human understandings of greatness that is more important.
It is that unseen power and knowledge, that caused Zechariah to stay wed to Elizabeth even though the blessings of offspring were denied. It was that unseen power and knowledge that drove John to walk away from the luxuries human success could offer and dwell in the wilderness. It is that unseen power and knowledge that allowed him to look at everything the world has to offer and say, no that is not what is important.
We can speculate. We can use our knowledge and reason. We can move forward believing that we have all the answers. We can even move forward within the knowledge we possess knowing that it is incomplete. We can move forward knowing that in our greatest understanding of the world around us can at any moment fall into chaos and drive us to enter into the same place so many children find themselves in, so afraid of the dark to move their foot out from under the covers. What do we do in the midst of the fear, what do we do when the chaos looms?
John said that he baptizes with water. Have we ever thought of the reality surrounding this? It is something tangible something we can control, something we can define. When we use water to baptize we are saying that we have a full understanding of the power of God. By this rite I can control the one that created the universe. No, at best the waters of baptism are a testimony against the forces opposed to God. It is at best a statement of belief and alliance. The power that the waters of baptism hold are empty unless there is something more. That is the truth of John’s testimony. Whatever power or hope you have in our human understanding is mere speculation unless you recognize that there is something greater beyond. When the investor looks at risking their human fortunes in the market, we look at them in awe and wonder. We say they risked much in the face of chaos. The truth is that they made calculations and they only risked as much as they were comfortable in losing. They are fully aware of the chaotic chances that loom around them, but they move forward. We praise those that risked and succeeded and we scorn those that risked and failed. But do we see the truth around it all? Do we understand why some failed and others succeed? Do we see?
The reason John is the greatest among those born of a woman is not because John was great, it is because his parents saw the truth. Their life lived together in faith was more important than anything else, because their life lived in faith was devoted to the true law of God, “Love God with all you have and your neighbor as yourself.” They gave up their life of selfish ambition and they lived their faith. Do you not think there was a time Elizabeth suggested that Zechariah divorce her for better prospects? Do you think there was not a moment where Zechariah was tempted to listen? We like to think we can control and manipulate the world around us. We want to do things to succeed and move forward. That is baptism, that is financial speculation, that is political ideology. That is humanity using our knowledge to slay the dragons. But our speculation only goes so far. We face the dragons and we know that in an instant that chaotic force can have its vengeance. Why risk it? What remains?
“He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” There is only one that brought order to the formless void; that is the word of God. The command of God is to love him with all your heart, with all your spirit, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. “[And] when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Jesus embodies the word of God. He lived it out to its fullest and showed us how to face the dragons of chaos around us. It is not by the strength of our armies or the wisdom of our minds that we can move forward. But it is our faith in God. It is that unseen power of faith that kept Zechariah and Elizabeth together, it is that unseen strength of faith that propelled John their son. It is faith that was revealed to Abraham and it is faith that made his offspring the instruments of divine revelation. It is when we use our speculation in conjunction with faith that we will overcome the dragons of life. It is when we walk in that relationship with humanity and the divine that we can face the trials in true strength. It is when we begin to think we can control it all that we will fail. It is when we believe that we can control our own future chaos will overtake us. Because faith allows us to see ourselves for who we truly are. Faith allows us to acknowledge our weaknesses and, in that weakness, allows others to stand with us. Faith shows us that we need help to overcome our dragons. And it is through faith that the Spirit of God fills the gap not with speculation but with hope.
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