Sent by God (or Bible Hero Syndrome)

Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2020 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28

Did you know that you have been sent by God? It’s true. We don’t often think about this reality because our lives stumble down winding roads on their way to various intermediate destinations that we might not even be aware of when we arrive at them. That last sentence was itself a circuitous adventure. But I really mean this. Each one of us, God has sent. Here. Now. This is not an ego thing. This is not someone claiming to be “God’s Gift” because he thinks he is “all that and a bag of chips,” as we used to say. No. This is the Gospel truth. God has sent each of us for a purpose that is written on our hearts, just waiting for our passion to speak it to the world.

The problem is this: we rarely live like God sent us because too many destructive people have selfishly claimed God’s warrant, and we don’t want to be included in their number. So, instead of looking in our hearts, instead of looking at the needs of our community in order to discover how and why God is sending us, we shut our eyes. We cover our ears. And we decide to ignore God’s invitation just in case we get it wrong and wind up deluding ourselves and abusing others with a selfish and erroneous message.

This danger is real, and yet the truth remains. God has sent each of us into this world. We are God’s Gifts. Integrating this grace-filled truth into our lives will not make us walk with puffed out chests. Rather, it will humble us. We will feel God’s call trembling with potential energy in our hearts, and we will ask, “Why me, Lord?” And we will hear God say, “Why not you? I sent you for this. You’re right where you’re supposed to be. You have the gifts you need. You have the passion to see it through. And I will be with you…always.”

This sermon is not a pep talk. This sermon is not a self-help book. This sermon is a reality check. God has sent you. Pause for a moment and let that sink in…

Now, I doubt it sank in, so I’m going to talk about it a little more. We already mentioned one reason folks like us don’t necessarily live our lives proclaiming that God sent us – we know of too many bad examples in history and the present that claimed a special call from God for their own ends. But there is another, more complicated reason. And it crops up in the first verse of the Gospel lesson this morning. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”

This verse interrupts the beautiful poem of Creation that begins the Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We hear these sublime words that reach back to before anything existed and set up the eternal struggle between God’s creative act and the forces that seek to annihilate creation. And then…

The next words talk about some guy named John. It’s an abrupt and jarring transition. And it’s an example of why modern people like you and me don’t claim to be sent by God. Because John is placed in the midst of this grand poetry of creation – between the supreme creative act and the Light that shines God’s presence into the cosmos. And so we think, “Yeah, sure, God sent John the Superhero into all that. And after John, God sent God’s own Son into all that, too.” But me? Us? No way.

I call this Bible Hero Syndrome. We read and celebrate the stories of heroes in the Bible. We hold them up as special examples of holiness. We say to ourselves, “But that was back then. Things are different now.” And so we let Bible Hero Syndrome take root in us. And pretty soon, the stories of the Bible, which were told down through the generations to inspire people to walk more closely with God, end up having the opposite effect. We read about Moses or Ruth or David or Mary or John, and we dress them in costumes of superhuman righteousness, all the while forgetting that they were ordinary people like you and me.

Moses was a shepherd living in exile who happened to turn aside at the right moment while on the job and catch a glimpse of God’s glory in the burning bush. Ruth was a young widow who immigrated to an unknown land and trusted in her mother-in-law’s God. David was another shepherd who rose to prominence in the military and later succumbed to the vices of power. Mary was a woman living in the backwater of an occupied territory of the oppressive Roman Empire, and she said “Yes” to God’s invitation in her life. Each of these – and every other Bible Hero – were regular people whom God sent into the world. We think of them as extraordinary because they actually tried to live into that sending.

I think the writer of the Gospel understands Bible Hero Syndrome because each time John is mentioned, the scripture takes pains to make sure we know John is not extraordinary. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John,” the Gospel says. And then it clarifies: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” Later, when the priests and Levites come to question John about his identity, he says, “I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not the prophet. I’m just the person God sent to point to God’s presence in the world.”

Wow. When we hear how John characterizes his own ministry, it doesn’t sound that intimidating, does it? He’s not the Light. He’s the witness to the Light. He’s not the Messiah. He’s the one pointing to the Messiah. That’s why God sent John into the world.

Taking this witness of John’s into our hearts can help us recover from Bible Hero Syndrome. John knows exactly who he is in relation to the story God is telling. He is an important character, but that’s only because God has never made someone who is not an important character in that story. Remember, this is not an ego thing. This is a reality check. You and I are important characters, and so is everyone else, and that’s why the big sins of society are the villains in the story – societal sins that denigrate, exclude, and oppress people because of their identities. The bigness of these sins induce us to accept them as business-as-usual, as the way the world works. And these sins feed our Bible Hero Syndrome because they keep us from embracing the reality that God sent us into the world to confront those sins, just like God sent the heroes of the Bible.

But God did send us into the world. God sent us with unique constellations of gift, passions, experiences, and identities so that together we can reconcile all things back to the God of justice, peace, and love.

And so when you read about the Bible’s heroes, when you read a verse like we had today (“There was a man sent from God whose name was John”), I invite you to substitute that name with your own. There was a person sent from God whose name was Barbara. There was a person sent from God whose name was Eric. There was a person sent from God whose name is your name. Is you. Thanks be to God.

Banner image: Detail from “Saint John the Baptist indicates Christ” by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709)

Season 3, Episode 7:
Lord of the Rings: I Can Carry You

In Season Three, we are looking at facets of identity, and our seventh episode looks at the male friendships in The Lord of the Rings and discuss how they provide a counter-narrative to the scourge of toxic masculinity. Plus, in our book club we tackle chapters 21-22, the final ones of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

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