St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's House on 14th December 2008 [Advent 3, Year B.]
John 1.6–9, 19–34
One night a week I go to a campus bar to lead discussions. I’m not an old man, but I certainly feel that way at Owens Park bar. Fancy dress is big at this bar. Nurses, doctors, plenty of togas, all sidling up for a drink, approaching from all sides. Curiously the half-naked Incredible Hulk is the most common superhero. Alright, perhaps not so curiously. I often feel out of place there, as old as the hills. For example, there’s a popular club night called “Acceptable in the 90s”; the title is a line from a recent hit single. I was an undergraduate in the 90s; most of the students in OP bar were born in the 1990s. You’re welcome to join me at the bar if you’re ever feeling too young and carefree.
Advent is a time to feel out of out of place. It is a time when God seems to have left us in a foreign land, far from all familiar bearings. When we sing “O come O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”, we remember the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon in the 7th and 6th centuries before Christ. Two weeks ago I suggested that our experience in the church today, at least in cities like Manchester, is like an exile experience. We can remember the time when the church was full and vital and God was faithful, but now it seems God hasn’t kept his promises. It is a time of huge transition in the church, when many churches in Manchester are closing. We are searching for the way home to God in our new situation, and the search is difficult and often painful. But it is a time of hope against hope; when we acknowledge both that the country around us is very strange indeed and that we have no hope but in God and in those around us.
It’s inevitable that we in the church feel a bit like John the Baptist at times in the story from John we just heard. Like me in the OP bar we might feel like we are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, like one wearing the animal skin to the dinner party, saying things just out of step with what’s going on. We missed the email. We never got the Facebook message — in fact, what’s Facebook? And look at the other group in John’s scene — the one sent by the Pharisees to check John out and see why it is he is attracting such interest from the people. They sidle up to John, emerging from the crowd.
“Who are you?” they ask.
John gets to the point. “I am not the Messiah.”
”What then? Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?”
”Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
There’s more than a note of fear here. You can almost imagine them crowding around John, roughing him up a bit, showing him who is boss. Indeed John may well have been a threat to other groups and movements like the Pharisees as well as the early Jesus movement itself. It seems John was a popular figure; he was baptizing people and had followers in the desert, which was why the Jewish group went to find him.
Like the group that was sent to spy on John, we might feel out of touch, unsure of the movements in wider culture, defensive, afraid of what’s happening beyond our control. We might feel threatened about our own position in the scheme of things. I certainly do at times. Are chaplains spies sent by the church to investigate the trends and movements in the student community, like the group the Pharisees sent? I relate to the fear and defensiveness of the group of spies in John’s telling. “Who are you?” is the question the group asks of John. “Who are you?” we in the church ask of these Incredible Hulks and nurses and doctors. “We must have an answer for those who sent us.” John replies: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
It is a strange phrase, isn’t it: one whom you do not know stands among you. Not one familiar to us, but an outsider, an outcast; not one invited and awaited, but an unexpected guest standing among us, to share fully in our human situation — not sent to spy on us or report back on us. An outsider sent out of love, not fear; reconciliation, not judgment; one to dwell here, not swoop past as he gathers data about our world. Perhaps the surprise of this one we do not know is not that he is God but that he is human; one like us whom we do not recognise, do not welcome; one come to share our life, not report back on it. “Among you stands one whom you do not know,” says the prophet — “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
There was one night in the bar when I saw a student came up to me dressed in a bumblebee costume. I figured she had had a few drinks; and obviously, I told myself, she was at the start of a long night out. She pulled a popular philosophy book out of her bag that she was reading. It was a book entitled A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, by André Comte-Sponville. I’m not making this up. Perhaps I should have heard of it as it’s been a bestseller. The student wanted to know if I had read it; I hadn’t. We had a short conversation about it. And I certainly learned that that night that perhaps it was me who needed to learn from the ones I thought I was there to instruct.
Among you stands one whom you do not know — an outcast, a refugee; a student dressed as a bumble bee — one who is not to sent to spy, but who is standing among us. We, too, arrive home at Jesus’ birth from the chill of our exile, if we are open to the one whom we do not know. We, too, arrive home in a brand-new land, if we are open to the newness of ourselves at the hands of the One whom we do not know.