Dec. 31, 2017 // Narrative Yr. 4.17 Christmas 1 // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Endings and Beginnings”: excerpt from “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot; John 1:19-34
We gather here this morning on the threshold of a new year. If we were Scottish, we might have opened the back door, to let 2017 exit. (Don’t let it hit ‘ya in the… on the way out.) Then we’d have run to the front door to fling it wide to welcome 2018 in. (Pleading, perhaps, please, please, please do better for this old world than your predecessor…) My reflective spiritual question for you this morning is… What are your favorite “Year in Review” comedy sketches so far? [pause]
My personal favorite so far comes from the satire department of the Washington Post. It’s called “2017: Year of the News Alert.” In the short video clip, a handful of young-ish adults keep getting dinged with text alerts of breaking news as they try to work, eat breakfast, commute. Ding.
Uh… That’ll probably be okay. Ding.
That doesn’t affect me. Ding.
Well, that doesn’t affect anyone I love. Ding.
Uh… that affects everybody.
[One of them starts “greying” before your eyes.]
Wow. I just aged another 20 years. Ding.
Dry-heave coughing. Ding.
“Stop tweeting!” Ding.
Oh, not again. Ding.
After the cacophony, a beautiful silence settles, in which a simple message appears in text on a soothing gray screen:
“Happy 2018. Turn off your phone sometimes.”
It’s been, a weird year in our world. (Pause)
You can tell it’s been a weird year because even the straight, white men are a little shaky right now. I’m hearing apocalyptic talk from people I least expect to be end-times enthusiasts. Some 9 months ago, after a pause in group conversation, I remember one guy inserting, quietly and solemnly, “This is the beginning of the unraveling.” Out of my side-eye, I wanted to say, “Dude. You’ve read some good science fiction, right? You know that never turns out so well for people of color and refugees and children and women and other minorities, right?” In fact, this weekend, a number of my friends are grieving at the death of Erica Garner, the 27-year-old daughter of Eric Garner, who suffocated in police custody after being wrestled to the ground for selling “loosies,” single cigarettes. Erica died of brain damage following a heart attack. She had been a leader in consistent efforts to raise awareness about excessive use of police force ever since her father’s death as well as foster care advocate. She also had a 3-month-old daughter. The casualties of our broken systems – in this case, systemic racism, don’t stop with the first one down. That’s some of the news forcing its way into our working and living and commuting life. There are others. We are looking right now at the most drastic changes to our tax system we’ve seen for the better part of a century. Non-profits, are especially nervous about what this might mean for the future of their ability to meet local needs with services. And just because it’s another day in the United States of America, there is another active shooter situation in a Denver suburb right now, as we sit. My friend and colleague Jerry Herships appears to be one of those locked down in the immediate radius of several blocks. Is the system unraveling? I can’t tell yet. Pause)
This threshold day is kind of weird spiritually and religiously, too. It’s the second Sunday of Christmas. In the faith narrative, those magi (gesture to banner) have barely had time to make their journey and return, the way T.S. Eliot imagines them making the journey in that poem. And yet in our scripture, we’ve time-traveled 2-3 years and beyond through some 30 more into the future to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Today, that weird character John the Baptist, and his weird ministry, is our companion on this New Year’s Eve. Which may be just right, given 2017. (Pause)
By way of background: Each of the four Evangelists paints a portrait of what we might call the Christ event: how Jesus shows up, how people respond to his life and teaching, his death and his resurrection, and how that ends up making a difference in their lives both at the time and into the future. We call these portraits “gospels” for their Greek designation “the good news,” (evangelion; that’s what “evangelical” originally meant: “good news”) and it’s really a unique form of literature. These are the books about the life of Jesus, and they go by the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but they are not histories or even heroic biographies, they are each unique theologies. Each year in church, we try on one of these perspectives like a pair of glasses. We try to see with that storyteller’s eyes, their interpretation, their ordering of the narrative. Like facets of a gem, each gives us one angle. (We won’t appreciate all four perspectives equally. I give you permission. Sometimes we won’t even appreciate one of the perspectives all the time.) This year, our lens is John.
The community from whom and to whom today’s gospel was written found themselves on a very weird threshold in their First Century world. I can’t tell if things are unraveling in exactly the same ways as we are experiencing, but John’s gospel is odd and unique in some interesting ways. It’s written sometime around 90, decades later than the other three, by our best guess in a community of small school sometimes called “Johannine” and from which we get that fantastic, mind-bending book Revelation, which is very apocalyptic. (Cue: It’s the end of the world as we know it…) John draws deeply from the rich metaphor and imagery of the Torah and Prophets, portraying Jesus much more in relationship to Moses and the “word/act” of the Holy One who calls the world into being as well as offers the people a way of life. And yet, in the lines of John, we see laid bare a deeply painful family fight happening. It’s from John that we get all the painful ramifications of that phrase “the Jews.” So, if we’re going to enter in John’s world this year, we’re going to have to reckon with the anti-Semitism the book has inspired. And maybe it’s just the right time for that, too. At the same time, there is Greek mystical tradition and philosophy in John that still speaks to people today. It is from John that the United Church of Christ took its united and uniting motto: “That they may all be one.” John’s portrait can be divide into two part, the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. Key words to John are “see” and who can see and who can’t, and “witness” and what their witness means. God showing up in flesh was so important to John, that we experience something of the power of the idea of the boundless force of the universe taking on flesh and blood, of the infinite pitching a tent in the skin of the finite. In today’s story, people come asking John the Baptist first about his identity: Who are you? Who are you? John says very pointedly: I Am Not. It’s in direct contrast to later words he puts in Jesus’ mouth: I AM. (Pause) That’s the name you heard from the burning bush story earlier this year, the divine name, that Holy Presence who won’t be boxed, the “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be.” I AM. That sounds like really good news on the threshold of a really weird year, in which previous assumptions are unraveling.
So, my real spiritual, reflective question for us today: On the threshold of this weird year past, and potentially an even weirder year ahead, who is it, or what is it, that you most need? Who is it that we most need? (Pause)
John the Baptist says something strange that we often skip right over. When the people come asking, who are you? he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Among you already stands one whom you do not know. The Baptizer has only recognized Jesus because of the sign of the dove descending at Jesus’ baptism. But John’s name for Jesus isn’t the only name used. As we keep reading in this chapter, the titles for Jesus begin to pile up: the Word, the Light, Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Son of God, Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah, “him about whom Moses and the law and the prophets wrote,” Son of Joseph from Nazareth, Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel, Son of Man (a.k.a. The Human One, not to be confused with Neo of the Matrix trilogy). “Why are there so many names for Jesus?” Gail O’Day asks, “Each disciple sees something different in Jesus and bears witness in their own way. Each disciple came to Jesus with differing expectations and needs – one needed a teacher, another the Messiah, another the fulfillment of Scripture – and each of these needs is met.” Jesus hints that this is only the beginning. Those who are paying attention will see “greater things.” And all the imagery that follows suggests that this divinity showing up in humanity transcends and “outruns traditional categories and titles.” It is I AM. It is “I will be who I will be.” So I wonder, at the threshold of this new year: Who is it that we most need in 2018? Can we bring what we need, at the close of this weird year, to One whose identity we may not fully know nor comprehend… yet?
It’s been a really weird year. Is it a birth? Or is it a death? Or, like the voice of those magi imagined by T.S. Eliot, are the two much less different than we imagine? On the threshold of this really weird year, let’s keep our eyes open as it unfolds.
 The Washington Post, “2017: The Year of the News Alert,” video, accessed online 12/31/2017, https://www.facebook.com/wapodeptofsatire/videos/526000654446794/
 Gail O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, p. 533.