It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

(sermon 21/8/19 – Second Sunday of Advent)

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Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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This always seemed like an odd week in Advent to me. We start off with this beautiful passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, where he speaks so eloquently about this wonderful future time of peace, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on – and then we hear this second reading, about wild, cranky, angry John the Baptist, insulting the people standing around listening to him, calling them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, I get the idea of John’s call to repentance fitting in with the focus of Advent, but his whole attitude seems more than a bit off-putting, especially this week when our Advent litany recognizes the peace embodied in the coming of Christ. It’s like that crazed panhandler that you’re trying to avoid eye contact with while you’re stopped at the traffic signal, who’s yelling at you through the window because you won’t give them any money.

But the more I consider it, I guess I understand it. John knows this passage from Isaiah; he’s read it and heard it many times, and he knows its hopeful vision of a peaceful existence for all the world; and he knows that he’s telling people about this very same vision, this same time, except he’s telling them that it’s about to break into the world. But he looks around, and almost everything he sees is the exact opposite of that vision, and quite simply, he’s ticked. He’s angry at what he sees going on around him, and he’s calling people out for it. What he sees is an existence where sin hasn’t just tainted everything, it’s completely taken over.

At this point, I suppose it would be important to recognize just what it is that John considers that sin to be. Just what is it that a Jew in first-century Palestine would consider sin? The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out that we Christians have often been misinformed, mis-taught, that the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was all about ritual and ritualistic practices; a kind of checklist religion, over against a Christian religion that is supposedly so much different from that, when in fact Judaism then wasn’t any more ritual-based than Christianity is. She goes on to explain that the Jewish concept of sin, then, wasn’t that some set of ritualistic traditions hadn’t been adhered to – but rather, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, whenever sin is discussed, whenever it’s identified, almost without exception it refers to attitudes and especially actions that have the effect of mistreating or hurting other people. Did you hear that? Almost every single description of sin details actions that hurt other people. Actions that treat others without justice, or mercy; actions that exploit or cheat others from enjoying the same existence that a person wants for themselves. It’s a virtual constant in the Hebrew scriptures, and we see the exact same message in Jesus’ words in the gospels.

So John looks around him and sees a society that is completely under the thumb of the Roman occupation. Oh, sure, Rome has given the Jews some degree of autonomy in their local governance and their religion, but not much – they’re on a pretty tight reign. The people are paying heavy taxes to a faraway empire and have very limited freedoms. People are being treated unjustly and abusively. And any time they get even a little bit out of line, the violent power of Rome comes crushing down on them, making sure they understand who’s really in charge. And adding insult to injury, some of their own people are collaborating with Rome to impose the dictates of this occupying force, simply because they realize that if they go along with the Roman occupiers, things will go well for them, and they don’t want to upset their own relative comfort and well-being.

John sees all this – how the people, especially the poor, are being mistreated and exploited. How God’s commands for caring for the widow and orphan, the sick and poor, are being ignored. And he gets mad. He recognizes that this just isn’t the way things should be, especially now, as God has told him that this eternal peaceful kingdom is about to break into the world. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. You brood of vipers, you poisonous snakes, change your ways, now, before it’s too late.

And now, as we think about this future time of peace ourselves, we look around us and we see the same thing. We see a society, a culture, that in so many ways seems to have gone off the rails. Poor people – men, women, and children; young and old – who can’t find work and who don’t have enough money to eat are being kicked off of federal food assistance. People legally entering the country seeking refugee status are illegally jailed, and families are separated, often without any plan for reunification, in violation of federal law, international treaties, Christian moral teaching, and just plain common sense and decency. People of color are enduring generations of injustice, being mauled in a criminal justice system designed to destroy individuals and families in multiple ways, and to deprive them of the right to vote, and to essentially create a perfectly legal replacement to Jim Crow society and a return to near-slave era conditions. One particular religious group imposing its narrow, burdensome, discriminatory beliefs on the entire society. Innocent men, women, and children becoming victims of human sacrifice to the false god of gun proliferation. A consumer culture that brainwashes us from before we’re even out of the cradle that we should want everything that we don’t have, and more of everything we already do; and that our worth as human beings isn’t that we’re loved by God and that we’ve been created in God’s image, but instead, our worth is measured by the worth of our stuff. Government leaders who rule with impunity, with no sense of accountability or ethics, only out for their own personal gain at the expense of all of us. Thousands of people being bankrupted every year by outrageous healthcare costs charged by for-profit healthcare corporations, or even dying simply for lack of health insurance or affordable life-saving prescriptions. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, with nationalist groups, the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-Fascism all despite our thoughts that it could never happen here. But it’s happening here.

If you can see all of those things and not be every bit as mad as John the Baptist, you’re just not paying attention. Just John saw what he saw, we can see and know that this isn’t the way things should be. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That we need to repent from these kinds of things in our own personal lives, to be sure, but also that there are systems at work in our society that are causing and enabling these problems in ways far worse than we could ever cause them on our own. We’re all inescapably enmeshed in these harmful, these sinful, systems. Thinking about all of those things makes John the Baptist’s calling people out as a brood of vipers sounds almost tame.

As a congregation, we’ve signed on to the Matthew 25 vision. Next month, I’ll host a three-week Bible study that focuses on Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew 25 in particular, and just what the whole Matthew 25 emphasis really means to us as a congregation, here, where the rubber meets the road. But as a bit of a preview, I can say that it has a lot to do with exactly that kind of turning away from the current ways, and turning toward God’s ways, that John was calling for in this passage. The Matthew 25 vision echoes the idea that all those things don’t have to be that way, and it calls us to taking concrete steps to try to change them.

John was so upset, so angry, because he could see that same vision that Isaiah saw and told about. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and peaceful. And while we can’t create that final, ultimate peaceful world that only Christ will finally usher in some day, having that vision in our minds is enough for us to see that the current world could be so much better, so much more just, so much more peaceful, than it is now – and that by turning our lives, and especially our social systems and structures, toward God’s paths, toward God’s standards of compassion, and mercy, and justice, we’ll be adding just that much more straw into the manger in preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, and in hope of his eventual return and establishing that wonderful world that Isaiah and John  saw. So have righteous anger at what you see – but don’t stay in the anger. Let that anger become repentance, and let that repentance become action, and in that action, find hope. Hold on to that hope, because those words from Isaiah, and from John, are true; that peace, that shalom, is coming.

Thanks be to God.

 

“None Shall Pass”

(sermon 12/4/16 – Advent 2A)

black-knight

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

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They all stood there on the platform, waiting for the next subway train to come along. It wasn’t as crowded now, on the weekend, as it would have been on a weekday, but that also meant the trains were scheduled a bit further apart. They had a little bit of a wait, standing there in the stale air filed with the sometimes-questionable aromas that seemed to be typical of all subway stations, but it wasn’t so bad – there was a pretty good guitar player playing a little further down on the platform, and more importantly, they were excited about where they were going on their little weekend day trip. Just then, the next train came along; whooshing a gust of air into their faces as it went by, then gradually coming to a stop. Soon enough the doors opened, and a handful of people got off, and then they hopped on and quickly got their seats, just in time to hear the familiar “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” and with that, they were on their way.

The subway was just the first leg of their trip, getting them to the main train station. There, they hopped on a train that went far out of the downtown core. It poked  up out of the ground in the middle of working-class apartment blocks, graffiti-covered warehouses, sidewalk vendors selling bootleg everything, and mom-and-pop bodegas, and then it kept going – out beyond all the urban buildup, first out into the nicer, quieter, suburban neighborhoods, and then even further – out into the remote, undeveloped area, well past the immediate influence of the city itself. Even though it really wasn’t all that far a distance, and it was a relatively short train ride in real time, from their vantage point this was out in the middle of nowhere; they were out in the wilderness. And then they arrived. The train stopped and over the garbled, barely understandable PA system they heard, “This stop is the end of the line; all passengers must depart the train here.” And that was exactly their plan. From here, they’d go out a bit more; maybe on foot, or maybe a cab or Uber if they got lucky, but that didn’t seem likely given that the stop was such a tiny place it really could barely even be called a town. They were headed out to a spot along the shoreline of the river to see this man who had become famous practically overnight; this man who just went by the single name, John. YouTube videos of this crazy-looking man had gone viral; news crews had come out and reported on him. Everyone in the city was talking about him. Everyone was trying to get out here to catch him in person, to see what he was all about, with his outrageous look, his big, booming voice, the wild eyes, and his fire and brimstone preaching that the Kingdom of God was near – that God was just about to step into the world in a powerful way, and that they needed to turn their lives around, get right with God, to prepare themselves for that.  So they all came out to see him. Some people thought he was right on target; he was just what people needed to hear. Some people thought he was crazy. Other people thought he was just a huckster, a con man looking for some kind of payoff on the backside of all this theater. Some of them laughed at what they thought was just melodramatic shtick; yelling at people, insulting them, calling them children of snakes and other colorful things, and even getting people to wade out into the river, supposedly to cleanse themselves of their sins and be made whole and new – when the reality was that given the murkiness of the water along this particular stretch of the river, they probably came out dirtier than when they went in. Still, lots of people heard what he was preaching, and waded on out there. Whether they thought he was nuts, or a con man, or they took what he was saying to heart, the one sure thing was that they’d all remember him, and what he’d said, long after they got back on the train and made their way home in the city.

Well – maybe going out of the city and going out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist wasn’t quite like that, but it was probably something very similar. And it’s true – John the Baptist was definitely a memorable person. He was part of the long line of biblical prophets who made their point, who drove home the message that God was telling them to convey, in ways that were often quite memorable, even shocking at times – some of the outrageous things they did to get people’s attention make even the most shocking of actions taken by today’s protestors look bush league by comparison. And every year during the season of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist again. Right in the middle of the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas, right in the middle of Advent talk of hope, and peace, and joy, and love… we come face to face with John. Weird John. Socially Unacceptable John. Scary John. As I said in the Thursday email, for people of my generation, he’s kind of the Advent equivalent of the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sternly warning that “None shall pass!” to all the joy of Christmas, without first encountering him, and all the potential discomfort that he, and his message, bring to us.

John demands that before we can move past him, we first have to seriously examine our lives. We have to see where we’ve followed ways that aren’t God’s ways, and change that. We have to repent – to turn away from those ways, and get back on course, on God’s path. And honesty, no matter how weird John is, and how discomforting it is to do what he tells us, he’s right – we really do have to do it. Because just as you can’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the dread of Good Friday, neither can you get to the full joy of Christmas without the serious reflection, and self-awareness of just how much we need it to begin with.

I know that repentance isn’t a very popular idea. We tend to think of repentance in very negative terms – that we’re supposed to be sorry, very sorry, abject, groveling-in-the-dirt sorry. We can think we’re supposed to feel like garbage when we repent, and if we don’t, then we aren’t doing it right.

Well, we are supposed to be sorry for the ways that we’re not following God’s guidance in our lives; that will always be at last a part of repentance. But as I invite you to do that self-reflection, examining what you should repent of, I also invite you to do it in a more constructive manner than just that. Think of it in terms of just taking a serious look at your life and seeing how you can do better in the future, and move forward from where you are now. Thinking of repentance that way might still be a little discomforting, but maybe it isn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

If you do examine your life, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you need to repent, that you need to turn from. And it might even be a bit overwhelming, thinking about how you could possibly make so much change. So maybe during Advent, you could focus in on just one of those things – pick one thing that you want to ask for God’s help in turning around, and improving; making your life more consistent with God’s will. And since today, we lit the candle of peace, maybe that can be how you’ll pick that one thing: is there something in your life that you can change that would establish, or maintain, or improve, peace? That might be peace within your own soul; allowing yourself to forgive yourself for something in your past. Maybe it’s peace between you and a family member, or friend, or acquaintance; maybe finding a way to make peace and move forward in your relationship. Maybe it’s a larger kind of peace that you could work for; some kind of social justice in the world, because we all know that true justice is necessary for any real peace. Whatever it might be that you come up with, hold that thought, and that desire, close to your heart this Advent, and throughout the coming year. Pray for God’s help in making that turnaround, that change. And have the courage to make the change, in every way that you can. Think about this, and pray about it, and work on it. I suspect that if you do focus on how you can be God’s agent of increasing peace in the world – or just in *your* world – it will make this season all the more meaningful, all the more special, because we know that the coming into the world of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is what it’s all about – that’s what’s waiting at the end of the line.

Thanks  be to God.

What Do You See? (sermon 12/15/13)

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When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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There’s a beat-up old desk that sits in the library of Pittsburgh Theological seminary. The finish is half worn off, and the veneer is missing in places. Along the back edge of its top, there’s a console full of little pigeonholes and drawers and recesses to hold all sorts of accessories. There’s really nothing very remarkable about the desk at all; under different circumstances, it would have been carted off to the dump years ago But what makes this desk so special is that it used to be the writing desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, who lived and worked in Germany in the years leading up to World War II – and who was arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century. This ratty old desk has become a kind of a shrine, with people sometimes traveling for miles just to see it and get their picture taken with it. This was the desk that Barth used to write volume after volume of deep, profound books. And his essays denouncing Hitler and calling for the church to stand up against the Nazis. And the amazing confession of faith that’s part of our own Book of Confessions, the Barmen Declaration. All these works that changed the landscape of modern Christianity were written on the leather-padded top of this old desk. You can just imagine Barth, and his younger protégé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, sitting around this desk, their glasses of beer leaving water stains on its top, while they discussed deep matters of the faith. For my own part, when I was attending seminary there in Pittsburgh as a commuting evening student, I’d drive into town, and if I had a little time before classes began, I’d try to catch a nap in the library. There was a little loveseat that actually sat right up against the desk, and I’d usually grab it to catch a few Zs. But the loveseat was too short for my 6-foot frame to stretch out on, so sometimes, if no one else was around, I’d actually stretch my legs out and prop my feet up on the desktop. I suppose if any of the staff had caught me doing that, they’d have expelled me, or maybe even dragged me out into the quad and burned me at the stake.

Well, not far from where my feet rested, propped up on top of the desk, was a painting. This painting used to hang on the wall in Karl Barth’s study, overtop of the desk, and he sometimes made reference to the painting in his writing. It’s a picture of the crucifixion; a really grotesque image of an ugly, beat up Jesus nailed to the cross, the weight of his body hanging down. Even the crossbar of the cross is drooping down, reflecting the pull of his body. To the left of the picture, we see Mary and the apostle John, and at the right, we see John the Baptist. He’s looking at Jesus, and his arm is stretched out and his finger is pointing at Jesus hanging on the cross, as if he’s telling us “Pay attention to this. Focus on this. This is what matters – him, and only him.”

Our gospel text today deals with John the Baptist. Brash, loudmouthed, socially unacceptable John the Baptist. He’s spent his life calling people to repentance, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is about to be unleashed on the world. He’s heard with his own ears God blessing Jesus at his baptism; he’s seen with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Surely, if there were anyone who could be certain, and have no doubts that Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, the Messiah, it would be John the Baptist. But that wasn’t the case, according to this story. During this ministry, John had been kind of a first-century rock star; throngs of people came out to hear him. But now, he’d been thrown into prison because he’d spoken out against the moral shortcomings of King Herod. How could something like this happen if Jesus was really the Messiah? And as far as he could tell, none of the stuff he’d expected a Messiah would do, were happening. The Romans were still in power. The religious leaders were still making a mockery of the religion.

So John sat in his dark, cramped prison cell, frustrated, confused, probably angry, and definitely full of doubt and fear. His mind wandered as he asked himself, over and over again: Had this all been some kind of cruel joke? Had it all been a waste of time? Had he been deluded about Jesus? So he sent word to Jesus, asking for a clear, no BS answer: cut to the chase – are you the Messiah or not?

Maybe it seems a little odd to have a Lectionary passage like this stuck into the advent and Christmas season. We’re looking forward to the birth of Christ, and the hope and joy that his birth brought into the world. We’re all wrapped up in the whirlwind of holiday activities, and continually being reminded of the happiness that the season is supposed to be all about. So why, then, do we look at a gospel passage that focuses on doubt, and confusion, and fear?

Well, maybe it isn’t so odd after all, if you think about it. Even though we’re supposed to be focusing on the joy of the season, every year there’s a measurable increase in people’s feelings of dread, and doubt, and fear in this season. There are more bouts with depression and requests for counseling, and even an increase in suicides. It’s like all the talk of hope and happiness and joy just magnifies the problems that we really have. Most of us have probably felt that way one time or another. We wonder why unexpected negative things happen in our personal lives. Or maybe the life of the church. Or maybe the world in general. And that translates into spiritual doubts and fears. Let’s face it, we’re all modern, scientifically-savvy people. And all this talk about mysterious, magical-sounding events – virgin births, and angels and other heavenly creatures dropping out of the sky singing and scaring the crap out of the shepherds in the fields, and strange stars that move through the sky and then hover overtop a single house – it makes us wonder, like John the Baptist – is this faith for real? Is Jesus the real item? Is it really worth our time and trouble to try to live out our faith? Or have we all just been suckered into believing some fairy tale made up by a bunch of unsophisticated ancient people who were taken in by just one of many would-be messiahs? The time and the setting are different, but in some ways, some days, we can sit in our own prison cell made out of doubt and fear, and feel just as disappointed and cheated as John must have felt while he sat in jail. And, maybe especially at this time of year, our hearts can ask the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus: Are you for real? Are you the Messiah?

But instead of giving John the kind of black and white answer he’d hoped for, Jesus said, “What do you see? The lame walk. The blind see. All manner of the poor and the suffering have received God’s good news and blessings.”

Jesus’ point was that the kingdom of God had actually already begun to enter the world, through him. It was the entry point of hope, and healing, and God’s acceptance of all the weakest and most doubting and fearful and suffering in the world. The message was that God was here, with them and for them and sustaining them through whatever happened to them. That showed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that he was indeed the Messiah who was ushering it in.

That was the good news that Jesus had for John – that his life’s work and efforts hadn’t been in vain. And it’s good news for us, too. The good news that as we go through this life, and as we deal with its scars and bruises, its setbacks and uncertainties, its discomforts and disagreements and divisions, that God is in the midst of all those situations, walking the path with us, lifting us up, giving us hope, speaking love and support to our hearts.

When we find ourselves asking the same question John asked, Jesus answers us the same way: What do you see? What do you hear? Look at God at work in the lives of my followers, and in the life of the church. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The homeless are being sheltered, the sick are being treated, and the persecuted, oppressed, and discriminated against are all being lifted up and welcomed into God’s unconditional love. All this is confirmation to us that no matter how difficult things may look or feel, God is truly at work in this world. And God is with us through all of our difficulties. This isn’t some fairy tale; it’s real – and Jesus is at the center of it all.

So when we wonder, in the midst of our toughest times, if we’re just kidding ourselves, or if Jesus is truly God’s chosen one, the one worthy of our faith and loyalty – we can look to John the Baptist for advice. The fiery prophet, the take-no-prisoners preacher, the great martyr of the faith – who, even himself, faced these same kinds of doubts. We can look to him, pictured there in that painting over Karl Barth’s desk, and we can follow his bony finger, stretched out and point straight at ugly Jesus on the cross, and him saying “Look to him. Always look to him. What do you see? What do you hear?”

Thanks be to God.