St Luke’s, Springfield–John 1:6-8, 19-29
If you’re at all like me, you probably get most of your news these days from the internet. On my laptop, I have a browser tab open to what they call a “news aggregator.” I tell it what topics I’m interested in and it feeds me stories from dozens of different sources. One of the topics I’ve told my news aggregator to be interested in is Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular. There’s a consistent theme to what shows up in my feed: Christianity in general and Anglican Christianity in particular are both in severe decline in the “developed” world—North America and Europe. Both are doing better in Africa and Asia, but, where we live, it’s one grim report after another.
I actually hear a similar story as I visit the churches of the Diocese of Springfield. People are anxious about shrinking membership and advancing average age. If we were to put both of those statistical trends on a graph, it would be pretty clear where the lines lead, and it’s not to a happy place. “How can we get more of ‘them out there’ to join ‘us in here’?” is what I hear over and over again. Is it better youth programs? Adding more “contemporary” music? Better signs? Better website? I have these conversations all over the diocese, and they’re being had all over the Episcopal Church, and, actually, all across the “brand name” lines among Christian communities. We live now in what is surely a “post-Christian” society. Christianity no longer enjoys the perks and privileges that it did for most of our nation’s history. It’s no longer a social expectation to belong to a church, and it’s certainly not, at the present time, in any way “cool.” And if you scratch the surface of the anxiety in church communities, even the ones Episcopalians are envious of, the ones with rock bands and smoke machines and coffee bars in the lobby, it’s quickly apparent that the concern is not about failing in our mission, but about finding more people who can share the financial burden, so we don’t just go “out of business.”
So, in many places, we seem to have adopted a strategy of calling attention to ourselves. In the parish where I was rector in Louisiana 25 years ago, we produced a video about our church and had it copied on hundreds of VHS cassettes, put them in plastic bags, and hung them on doorknobs in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. In my next parish, in central California around the last turn of the century, we produced video ads and paid for them to run on various cable TV channels. And that’s just a couple of examples from my own direct experience, but there are hundreds of other ways churches have tried to call attention to themselves. Some are kind of clever and creative—I like to think the stuff I was involved with fell into that category, but, I must admit, they didn’t really produce any results to speak of—some efforts at calling attention to ourselves are clever and others are kind of silly and boring. But what they all have in common is that they say, “Hey, look at us! We’re doing XYZ!”—whatever you think distinguishes your church from all the others, or from the experience of just not going to church.
But today we encounter the example of John the Baptist. John was certainly an attention-getting figure, with his strange clothing and strange diet and strange behavior. If you were in the same neighborhood with John, you certainly weren’t going to miss him. John’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. He was just the warmup act, not the main event. And our little snippet from the Gospel of John this morning reminds us that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus specifically by not calling attention himself, but by calling attention to Jesus. What we witness in this passage is that John is, in effect, put on trial by the religious authorities of Judaism: “Are you Elijah?” they ask. And John answers, “No.” “Are you the Messiah?” Again, “No.” John always points away from himself and toward Jesus. In fact, if you see a painting or an icon that represents John, chances are you’re going to see him pointing to Jesus. It’s what John was born for, and it’s what he did. “One is coming after me,” John says, “and I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes, let along fill his shoes.”
Is there an example here for us? If we look at the places in the world where Christianity, Anglican and otherwise, is thriving and growing—both in our own “post-Christian” culture and in areas where the faith is “younger” than it is here, where the good news of Christ was planted more recently, places like Tanzania, where we have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Tabora, where people from Springfield have visited—when we look at these places, the common factor we discover is the habit, the unfailing and deeply-engraved habit, of calling attention to Jesus, not to themselves. Thriving churches point to Jesus: It’s not about us and all the great things we have to offer, it’s about Jesus, and who Jesus is, and all the great things Jesus has to offer.
When we call attention to ourselves, we end up boring the world around us with our irrelevance. Imagine how we look to people, with our tens of thousands of different Christian “brand names,” squabbling amongst ourselves for turf. In September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church met for several days in Fairbanks, Alaska. One of the things I learned on that trip was that, during the 1800s, when Christian missionaries were working heroically to bring the gospel to the native peoples of the Alaskan interior, the various Christian bodies soon realized that none of them had the resources to have a presence and work to plant to church in every village. So they did something that was pretty rare in those days: they agreed among themselves to divide the territory. The Anglicans went to some, the Presbyterians to others, and so forth. And it worked! The interior of Alaska became virtually 100% Christian within a few decades. They didn’t point to themselves; they pointed to Jesus. When we point to ourselves, we unintentionally sow seeds of skepticism and cynicism. We lose touch with the point of what we’re doing, and we fail miserably in our mission.
When we make it a habit to call attention to Jesus, we end up being what we’re supposed to be as the Church. Our job is not to change the world, but to announce that God is in the process of changing the world. Our job is not to land the plane of the Kingdom of God, but to be the runway lights for that plane. Our job is to live with one another in love and faithfulness so that we show the world what the Kingdom of God is going to look like when God himself lands the plane.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.