The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Advent 3: December 17, 2017
Have you ever wondered about Jesus? I mean really wrestled with the question about who He was, who He is for you, and who He will be in the age to come? Advent is a time for just this kind of wrestling and wondering.
Back in the day, that time when Jesus and John the Baptist, lived and breathed and had their beings, many people wondered about them. It began with John the Baptist. People asked him, “Who are you? And what gives you the authority to do that?”
John the Baptist replied in the negative. He answered, “I am not the light. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. And no, I am not the prophet Isaiah.” “Then who are you?” the people demanded. “I am God’s witness to the light,” John replied.
We have four gospel stories in our Bible. The gospel of Mark is known for its brevity and immediacy. Jesus is a man on God’s mission, running around exorcising demons, healing people, and calling fisherfolk to follow him. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear about the birth narratives of both John and Jesus, and how their lives unfold powerfully and tragically.
“Who is Jesus? And what authority does He have?” each gospel writer has asked. On this third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist answers, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” My job is to “testify to the light,” John said to the crowd, “so that all might believe through him.”
Many people throughout the ages have wondered about Jesus and his authority. “Was Jesus human or divine?” Was he just a failed prophet, like so many others who had gone before him, like John the Baptist and Isaiah? Or was Jesus divine, the Messiah, and the Light that shines eternally? Was He truly the Word of God made flesh, who spoke with God’s power and authority?
Eventually, through the councils of the early church, people began to claim that Jesus was 100% fully human and 100% fully divine. Creeds were created to witness to our faith and tell the short story about Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again. The gospel of John claims that “everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” Do you believe this?
I didn’t. At least I didn’t until, like the gospel writers, I too had experienced Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I was baptized, not in the river Jordan, but in a baptismal font in the United Church of Christ. As a child, I remember the wonder of Christmas eve services, hustling out to our car from the church in the bitter cold, shielding the light of my candle with my hand, using this little light of mine to dispel my own darkness. I didn’t wonder about who Jesus was back then. I just worshipped Him, hoped in Him, and trusted Him.
In my teenage years, my wondering took a new turn. Like the demons in Mark’s gospel, I would ask Jesus, “Who are you? And what do you have to do with me?” I questioned so many things about God and Jesus that I chose not to be confirmed in the Presbyterian Church. In college, I identified myself as an agnostic, or someone who does not know; and then, later in my 20’s, I remember asking my next-door neighbor why she attended mass every Sunday, and why she even bothered to go to church. Her reply? “There are so many transitions in my life,” she said, “it’s the one place I can feel anchored and grounded."
Our babies were born 18 months apart, and in the traditions of our families, Paul and I baptized them both into the life of Christ, first at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Walpole, Massachusetts, and then at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown,Connecticut. It was there, as a young mother, that my wondering about Jesus began in earnest. Who was this guy? And what did He have to do with me, Paul, Megan, and Brian?
I wanted answers, and like a woman on a mission, I began to seek them. I attended Bible study every week and then Education for Ministry for four years. I joined the pastoral care team and then the vestry. I got involved in our outreach committee and helped create a transitional living facility for homeless women and their children. I was part of the town’s Local Housing Partnership and Habitat for Humanity, partnerships that created new and affordable housing in our communities. I visited people in the hospital and those in prison. My mission was to become a part of God’s mission.
The battle about Jesus that was raging within the early Christian and Jewish communities also raged within my own heart. Who was Jesus and who was Jesus for me? for my family? And for my neighbors? If Jesus was not divine, then why did I worship him? If Jesus was not human, then what did he know about me and my life or yours?
Jesus might be tight with His Father in heaven, but too often I’m not. Although he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with addictions, as some of my family members and many of you have. I wondered about the extent of His suffering. Had he not died early in his 30’s, never having been married, raised children, nor faced the challenges of his mother’s old age, let alone his own? Does three hours of suffering on a cross compare to a lifetime on the streets or being trapped in a body that is riddled with disease?
How is it then that my voice, crying out in the wilderness, has become the voice of one who proclaims, ‘make straight the way of the Lord?’ Quite simply, through the power of God’s Spirit. Through scripture, I began to know that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. It is through the body of Christ that I have come to know the One who stands among us, who made me worthy to stand before Him. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that I have seen His face, heard His voice, and felt His healing touch. Like a slow drip of water on a stone, my heart has been changed, and my life continues to be transformed.
The birth of a baby is always a cause for great wonder. It is an opportunity for fresh starts, big dreams, and new life. In awe, we can marvel at the beauty of God’s creation. We can look upon a baby in the manger and see many reasons for hope. We can see a vulnerability that has not yet been marred by human unkindness, a dependency on others that is age appropriate, and soft skin that has not yet been hardened by human toil or abuse. This new life is almost always protected; and babies will often bring us to our knees, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
While human beings, like me and John the Baptist, may baptize with water, God baptizes with the Holy Spirit, which is beyond our human understanding or control. Such power can bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release to the captive, and comfort to all who mourn. Such power can even raise the dead into eternal and resurrected life.
Our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, also testifies to that light today. He said (quote) “The truly liberating truth is that Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion, though religious faith is important. Nor did he establish a religious institution or organization, though institutions and organizations can serve his cause. Jesus came to continue a movement, born out of the prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist.” (end quote) This movement is called the Jesus movement and it is the life-giving, liberating love of God, unleashed for all of us to receive, each and every day, through the power of the Spirit.
Who is Jesus? He is the living Word of God, who speaks to us daily, sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, sometimes silent. He is the Bread of Life, who feeds our hungry hearts. He is the living Water, who quenches our thirst and washes away our sins. Who is Jesus? He is the Good Shepherd, who finds us when we’re lost, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the Light of the world that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Through Him, I am a child once again, who can walk into the cold and bitter nights of winter, carrying my little candle in front of me, knowing that God’s hand will shield me and that God’s Spirit will guide me. Who is Jesus? He is the One who I have come to know standing among us, the thong of his sandal I am not worthy to untie. He is the Resurrection and the Life, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
And what about you? How do you come to the Table today? Are you struggling with pain, emptiness, and sorrow? Are you still wondering about Jesus? Or do you come rejoicing, expectant, and hopeful? Either way, come to the table and be fed by Jesus. Then, join the Jesus Movement, trust in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and be a witness to the Light. Amen.