It isn’t so surprising, really, that no one noticed him. After all, there was quite a scene happening, and he was far from the center of the action. He was standing on the edge of a growing crowd made up of a hodge podge of religious fanatics, seekers, skeptics, and the merely curious. At the heart of the crowd was a cluster of powerful men – priests from the Levitical tribe, leaders of the synagogue, members of the liturgical elite. And in the center of it all was John, his feet still wet from the water of the Jordan, his eyes bright with the passion of clarity and purpose.
So it isn’t so surprising that no one noticed one quiet, undistinguished man standing alone outside the crowd. After all, he wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the showdown happening in the center. Now, I say showdown, but it was more of a conversation, really, and not a particularly unexpected conversation either. The people standing around this inner circle of baptizer and priests had been saying for weeks that it wouldn’t be too long before the temple in Jerusalem sent envoys out into the desert to check out this wilderness prophet. And there they were, just as expected. The priests and Levites, faithful servants of the Lord and his temple, had finally come to find out who John was…and who John thought he was, what he was doing…and why he thought he was allowed to do it.
These are not surprising questions. After all, these men were experts in ritual purification. These were the priests who were responsible for the offerings in the temple, those sacrifices of blood and flesh and food that were intended to make right one’s relationship with God. So if this John was offering a baptism that was intended to do the same thing, well, then, it made sense that these priests would want to come see for themselves.
So on the surface, this conversation is nothing more than a kind of on-site inspection. Who are you, what are you doing, do you have the proper licenses and permits. But almost immediately, John makes this routine review something far more extraordinary, far more entertaining for the gathering crowds. Because right away, without an ounce of fear or irony, John says the word, “Messiah.” And suddenly this conversation is not just about the technicalities of ritual law; suddenly this conversation is about that thing that is of ultimate importance: the Savior, the Son of Man, the Hope that lies in the heart of every faithful Jew. And John has the audacity to say that that Hope, that Messiah, is coming – not someday-my-prince-will-come coming, but coming right now. In fact, John says, he is already among you. He is already here.
Now this is a surprise. The Messiah is here? Already? But where are all the signs and portents? And where the heck is Elijah? He’s supposed to come first, isn’t he? The priests and Levites take a breath as if to speak, but let it out again. They shake their heads, fold in to one another, and the conversation is over. The show suddenly ended and the curtain closed, the people begin to wander off in twos and threes, some following John back to the Jordan, some heading to their homes, others hanging around to see if anyone else has anything interesting to say.
But still no one notices the man who continues to stand very still as the current of the crowd swirls around him. No one, that is, except John, who gives his cousin a nod and a serious smile before he heads back down to the water. John knows that it is not yet time. And John knows what to do in the meantime. He is to wait, and hope, and keep his feet wet. All while the man continues to stand alone, watching these beautiful, broken people, feeling their excitement and their longing, knowing that their world has already begun to change. He stands, waiting for the moment when he will move into the center, for the moment when he will finally transform everything, for everyone, for all time. He stands, the one they are all desperately searching for, already there.
It isn’t surprising, really, that we don’t notice him, either. There is so much in our lives that grabs at our attention. The scene at the center is so often taken up by other things, some very, very good, and some horrid. It can be taken up by brilliant conversation or by gossip, by a great love or by infatuation, by the appreciation of art and music and dance or by acquisition of things and things and more things, by the full agenda that feeds our hearts or by the busyness that empties our souls, by the conviction that leads to righteous action or by the undirected anger that leads to destruction, by the celebration of health and the beauty of our bodies or by the objectification and harassment of those bodies, or the sickening terror upon hearing the word “cancer,” or the slow agony of watching a family member slide into depression or dementia.
In the presence of these scenes – some good, some bad, some merely diverting, some wholly arresting – it is no wonder that we don’t always notice him. Even when we pray or come to worship, looking for him, hoping that he will come to us, that he will fix this, forgive this, free us from this, we sometimes just don’t notice him.
But he is already there. He is there when we are blessed or brokenhearted, when we are praised or persecuted, when we make merry and when we mourn. He is there with the oppressed, with the captives, with the prisoners. He is there in the ruined cities and in the former devastations. He is there with the missing, the abused, and the lost. He is there with those who march in protest, in Hong Kong and Ferguson and Washington, D.C. He is there with the families of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, just as he is there with the police officers who shot them. He is there with women who have been raped and received no justice, just as he is there with the men who raped them. He is there in Olney, in Kensington, in Frankford, with the drug-dealers and prostitutes just as he is there with the priests who minister to them. He is there in our city schools, he is there in City Hall, he is there in the halls of Congress. He is already there.
And he is there with you. He is there with you at your home and at your work. He is there with you in the hospital and in the nursing home. He is there with you in your families and in the strangers you pass on the street. He is there with you at your sleeping and at your waking. He is there with you in your Advent and in your “Christmas season.” He is there with you in your pew and on this altar. He is already there.
He is already there, and that has changed everything. But he has not yet come fully to the center, not yet come again in great power and glory, putting all things in subjection under his feet. So what do we do to notice him in the meantime? We do what John did. For even with all his self-proclaimed unworthiness in the face of the one who will come after him and baptize with the Holy Spirit, John continued to baptize with water. He just kept doing the thing that he did.
Now if John was unworthy even to untie the thong of his sandal, surely you and I are unworthy to take out the recycling bin that holds the shoe box that his sandals came in. But we can still keep doing the thing that we do, with the passion of clarity and purpose. We can teach and preach, sing and bake. We can fix policies and fix bones, we can study and sell and serve and stitch. We can do that thing that we do, and we can do what we can. If he will come again to restore all of Creation, we can at least bring our own bag to the grocery store. If he will come again to cover us all with the garments of salvation, we can at least knit a scarf for a Soup Bowl guest. If he will come again in great power to judge the living and the dead, we can at least stop judging ourselves. If he will come again to execute judgment and righteousness, we can speak out against marriage inequality, unequal pay for equal work, and systematic torture, and we can speak up when we see the ugliness of racism in this city, especially those of us who are white and therefore privileged.
This is how we notice that he is there. Because when we walk in his way, we find the true center – of our hearts, of our lives, of our own priesthoods. And in that center he stands, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, already there. O come, let us notice him.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
14 December 2014
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia