Sunday, January 20, 2008

Calling Names: A Sermon on John 1:29-42

“Calling Names”
John 1:29-42
January 20, 2008

We have this man, this John the Baptist. And frankly, John is a problem for us. Let me count the ways. John is… unconventional, to say the very least. For one thing, John has a habit of crying out—yelling, loudly, in public. I have seen people like this, on the streets in our town, on the subway in the Big City. Everyone looks away. Everyone moves a bit to one side, so that they will not touch the yeller, and the yeller will not touch them. The only good thing, in John’s case, is that he does most of his yelling out in the wilderness, where he will only bother a limited number of people.

Another problem with John: he has difficulty giving a straight answer. Who are you, people ask him, are you the Messiah? No! he yells. Are you Elijah? No! Are you a prophet? No! Well, who are you then? I’m a voice! he cries. In the wilderness! That’s all! A voice, crying out! You begin to see the difficulty. John is not an easy man to get to know. John has… limited social skills.

John also says things that are confusing, and troubling. In our passage today, he quotes himself, saying, He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he is before me! Well, that clears everything up. Also in our passage today, John just out and out calls Jesus by a name. He sees him coming, and he just yells, he cries out, Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! He then goes on to tell a story, the story of how he came to know that Jesus was the Lamb of God. The story involves the fact that John has been baptizing people, and that the One who sent him to baptize told him to look for a sign. (I forgot to mention, John also hears voices.) The sign would be that the Spirit would descend out of heaven, and remain on someone, and that Someone would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And so that’s how John knows that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Lamb of God. John leaves a detail out of this slightly convoluted story, a story he probably tells out of breath and too fast to really understand. The detail is a fairly major one: John has, evidently, baptized Jesus.

This is a pretty big detail to leave out, and one would expect that John, though he is a yeller and a confusing speaker and a hearer-of-voices and a talker-in-circles… one would expect John to recall and recount this fairly central, fairly major point. But he does not. He does not, because this is a problem. John baptizing Jesus is a problem. It is a problem for every gospel writer (though Mark doesn’t appear to think so). It is a problem for two reasons. First, it is a problem because John’s baptism is described as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In every gospel, that’s what it says about John’s baptizing. In every gospel but one: this one. In this gospel, when people ask, Why are you baptizing? John responds in a characteristically circuitous way, not exactly answering. I baptize with water, he says. And another thing: someone else is coming. Later it dawns on him: I came baptizing so that he would be revealed! This is what one writer has called “theological damage control.”[i] This gospel writer, of all the gospel writers, gets what a problem this baptism of repentance is for someone he is calling the Son of God. So, he eliminates it.

John baptizing Jesus is a problem for another reason, as well. It is a problem because, in this culture, this observant Jewish first century Palestinian culture, when you baptize someone, that makes them your follower. That makes them your disciple. It is a problem that Jesus is baptized by John, because that means, at least for a time, that Jesus is a disciple of John, that Jesus is one of John’s followers.

John has an answer for that as well. John says, I came to testify. I came to testify, and I have testified: Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And by calling Jesus that name, John deftly and swiftly diverts the reader from the big problems he has raised, and sends us on another path entirely.

But this has me thinking. What if Jesus was a follower of John? Is that such an unsettling thing? We have these gospels, written for us so that we will know the truth of Jesus, and who he is. And sometimes, the facts (as reported in the gospels) have a distracting way of not quite dovetailing with the truth (as witnessed in the gospels). Let me be clear: in my mind, this does not change or harm the truth. In fact, to me, it makes it more interesting.

So, what if Jesus was a follower of John? And what if, like our president, John had a way of giving his followers little nicknames? We’ve all heard that the President called Michael Brown, the Director of FEMA, “Brownie,” and that he called his Vice President “Quasimodo,” and that Condoleeza Rice is known as the “Unsticker.” (Ask me after church and I’ll tell you his nickname for Karl Rove[ii]; I just can’t bring myself to say it in the pulpit.) What if John the Baptist had nicknames for his followers? What if one was “Tangent Man” and one was “Fasting Boy” and one was “Far Out Pharisee?” What if one was “Lamb of God?”

What if John the Baptist gave Jesus the nickname, the title Lamb of God, and it, kind of, stuck? We’ve all heard stories of how children whose parents call them “My little genius” tend to do better academically than children whose parents have less positive nicknames for them. (I was called “Bullets” for a while. I’m still not sure what that was all about.) We have a way of living into our names, as the presence of pastors named things like “Pastor” and “Divine” would seem to suggest. So, perhaps, John, Hearer-of-Voices, John, Talker-in-Circles, John Testifier-to-the Truth, perhaps he saw something in Jesus. And he called him by this name, Lamb of God. And this name turned out to be predictive, prophetic. Jesus ended up living into this name. Jesus ended up a sacrifice, as truly as any farm animal brought to the temple. Perhaps more truly. John called Jesus by a name, and in the end, Jesus lived into that name.

And then, we have Jesus’ followers. And we notice that, actually, Jesus calls his followers by names, one of them at least. How many names can we come up with for Simon Peter? Simon. Peter. Son of John. Cephas. Rock. Which is interesting, because the gospels also call him, Satan. Stumbling Block (Matthew 16:23). Sleeper. One of Weak Flesh (Matthew 26:40-41). Denier of Jesus (Matthew 26:34). One who Wept Bitterly (Matthew 26:75).

But Jesus does not call him these things. Jesus calls him Cephas, Rock. My rock. The one on whom I will build this church. Jesus calls Peter by a name, and that name sticks. Peter becomes the pre-eminent disciple among the Twelve. Peter becomes the rock. Like a loving mother, Jesus gives Peter a nickname to grow into, to live into. And live into it, he does.

The thing I think we need to remember here is that there is a name Jesus calls us, that Jesus calls everyone who follows him. It is a name we were reminded of in last week’s gospel, a name that was given to Jesus by a voice from heaven at the moment of his baptism. In fact, this name is, in its way, the qualifier of all other names we are called. This name is “Beloved.” So, Peter is really, “Beloved Rock.” Think about it.

What names has Jesus called you? I think when we follow someone, when someone’s our boss, we have to be ready for that Someone to come up with a name for us, and it may not be the one we were expecting. I doubt Special Advisor Karen Hughes saw “Hurricane Karen” coming, but that was the name her boss gave her, and in many respects, it stuck. What names has Jesus called you? There was someone in this church who was “The Christmas Tree Lady; she and her family have moved south now, but I think she will forever be known by that name here. There are people in every church who go by names like “Property Guy” and “Mission Man,” names like “Flower Lady” and “Choir Girl.” But you know, we have to be careful. There are names we give one another in church and at home, in school and in our extracurricular activities. There are names we give one another and ourselves. But we have to be careful not to confuse those with the names Jesus gives us.

Perhaps the church calls you “The Property Guy,” but Jesus has called you “Beloved Teacher.” Maybe the church knows you as “The Flower Lady,” but Jesus has, in fact, called you, “Beloved Mystic.” We keep calling you, “Cookie Mom.” And Jesus calls you “Beloved Agitator.”

We have to be most careful of all not to confuse the names Jesus gives us with the names we give ourselves. Names like, “Bad Daughter.” “Lazy Employee.” We call ourselves all sorts of horrible things… have you noticed that? “Failure.” “Fat.” “Forgetter.” And through it all, Jesus keeps calling us, “Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.”

So I ask you, to begin the process of listening hard for the names by which Jesus is calling you. Listen hard… listen as hard as that strange and troubling Talker-in Circles, Hearer-of-Voices, John the Baptist. Listen past the cacophony of names—even those names our society suggests should be welcome, but which sometimes come with an overlay of pain and grief—names like Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Spouse, Partner, Grandfather, Great Aunt. Listen past the noise of the church-given names—even the welcome ones—like Pastor and Deacon and Elder and Sexton and Chairperson and Clerk and Giver and Volunteer. Listen past the terrible ones we sometimes give ourselves… we don’t need to speak those out loud any more, they are already so ingrained. Listen, hard, and hear, first and foremost, Beloved. Beloved. Beloved. And then listen some more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Dominic Crossan,
[ii] “Turd Blossom”; you see why I couldn’t say it from the pulpit.
Image: St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci.


steve said...

I really loved reading this. Thank you, Mags.

I have to admit that as I thought about John's eccentricities, I found myself wondering if they may have had anything to do with why Jesus didn't stick around in his company for long... =)

Mother Laura said...

Your preaching is always so amazing. Godde's names for us versus the names we give for each other--and hers always beloved, beloved, beloved. Yes.

gordbrown said...

Hello. Thank you very much for the note up thread about my Dad. He passed away Sunday night.

I was going to apologize for being off topic, but actually, I think I am on topic. My father modelled in ways real and tangible to me the grace of Jesus because of his unconditional love for me and the people around him. My father was a pillar of his community (Mayor in fact) and a pillar of the Church and always had mighty big shoes to fill. But he was proud of me, whether I deserved it or not. Your thoughts on "beloved" brought this very much home to me. So thank you again.

Magdalene6127 said...

(((Gord))) May your father rest in peace and rise in glory, friend.

sharecropper said...

Wow! I do think we're on the same track! Thanks for the sermon; I needed that. Especially the part about where we give ourselves names.

My partner's friend who was here a moment ago complimented me on the great job I had done in redesigning the central part of our house. Now, I think I'll call myself Space Maker. OOOOO! What thoughts that name brings to mind. Do I make space for people, for things, for ideas?

What fun!