In the Wall Street Journal last Sunday, there was a review of a new book called “The Triumph of Faith” by Rodney Stark. The basic premise of the book is that religion is on the rise worldwide. The one anomaly is Europe, where grand cathedrals now sit empty. But, the empty churches don’t necessarily translate into lack of religious belief.
In fact, “Mr. Stark offers some amusing evidence to the contrary. Drawing on the Gallup poll, he notes that Europeans hold all sorts of supernatural beliefs. In Austria, 28% of respondents say they believe in fortune-tellers; 32% believe in astrology; and 33% believe in lucky charms. More than 20 percent of Swedes believe in reincarnation, and half believe in mental telepathy.”
My favorite example comes from Iceland. More than half of Icelanders believe elves and trolls! I think I sort of believe in elves and trolls too. I mean, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, full of elves, trolls, orcs and hobbits is as real to me as you are. We’ve even got a doorknocker with “Lothlorien”, the forest realm of the Elves inscribed on it. Stark’s point, which is not new, is that people are naturally religious, and if organized religion fails to satisfy our spiritual longings, then the vacuum will be filled in some other way. Current case in point: may the Force be with you; and also with you.
As I said, this is not a new insight. In fact, these same spiritual longings were in the hearts of the throngs of people who came out to the wilderness to be baptized by John. The gospel text this morning, in fact, says that the “people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”
These people, like all people, are wired to want something beyond the self. Also, the particular socio-political context fueled the flame of their longing. It may be true that we currently live in a time fraught with violence and terrorism, but this is not unusual. You probably remember that first century Israel was an occupied country full on strife and tension. The Romans ruled the Jews – the Jews had no political autonomy.
Tiberius’ reign was marked by terror and capricious punishment. Pilate is described by historical records as “inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness” whose administration was marked by “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, and endless savage ferocity.” Herod ruled with grandiose authority, until he was struck down by an angel of the Lord for his hubris and eaten alive by worms. This was after he had imprisoned and decapitated John the Baptist, serving his head on a platter at a dinner party.
So, it’s no wonder that the people were filled with expectation. John operated in a “society seething with an active hunger for hope.” They wanted rescue from the cruel domination of the political hierarchy and they wanted an ethical and just society. John drew the crowds because he was preaching in the long and credible tradition of the prophets calling for urgent reform in Israel. He “tapped into the Jewish people’s desperate desire for change.” And they knew from Scripture that One was coming who could bring change – the one prophesied by Isaiah 5 centuries earlier, the One who was to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
And how the yearned for Him, the Messiah who would deliver them from their bondage! Who here doesn’t know this yearning and expectation? Who here doesn’t hope for change or deliverance in some area of life? Who here doesn’t want to see a society that is just? Who here doesn’t long for a breakthrough with an addiction? Who here isn’t yearning for light in some dark corner of your life? Most of us don’t even have to go beyond our immediate family to find some impasse. Each of you has brought into this church some hurt and some expectation in your heart.
So the people questioned in their hearts whether John could be the answer. Well, he has a lot more going for him than an elf or a troll. John, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets tells them to bear the fruits of repentance. In other words, clean up your act ethically on every single front. Here are your New Year’s resolutions. Now just do them. Repent and change is John’s answer to our longing.
There is an enormous appeal to being told what to do by someone with real authority. Do this and you will live. This is the obvious appeal of certain branches of Islam – or certain strains of Christianity as well. But, for all its urgency and popularity, there is a fatal flaw in John the Baptist’s message. Just telling people to change and how to change never works. Does it? In theological language, the law cannot fulfill what it demands. Principles, exhortations, and demands always fall short.
Just telling people to change and how to change – no matter how forcefully or urgently – never works. Do you know somebody who operates this way? Anybody who has had children knows this to be true. Anybody that is the grip of anger or lust or envy or depression also knows it to be true. Telling an alcoholic to just pull himself together and stop drinking is fruitless and cruel. Exhorting a depressed person to just cheer up is nonsense. It’s like telling a blind woman that if she would just squint harder she could see. It is like telling a man sinking in quicksand to pull himself up by his own hair.
The law cannot fulfill what it demands. Just telling people, as John did, to share their tunics and tax collectors to collect only what they owe and doesn’t result in tunic sharing and ethical tax collecting. If it did, then the prophets would have accomplished change long, long ago! The people wouldn’t need delivering. The people wouldn’t be filled with expectation and longing. We would not need a Messiah.
So the Baptist’s message isn’t an end in itself. That is why Jesus says a few chapters later, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” In other words, nobody does the message of repent and change better than John. But, the message ultimate fails to bring about what it intends. It just isn’t powerful enough.
To his credit, John knows this. He tells people that he isn’t the Messiah, that his message is only a stopgap. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Just as the Law’s purpose is to lead us to the gospel, John’s purpose is to lead us to Jesus Christ, who alone is powerful enough to deliver us. He alone is powerful enough to meet our hearts longings and expectations.
Jesus does this not by telling us what to do. He meets our needs by becoming one of us. Though sinless, he is baptized as a sign of his complete immersion into the dark parts of our lives. In a Christmas Day New York Times op ed., Peter Wehner writes, “the incarnation helps us…avoid turning God into an abstract set of principles. Accounts of how Jesus interacted with this messy, complicated, broken world, through actions that stunned the people of his time, allow us to learn compassion in ways that being handed a moral rule book never could. For one thing, rule books can’t shed tears or express love.”
Jesus sheds tear, expresses love, and ultimately spills his own blood for your deliverance. This is the work of God begun at Jesus baptism. Jesus continues to be the powerful expression of God, the powerful answer to our universal longing. Jesus never grows old, wears out, or diminishes in power.
I have a reminder of His power hanging over my sofa in my office. Christ Church was just given an 1833 portrait of Sarah Minor Gilmer, an early benefactor of Christ Church. She gave the 1826 communion silver we still use each Sunday. In the painting, she holds a Book of Common Prayer; in the background is the first Christ Church, built in 1826. She holds you with steady, appealing eyes and a Mona Lisa kind of smile.
I found the newspaper article about her death in the 1860’s. “How many, both old and young, can recall visits to her room, where greeted by her genial welcome, they are soon invited to a seat by that old arm-chair to read to her either in her Bible, or from some book just received, or from an old and favorite author, and all bearing on the same great central Truth – And now in perfect reliance on this great truth – faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
John says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming.” Every week we gather to say and hear that the powerful one has come. And He has come for you.