This morning’s Lenten reading was the entirety of Luke 3. Here we find Luke’s version concerning the beginnings of John the Baptizer’s public ministry. I was struck by its missional attributes of humility, place, and the everyday.
John takes up some prominent space in the gospels. He has an angelic proclamation to his parents in preparation for his birth. Zacharias, his father was a priest, which made him known in their region. And his mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin. He even had his own group of followers, disciples, living and learning with him. If someone was looking for an impressive CV, you wouldn’t have to look much further beyond John.
Yet when it comes to wielding this recognition and authority, John deflects to Jesus. For the sake of mission, John understands his role as one pointing to Jesus. This comes to a head when he is asked if he is indeed “the Christ.” “No, but he is coming and he is mightier than I.” Personal limitations were well-known to him.
This stood out to me because I know I am a competitive person. Henri Nouwen says of our current culture,
We are living in a world where even the most intimate relationships have become part of competition and rivalry.
How true and frequent this is. Unfortunately, it happens within Christian community – read: family – and puts mission at a stand still.
It takes humility to know that we have a role within the family of God. We are not all called to be hands. No, some of us are called to be feet. We have different skill sets, giftings, and personalities, that together allow for the mission of God to flourish.
When we give into power and pride, we often assume roles that we have no part in taking. We bad-mouth, become overly critical, and, typically, ragingly jealous. I wonder how badly John wanted to say, “Yes” to the crowds’ question of him being Christ.
Humility isn’t merely a private posture; its effects are communal as we either live into humble love or arrogant power with others.
I wonder how often we assume the role of Christ – in our own lives or the lives of others – when we should humbly point beyond ourselves to Jesus and his unifying mission.
John had an astute understanding of the role of place. It wasn’t by coincidence that he was meeting people and baptizing them in the Jordan River. The Jordan had (has) a special place in the social imagination and memory of the Jewish people. It was the geographic boundary the Israelites crossed over as they entered into the Promised Land. Found in the wilderness, John called people to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. Now, we shouldn’t think of this as personal salvation, but as a renewed call to be the community of people they were meant to be. And this would have been obvious to the people there as they knew how place was intimately linked to themselves and their story.
John evokes a dual call to both coming judgment and hope by placing himself in the wilderness and baptizing in the Jordan. It was this rootedness within his place that allowed him to enter the social imagination and memory of his people. He didn’t just know his role, his people, and his story. Rather, they all combined with his knowledge of place to make one coherent proclamation.
With his humble call to the One Coming After Him, he offered this hope and called into being a picture of (finally) entering into the true Promised Land. Through his recapitulation of the ancient Israelites’ dealings in the wilderness, he was calling people to a life of justice and peace. It began with an understanding of the role of place in the mind of his people. From there, he called them into the continuing mission of God.
I wonder how we might understand place in our own contexts and by doing so tap into the social imagination and memory of the people around us as we join God in his mission.
I have found over and over again how enamored people are with the glamorous and the spectacular. We like things done big and done well. We’d rather make a huge splash than tiny ripples.
I’ve heard many times of peoples’ dreams of going big. People chase after the title, the organization, the complex social issue. Within the Church world, I have heard many people say they want the title of Pastor, the Homeless Shelter non-profit organization, and that they’re going to stop the social issue of human trafficking.
We tend to chase after the grandiose while missing out on the everyday. We reach for the stars, but forget the dirt we’re standing in. We’d rather flirt with the universal and reject the particular.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think we often lose sight of where God has us now in lieu of pursuing something else. If we don’t start with the small, we will have a much, much more difficult time attaining the character and skill required for the large.
This was a temptation for John’s listeners as they heard and saw ancient words coming true before them. Their longings were finally being met and now the show could get started. Let’s do it big and do it now.
Our participation in the mission of God, however, always begins where we are in the everyday.
John reminds us of this when he tells his questioners to start with themselves in the regularity of the everyday. “If you have two tunics, give one of them to someone who has none.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than what you’ve been ordered to.” To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t take any money by force; be happy with your wages.”
N.T Wright says,
What we discover at this point is that the sorting-out process begins here and now. We’ve come to hear about the big picture, about the whole world being put to rights. But we are brought down to earth with a bump by the questions people are asking and the answers they’re receiving. People ask: ‘What are we to do?’ Answer: ‘Straighten your lives out in the simplest, most direct way.’
And by doing so, they would begin to be the people they were created to be with Jesus as their Christ.
I wonder what would happen if we began to cultivate eyes to see and ears to hear God’s missional movement in the everyday.
Connecting the Dots
I have found that these three qualities intersect and overlap in mission. Often it is our lack of humility that pushes us into seeking after the grandiose. This seeking often results in a relegation of our everyday and our place as we yearn for the prideful position, organization, or eradication of the social ill. It takes humility to realize our placedness and to begin there by seeking God’s voice and movement. I think John was on to something as he deliberately prodded his community into humility, place, and the everyday.
May we do the same as we participate in God’s mission.
Other posts in this Lent series: