What's Tony Thinking

The Grace of Not Knowing


Here’s my meditation for Advent III, from yesterday’s Advent Vespers. I forgot to hit the “record” button. Sorry. Our next and final Advent Vespers will be next Sunday. As it happens, Advent IV falls on Christmas Eve. I know it’s a busy time, but I hope to see some of you at 4:00 p.m. on December 24. Hope it’s a good week.

Advent III: The Grace of Not Knowing
John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28
December 17, 2023

This week we get John the Baptist again, though this time from the Gospel of John. And that John is not, by the way, the same one as John the Baptist. The Gospel of John is named for, attributed to, one of the disciples. I know, confusing. But wait . . .

When we turn to the actual reading from the Gospel of John, confusion abounds. Listen:

“This is the testimony given by John when the religious authorities sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’
“He confessed and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “I am not.”
“‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’
“Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord . . .
“Now they had been sent by the Pharisess. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?
“I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Why all the evasions? What’s going on?

Commentaries often take a political tact. They remind us that some saw John the Baptist as a competitor to Jesus. So just to make sure there’s no confusion, here is John, staying in his lane. He refuses any claim for himself or about himself. It’s not about him. He points away from himself toward the one who is to come.

I think it’s more than church politics, something that we can explain in terms of a power struggle . . .
John does something we desperately need just now. By refusing to let himself be thrust into, pigeon-holed, located in one of the existing categories, John opens things up, he says implicitly, “There’s more here than you know . . . even, he says, than I know. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

It’s so easy, and seems one of the saddest qualities of our times and society, that we put a tag, label, identity on every person or group and that’s the end of it. They are this or they are that. Done. Move on. The desert father, Gregory of Nyssa, said — I love this — “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.” Are we suffering from “wonder deficit anemia?”

Linda has been reading David Brook’s new book, How To Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. Like John the Baptizer, Brooks resists answers, labels and established categories. Instead, he suggests questions, questions that open rather than close. Questions like these:

“What crossroads are you at?” At any moment, most of us are in the middle of some transition. The question helps people focus their’s.
Another, “If the next five years were a chapter in your life, what is that chapter about?”

Not label and dismiss, but open and encounter.

I’m not anointing Brooks as a latter day John the Baptist. But I am saying that we so easily get locked into fixed ways of thinking, into categories and check-boxes, and that all this has a way of ruling out something deeper, something unexpected and life-giving.

We get to impasses, dead-ends. Whether in marriage or relationships, in our work, in our churches, in groups. We then insist on doubling down on what may once worked, but does no longer. While all things are possible with God, it is hard for God to get at us when we are locked into our fixed ideas. Jesus too, we assign him to a box or a theory, and miss the encounter, the mercy.

John prepared the way by refusing the existing categories, by insisting on staying in his lane as the warm-up act. The living God is doing something new, something impossible. “Among you,” said John, “stands one whom you do not know.” What a wonderful phrase. John even says, “I myself did not know him.” As a prophet of Advent, as one who prepares the way for Jesus, John’s way of going about it was to introduce ambiguity, uncertainty. The God who is God is beyond our grasp, our explanations. There is grace beyond our knowing.

One of the great books I read this last year is called “Churches and the Crisis of Decline.” Okay, I get it, that title doesn’t make it sound like a book you’re going to rush out to get, or perhaps even anything that is of interest to you at all. Who wants to read about decline? About churches? How about my problems or the world’s problems? I get it. But, do me a favor . . . stick with me for a moment.

The book operates on a number of levels, with more than one story line. One of those story lines, woven throughout the book, is about a declining church named, aptly enough, St. John the Baptist.

In the internal life of that church there’s an on-going argument in the leadership about what to do about St. John’s decline. One group says, we just need the right pastor, try some new things, get a few new members and we’ll be fine. Call this group the optimists. Then there were the pessimists, who said, “Listen, look at the financials. St. John the Baptist is not sustainable, face facts, people.”

My guess is that at least a few of you are familiar with that kind of discussion.

Well, into the mix at St. John comes a wild-card, a kind of goofy guy, a young man in his late twenties, with wild red hair springing in all directions. He is “Woz,” short for “Wozniack.” Woz who works part-time fixing bicycles has had some issues with drugs. He has shown up now to take care of his grandmother, Jean, who is a beloved member of St. John’s and has cancer. Woz moves in and takes care of his beloved grandma until her death.

Not long after losing his grandma, Woz shows up at St. John’s Bible Study. He says, “Before she died my grandma told me to do three things: see a dentist, save some money and find God.” Woz says he’s on track with the first two, and now he’s here at St. John’s mid-week bible study because, as he tells the group, “I figured you would know how to find God.”

The members of the Bible study are taken aback by Woz’s request. Woz just assumes that, as church people and in a church, they would know, know how to find God.

Awkward silence ensues in the group. Finally, Sue, a real-estate lawyer, who leads the pessimistic “just-look-at-numbers-will-you!” faction at St. John’s says aloud to the group, “Do we?” “Do we know how to find God?” It’s kind of an “the emperor has limited attire” moment. But not just that. It’s more, it’s a kind of confession, “Maybe . . . we don’t have the answers, could there be something — or someone — more?”

It’s as if Woz, this kind of off-the-wall, twenty-something, is a visitor from another world (and given the demographics of many churches, he really is a visitor from another world). In the context of a declining congregation that is debating whether to do something “new,” that will attract new people, or face facts and go gently into the night, Woz asks the question that is simultaneously exactly wrong and also exactly right. Is church a place to find God? “Do we,” as Sue asks the group, “Do we know how to do that?”

Woz’s question shakes up St. John’s church. In time, Woz and his question even re-orient St. John the Baptist. He opens them to possibilities, to places that they had not imagined. They were locked in their “answers.” Woz brought a question for which they did not have answers. He brought questions they no longer knew to ask. Realizing that they didn’t know how to “find God,” they commit themselves to accompany Woz in his search, his longing. With time, they come to a further realization: maybe it is not so much we humans who find God; but God who finds us.

One way we try to find God and fit God to the world we know, is by turning Christianity into a religion of virtue and good works, we moralize it. A religion of virtue tells us that if you are good enough, virtuous enough, then God will love you. It’s the “if/ then” of which I spoke last week. A lot of religion is that, how to get to God.

The gospel is different. It is not about what we must do, but about what God has done and is doing. While a religion of virtue can make us terribly busy and exhausted, a religion of grace says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know . . . In Jesus Christ I have taken your side and will never leave it. Rest in this and live.”

Another story, a story I myself could have told, about a power and grace beyond our control, but which is nonetheless real.

A theologian fatigued by academia, by his administrative responsibilities and deadlines, by his students and classes, flees, to the woods, to a wilderness.

There he hikes frantically all day in pursuit of some glint of God, something extraordinary, some epiphany that casts his burdens into perspective. But the day is ending, the sun lowering, the shadows coming on, and the theologian has come back empty. He has no God sighting to report, no shimmering wonder tucked into his pack. God has refused to be caught, found, captured and controlled.

Toward the end of the day, the theologian passes by a clearing in the woods. Something about the clearing calls to him. As if he were summoned there. He enters the clearing, settles against a fallen log, waiting for what he doesn’t know. Moments passes. “I had been driven all day,” he writes, “in a fevered search for wonder. But this place, however, invited one’s acceptance of it for its own sake alone.”

He hears something in the brush behind him, out of his sight. It is more than a squirrel or bird. Something larger. “I felt not only its weight but also its consciousness — its frightening likeness to myself.”

“A deer made its way right into the clearing where I had been waiting. In fact, she reached the very point where I had first been looking to meet something long moments before. Suddenly she saw me. She stopped fast, stamping her right hoof, moving her head up and down, then from side to side, studying me intently. She wagged her white tail fiercely and seemed to gaze through me with those large, dark eyes.

“For a moment she jumped back into the brush. I waited, and soon she came back out, eyeing me carefully but walking on in the direction she had been heading. Down the slope to water, no doubt. I watched until she disappeared.”

“I somehow knew,” concludes the theologian, “that if I just were still and waited, there would be a meeting. It was a gift, and a strange conclusion to the whole day’s experience. Having spent the day searching for manna, for mystic voices, a luminous encounter with the Other, I met simply, a deer. Walking back home, toward the vanishing red sunset, with honking geese passing high overhead, I felt an enormous joy.”

The point is not our search for God, whether by arduous spiritual practices, painstaking holiday preparations, or by being busy doing good deeds — all of which may be fine in themselves.

The point, beloved, is God’s search for us in Jesus Christ. He comes . . . in the dark streets shineth an everlasting light.

I close with some words from Andy Root, the author the book I mentioned about church decline:

“Humility is not something on our to-do list, as if it were a difficult workout at the spiritual gym. Rather, it is a surrender . . . In humility, you confess you need something outside your own energy, outside your own creativity, to save you. You die to yourself by confessing you’re in need of a saving you can’t accomplish from your own striving . . . This kind of dying creates new possibilities because it leads to confession.”

Whether some wierd Woz and his strange request, or a wild animal stamping her hoof and swinging her head, or Jesus who is forever beyond our grasp, but who nevertheless holds us in his arms . . . “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Rejoice!


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