Listening to the Gospel story of John the Baptist declaring that Jesus is the real Messiah makes me think it must be nice to have things spelled out so clearly, to have God’s truth be made so obvious. “There! There stands God’s truth. Just do what he says and all will be well.” It would be nice but it is not likely. Such clarity is available in hindsight but not in the murky present in which we are required to live or the impenetrable future we are required to enter. The Gospel writer tells this story because many people still believed that John was the messiah, not Jesus. John the Baptist may well have said just what John the Gospel writer records but it could not have been very clear because in those days messiahs were like presidential hopefuls—anyone who could make a decent speech had somebody thinking they might be the chosen one. God’s truth was then and is now hard to recognize for certain but it can be done. Let’s think together about finding and following God’s truth in a confusing present on the edge of an unknowable future.
This weekend our nation is pausing to remember a man who tried to tell us God’s truth. Martin Luther King, like John the Baptist in the Gospel, tried to identify God’s truth for us. What God wants, he said, is to expand the rights and responsibilities of community to those who have been excluded and extend the reach of dignity to those who have been denied it. Half a century later his message feels like a no-brainer, of course, that was right! But at the time it was not so clear. I speak only for myself, but I do not think my story is the least bit unique. I was raised in a segregated world and it was all I had known. Consequently changes to that structure were threatening in a very basic sense. To be perfectly honest, the system of segregation gave me and people like me a comfortable slot near the top, so there was very little that made changing the system personally attractive. I was not immediately drawn to Dr. King’s truth. The situation seemed to be a hopeless mix of what ought to be done, what could be done, what should never be done, and what must be done. But as Dr. King wrote from Birmingham jail, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered…”
John the Baptist said that an un-credentialed carpenter is God’s Anointed One. The people said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ Martin Luther King said that community and dignity can stretch to include those to whom it has been denied. The people said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ In spite of such skepticism, God’s truth has a way of pressing itself upon us, emerging from confusion to clarity, from ‘how could that be’ to ‘how could we have thought otherwise.’ It happened in John’s day and in Martin’s day. And it is happening now.
- We worry about illegal immigration. It has been a problem in this country since the Mayflower landed but it seems particularly acute to us. When we look at it in terms of law we get one clear answer but when we look at it in terms of justice we get a very different answer.
- We sense more often than see or personally feel the wrong that is wrought by the unequal distribution of wealth in this world. We know that most of the clothes we wear and the food we eat come from the hands of those who live as we would never consent to live. We vaguely wonder how long they will be content to live that way.
- We champion the right to bear arms but cannot separate it from the right of drunken idiocy to shoot the innocent as it did on a Florida campus or of madness to do the same in a Tucson shopping center.
- In spite of warnings we remain blissfully addicted to spending money we do not have. It is a fantasy that shows up in the credit card debt we allow, the corporate greed we expect, and the political promises we rely on.
All of these and more constitute what looks to us like a hopeless mix of what ought to be done, what could be done, what should never be done, and what is likely to be done. These are the kinds of issues that are likely to be no-brainers to future generations, but to us who live in this murky present facing this particularly unknowable future they are as beyond our reach as the question of picking the right messiah or establishing the right order for society were in an earlier day. What is the answer? I don’t know all of the it but I do know some of it.
The first point is in the Gospel for today. When John said Jesus was the Messiah, a couple of his fellows went over to check him out. When they did, Jesus did not explain everything to them, clear everything up, or tell them what the future would hold. He simply said, “Come and see.” Come and see, act on what you wonder. God’s truth is not ultimately a riddle to be solved; it is a life to be lived, a thing done.
I think it was Samuel Johnson who said that the business of life is drawing adequate conclusions from inadequate information. That is why the ‘come and see’ method is so essential. We discover great truth by acting on the little truths we already know.
To see how that works, look back about 700 years before John and Jesus to a man named Micah. His time was as confusing as any, his future as impenetrable as ever. People were juggling what ought to be done, what could be done, what should never be done, and what was likely to be done, and as usual getting nowhere. Micah said to them and us: Wait a minute! Don’t focus on what you cannot know. Focus on what you do know. He said, “You know what the Lord requires of you. What is it but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Did that solve every question? No. Did it light up the future like a freeway bridge? No. It simply reminds us that while we don’t know everything, we do know some things. And Jesus reminds us that truth is something we do. We can act on what we know.
Those who could not hear John the Baptist said things were not clear enough. Those who could not hear Martin Luther King said the same thing. Those who wring their hands before today’s issues repeat that mantra. And every time we are fooling ourselves. Jesus and Micah, John and Martin are telling us, “Don’t wait for total clarity and gift-wrapped solutions. Do what you already know.” And we know something of what the Lord requires of us.
- We know that justice is more important than law.
- We know that compassion and generosity are sure ways to ease the world’s suffering.
- We know legal rights separated from legal responsibilities are foolish and destructive.
- We know that the fantasy world of debt without payment will not endure.
Clarity of the kind that hindsight wrote into today’s Gospel is nice but not available to the world around us or in the one in front of us. For some that is a reason to shut down and wait for history to happen. For the faithful it is a reason to act on the truths that we do know. John did. Martin did. We can.