The Gospel in Ordinary Time

January 15, 2023
Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

Many of you have met or seen our 2 year old Ammon running around. If you haven’t, he will be the one skipping back down the aisle after offering. We really enjoyed the Christmas season this year. This has been the first Christmas where we’ve been able to talk a bit with him about what is going on. He got really into Advent—we had to light our Advent wreath at every meal, we would bring out one character in our nativity each week and talk about them, and Ammon loves singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. Then came Christmas—the excitement of Jesus coming, presents, and time with his grandparents and cousins, saying Merry Christmas to people, singing Jingle Bell Rock. As it is for many people, the month of December was a big emotional high for him. But last weekend, we put away our decorations, took down the tree ornaments, packed away the lights and the Advent wreath and said “bye bye” to Christmas. “Christmas went Bye Bye,” as Ammon likes to say. This last week, every day Ammon has reminded us that it is no longer Christmas. Advent Candles went Bye Bye.

Today is the beginning of a season in the church year often referred to as Ordinary Time. Though the origin of that name is the Latin word ordinalis having to do with counting, or like a rhythm of life, it encapsulates the periods of the liturgical year that aren’t specifically part of the major feasts of Advent, Christmas,  Easter and Pentecost. Though Ordinary is not meant to imply dull or mundane, could there be a better word for the first days of January after Christmas? If any month embodies Ordinary Time to the max, it is January. Thirty-one days of cold, grey days, warm weather still at least 2 months away.

Even the Gospel reading for today doesn’t seem to be especially exciting. John the Baptist points out Jesus to the crowds, but that’s about it. The Fourth Gospel presents a much more mundane picture of John the Baptist than Matthew, Mark, Or Luke. In the Synoptic Gospels, John is a fiery preacher dressed in clothes made of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey out in the wilderness like Elijah. He preaches repentance, calls religious leaders a brood of vipers, and sets himself up as a political enemy of Herod. But in the 4th gospel, the author works hard to paint a different portrait. Even before we get to the verses we read today, the opening of the gospel—the very poetic prologue, “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God,” which describes the pre-existent nature of Jesus, the very Word of God, the light, grand theological ideas, includes a parenthesis about John the Baptist in verse 6: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  We hear some echoes there of our Isaiah passage as well.

It’s as if the gospel writer wants to announce in bold letters: John the Baptist, ordinary guy. No dramatic origin story like Luke’s gospel. When the Pharisees send messengers to ask why is he baptizing, he doesn’t call them out, he simply replies that he is doing, essentially, ritual cleansing as preparation for the one who bestows the Spirit. This telling of the gospel wants to make sure we know that John’s role is simply a witness to Jesus—he points to the Lamb of God.

The second half of the text for today likewise doesn’t seem to have much going on. Disciples start following Jesus, they check out Jesus’s digs, but no great signs and wonders. No water into wine, nothing.

So here we are, on the first Sunday in Ordinary Time with a rather ordinary Gospel text which is at least in part about a rather ordinary person, John the Baptist, whose primary function is to point to the extraordinary work of God taking place in Jesus: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Son of God, the Rabbi, the Messiah. He’s the important one.

It seems to me that John’s Gospel glories in the ordinary.  When Jesus prevents the execution of a woman caught in adultery, John tells us that Jesus stoops down to play in the sand. To heal a man born blind, Jesus makes some mud with his own spit and rubs it in his eyes. He cries at Lazarus’ death. In chapter 13, Jesus performs the mundane task of washing his disciples’ feet. Ordinary. When Jesus is raised from the dead in chapter 20, Mary mistakes him for a gardener. What was Jesus doing to cause this confusion? Was he pruning olive trees? Pulling weeds? Covered in dirt? How delightfully ordinary. In the final chapter of the gospel, Jesus comes upon his disciples who have returned to the ordinary work of fishing.

So much of our lives takes place in the ordinary. We have cyclical moments of celebration and sadness—anniversaries, birthdays—but our simple, ordinary rhythms of life are where we are found most of the time. Going to the grocery store, taking kids to school, making dinner, changing diapers. I think about that last one a lot as a stay at home parent. I appreciate that this gospel, often referred to as the “Spiritual Gospel” contains a spirituality with a vested interest in the ordinary. The Spirit is moving in the ordinary.

But there is a little more here than meets the eye. We should not equate ordinary with unimportant. John’s gospel emphasizes John the Baptist’s role as a witness, yes. John the Baptist is not the center of the story. The fourth gospel begins by re-setting our focus on Jesus, but not because witnesses are unimportant. In fact, quite the opposite. The entire gospel of John is concerned with questions of witness from ordinary people. Besides John the Baptist, there is the Samaritan Woman in Chapter 4, the sick man at the pool in Chapter 5, and Thomas at the end of the Gospel, to name just a few. All of these people experience some aspect of the liberating work of God in Christ or have caught a vision of what it could mean when God pitches a tent among humanity. They are witnesses of and to the liberation of God, not despite of their ordinariness, but because of it.

Meanwhile, Jesus himself is providing testimony to the deeper, grander work of God. The first half of this gospel is often called the Book of Signs because Jesus keeps doing things that are meant to point these ordinary witnesses to the one who has sent him: turning water into Wine, feeding the 5000, raising Lazarus from the dead. Witnesses point others to Jesus, Jesus points to God. As the reading from Isaiah 49 suggests, Jesus is to be a light to the nations in order to point to the salvation of God.

In our Gospel reading,  John the Baptist remarks that he has seen the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus and remain on him. In Greek, this is the same verb used later on in Chapter 14 where Jesus describes the Holy Spirit coming to abide with the disciples, and in chapter 15 where over and over they are charged to abide in Jesus. The sense is that the Spirit will enable disciples to abide in Jesus, and those who abide in Jesus are sent out to bear fruit. Abide and Go. That’s the message of John’s Gospel in three words, Abide AND Go. Different movements in the church have been guilty of preferring one or the other of these, but that is a different sermon. Those who go with the Spirit will, even in the ordinariness of life, be equipped to do something of worth: bear witness to the liberation of God and the new creation which is at hand through Jesus. John 15:26 tells us, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”

Now, here, there might be some bristling at the notion of testifying, “sharing your faith,” or being a witness. Maybe it evokes images of people handing out tracts or knocking on doors. Certain sects of Christianity have often focused so much on a particular understanding of witness—often times making use of a narrow understanding of the word “belief” notably in John’s gospel, like John 3:16—that the word understandably carries a negative connotation for many people, especially in a pluralistic society, and especially for people cognizant of colonial legacies left by similarly intentioned Christians.

But I want to suggest that we needn’t let the worst examples of witness color what it is Jesus is actually calling us into.

On this weekend, I think about the impact of an ordinary preacher from Atlanta who was thrust into leadership of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. This weekend, the church and the world remember a man whose life bore witness to a deeper reality than most people have ever been able to see or imagine. Dr. King was many things, a gifted orator, a champion of the poor, a committed pacifist, and of course a stalwart crusader for the dignity of Black people. He is often called a prophet because he too, like the Hebrew prophets or like John the Baptist in the Synoptic Gospels, called on the United States to live up its purported values, awakened a moral conscience among white Americans, and called on the US to repent of the sin of racism.

But like the portrayal of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John, there is another dimension to Dr. King: he was simply a witness. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was Martin. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

We know the preacher King, the prophet King, the pastor King, the activist King, but central to Dr. King’s ideology was something that transcends the language of rights and the legal guarantee of freedom by the government, which can be useful to protect people and their basic humanity, but doesn’t transform. Dr. King had caught hold of a vision called the Beloved Community and like John the Baptist in the 4th Gospel, everything he did was intended to point towards the possibility of a reality greater than the one experienced in his day. Dr. King knew that the tactics of the Civil Rights movement were secondary to a higher aim, the transformation, redemption, and mutual friendship of the opponent.

Of course, white people have often been guilty of fixating on the “Dream” of Dr. King without being willing to do the work to end the triple threats of racism, capitalism, and militarism that prevent its realization. For us, we would do well to learn from John the Baptist: bearing witness to the Beloved Community means we are not the center of the story. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, for those who follow Jesus in faithfulness to the vision of Shalom and Beloved Community and the in-breaking reality of God’s reign on earth, the cross is part of the vocation of discipleship. It is no accident that the words Witness and Martyr are the same in Greek. To bear witness with one’s life to something different than consensus reality is to provoke violence, sometimes from the state or other systems, yes. But there is also an internal violence at work in each of us that is tries to stop us from saying Yes to God’s vision for humanity. It tells us things like,  “White people have had it hard too—I had to work hard to get here, nobody gave me anything.” Or “Black people have all the same opportunities as white people now—why are they complaining? Or  “You don’t have time to do anything useful.” Or, “Leave that to the young people without a job or kids to worry about.” Or “You’ve already helped enough when you were in you 20’s.”  Being a disciple, a witness as Jesus calls us to, requires us to die, if not literally. Die to our selfishness, die to our own sense of supremacy, die to our own belief that we are Special or Extraordinary, or that we have authored our own success, and just as importantly, to die to the myth that our ordinariness is an argument against our participation. We are not the center of the story, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to participate in its performance.

I don’t think Dr. King envisioned for himself the tumultuous and extraordinary life he ended up living. We tend to ascribe super-human qualities to our heroes, to towering and influential figures in history. Maybe that removes some pressure from us, some guilt that we haven’t done enough. But like it or not, in most things Dr. King was an ordinary person. Yet, I am convinced that it was in abiding in Jesus that he was able to listen to the voice of the Spirit when she nudged him into something that became extraordinary. He frequently described one such nudge when he was full of fear of what might happen if he continued in his work, after receiving a phone call late at night threatening to blow up his house if he didn’t leave town in 3 days. He wrote, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’” If only more people who call themselves Christian would listen to the Spirit say such things.

In John chapter 20, after the resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples together. He speaks a word of peace to them and then does something incredibly ordinary: he breathes on them. There is probably no more ordinary action than taking a breath and releasing it. He breathes on them as one new creation, recalling the breath of God in Genesis, breathing a new life into them together, one animated by the Holy Spirit, who blows where she will. There is, in this breath, an invitation to listen, to discern how the Spirit may lead disciples to bear witness to the new creation inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What will they, we, say “yes” to that they, we, previously would never have imagined? How will their, our, lives become a testimony to the vision of Beloved Community?

Beloved, if we abide in Jesus, catch hold of his vision in our ordinary lives, and allow the very breath of God to animate us, it very well might lead to a life, together, that is more than ordinary.