Mere Prayer

Second Sunday After Epiphany/Winter Ordinary Time

Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Winter Ordinary Time (or the Season of Epiphany as some traditions have it) is a good time to pause, following the great feast of Christmas, and the celebrations of Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. We have a few weeks to consider the implications of God becoming one of us, and to make that part of our Christian life together. Today’s scriptures help us to begin Winter Ordinary Time.

Today’s Gospel (John 1:29-34) is a retelling of what we heard last week: Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17).  In comparing John and Matthew, though, the scriptures convey quite different images. In Matthew, John the Baptist is rather reluctant to baptize Jesus: “John would have prevented him,” but Jesus exhorts him to continue.

Yet in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and immediately proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God…. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” Just these first couple verses are extraordinary words by themselves: John has proclaimed multiple statements about Jesus in just a couple sentences. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God, the final Passover sacrifice. Jesus is also pre-existent. Jesus is the Son of God.

Yet these statements are couched with mystery. John the Baptist notes more than once: “I did not know him.” John does not know Jesus with any human certainty. John does not know Jesus,  John the Baptist “came baptizing with water” anyway, in order that Jesus would be made known. Through his act of baptizing people, calling on people to repent and live into the Kingdom of God, John the Baptist does know that the Son of God will be revealed. The way the Son of God will be revealed is that the Holy Spirit will descend and remain.

I think one point emerges for our deeper consideration, which is John the Baptist’s faithful, unwavering action in the service of God. This unwavering action then leads us straight to God’s action in the Holy Spirit.

For example, I imagine how many days, weeks, months, perhaps years, John the Baptist might have been baptizing and preaching, but with no sign of Jesus on the horizon. How many of us might have simply given up? Yet John’s witness reminds us: even in the face of not knowing for sure, perseverance is crucial for Christian faith. I think the nearest parallel for us and our culture today is prayer, and how difficult it can be to live a life of consistent prayer.

American culture is not kind to prayer, nor to consistent pray-ers. In the past decade, I’ve seen multiple derisive conversations on social media about #thoughtsandprayers. “You are in my thoughts and prayers” is often a response a person might give when a Facebook or Twitter friend mentions a tough or sad situation. “You’re in my thoughts and prayers” especially shows up after mass tragedies, like the shooting in my town of Dayton. Yet people have called out these statements, often rightly so, suggesting that “thoughts and prayers” without peoples’ action isn’t worth much.

More than that, I think there’s a sneaking suspicion in the culture at large that prayer doesn’t really “do” anything.  I used to live close to a contemplative order of praying nuns – people who did not feed the poor, or protest nuclear war, or other such things. They just prayed. Sometimes people would comment derisively that this life of prayer was really just a life of comfort without really having to do anything.

Yet consider today’s other scriptures. They exhort us to be “light for the world” (Isaiah), to be a church that is holy (Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians), to “do God’s will” (Psalm 40).

These are mysterious exhortations. What does it mean to be light for the world, to do God’s will? So often these are clouded, especially in a post-Christian culture such as ours, where many different Christian groups claim to be doing God’s will. But some of them act in ways that are very different, opposite even, the kinds of work we in the Ekklesia Project strive to do. Some carry loaded guns into churches, some close up their doors rather than opening them for the poor, some suggest that one’s political party membership equates with one’s allegiance to Christ.

In such a world, how can we go on, except to pray, and to pray unceasingly till we see God’s signs for sure: that here is the Lamb of God, and He is the one we should follow? For God will act, God’s Holy Spirit will come to us. When will this happen? Like John the Baptist, we do not know, but we will live our lives in prayer and hope.

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