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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Behold, the Lamb – Here Am I (A02O)

gathering:  Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia) or Songs of Thankfulness and Praise
resp. psalm:  40 Here I Am (Cooney)
prep rite: Lord, When You Came or Wade in the Water
communion: Come to the Water
sending forth:  Abide, O Spirit of Life or All the Ends of the Earth

The readings this weekend will sound like reruns to some people, but the confusion is definitely understandable. It’s harder to point out differences than it is to say that there is one.

The John version of the baptism of Jesus is told as though it has already happened. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary tells us that the early Church was so scandalized that Jesus would submit to a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” that each successive gospel makes the event a little more distant. Mark, writing in about 70, tells the story quickly and matter-of-factly. John baptizes with a baptism of repentance, we read in chapter 1, and then, “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” Just like everybody else. And Mark moves on from there, sending Jesus into the desert at the Spirit’s urging to be tested. Luke concentrates, as he does, on Jesus praying and the coming of the Spirit; Matthew, as we heard last week, almost makes the baptism sound like a charade: “Do it this way for now...” John doesn’t even have the baptism, just that the Baptist points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. This is important because in the Johannine passion narrative, Jesus is killed at the very hour that the paschal lambs are slain, on a Passover feast that fell on the Sabbath.

As we read through the scriptures for Sunday yesterday at staff, though, what I heard in the readings was a sort of linking between the servant in Isaiah and the Baptizer's strange eponym for Christ, the "lamb of God." No matter that the name is lain upon Jesus most of a century later by the evangelist putting the words into the mouth of John; the name is still spoken with inspired faith. In Isaiah, the servant's destiny is to restore the unity of all the people of earth. For John, it is the lamb of God who is to take away the sin of the world. This recognition of the lowly as the instrument of God is worth our consideration, because in the inspired words of the responsorial psalm, as the assembled and aware body of Christ in this place and time, we sing together, "Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will." Hearing God's word, using God's word, we submit to becoming God's word in the world. We. Us. We who don't think we're good enough, holy enough, connected enough, smart enough to do God's work. But we're called to be the servants of God, the lamb of God, not to do what we want, but what God wants with God's strength; not to wrest the world violently from its dream of self-actualization and autonomy, but to be the light and health (salvation) of the whole planet, and the cure for the pathology of its sin.

This is a dangerous vocation. It was lethal for John the Baptist, it was lethal for Jesus, it was lethal for the prophets and apostles and for martyrs from apostolic times into the present day. (It was lethal for Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate today, peace be upon him). Human habits of sin are so ingrained and systemic that they seem personal, have their own spirit, even divinity. Little gods, powerful gods, seem to be in charge of nations and economies and belief systems, circumscribing strategies of power, wealth, and privilege with fearsome, almost impenetrable auras. Yesterday I came across a list of "nineteen theses for living and dying" by the great scripture scholar Walter Brueggeman. The whole article is here, but I just want to summarize because it crosses into these thoughts about Sunday's peaceful opening salvo in this year's negotiations for the human heart. Brueggeman describes the Christian message as a "counter-narrative" in the human narrative of "technological, therapeutic consumer militarism." The key character/actor in the script is the God of the bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He describes the counter-narrative as "ragged and disjunctive" precisely because the character is God, by definition, undefinable, unknowable as Godself. Most tellingly, he says that those of us in ministry, I should say, those of us who find ourselves among the baptized, are ambiguous about adopting the counter-narrative as a way of life. We don't want to give up our participation in the dominant narrative, what I would say Sunday's gospel calls "the sin of the world," which the lamb is called to erase. His theses are an honest assessment of the mess that scripture can be, and a warning against too easily reconciling the embarrassingly violent and "irascible" God who dwells there with our pacifist fantasies. I'm not sold on that kind of language, but it's similar to what Dominic Crossan's conclusions are, and both of those guys are much more immersed in the culture of scripture than I.

Our music for this Sunday echoes some of the themes that run through the scriptures: that the Messiah is for the whole world (“All the Ends of the Earth” and “Come to the Water”), that the baptism of Christ is a manifestation of God’s presence (“Songs of Thankfulness and Praise”), and that our participation in the baptism of the Messiah and his mission has ramifications for us in relationship to one another (“Psalm 40: Here I Am” and “Abide, O Spirit of Life”). “Wade in the Water” is a spiritual that is a metaphor for liberation, and just plain fun to sing - the youth choir loves it (well, so do the rest of us.)

This thing about decisions, though, about realigning ourselves with the gospel, and identifying and rejecting the social pathologies that, in Brueggeman's words, are the "dominant script" that we rejected at baptism, our entry point into God's counter-narrative, well, those songs need to be written. I'd like to work on them, if I only knew how they should go, and if I could let go of my own ambivalence about surrendering to the gospel's bright, dangerous narrative.