Set aside ego to be instruments of God

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  • December 5, 2008
Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 14 (Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah’s words must have been music to the ears of the exiles in Babylon. They were going home — God was delivering them from captivity and granting them a future.
Deliverance is always a welcome message and this prophecy gave hope and joy both when it was originally given in the sixth century BC and again in the time of Jesus when it found a second life in the Gospel of Luke. In neither setting did it mean a cessation of all injustice or imprisonment — it is not to be taken literally. It spoke to the immediate situation of the people to whom it was addressed and signified the merciful action of God on their behalf. The words were meant to encourage them and to remove the feeling that they had been abandoned by God. Additionally, they served to heal the bitterness and broken spirit that many years of exile had planted in their minds and hearts.

Despite what we may think, words are very important. Words can build up and heal and they can tear down and destroy. The right words spoken at the right time can make or break an individual, a group or a nation. An ample number of words flow from our mouths each day. Many of them are careless and unreflective or downright harmful. With just a bit of thought and focus we too can speak the words of God to others. Consolation, challenge and hope are sorely needed in a world that seems so harsh and loveless.  

Quenching the spirit has been a Christian failing for centuries. Many fear the uncharted territory of change and newness. The familiar and traditional can seem so secure and comforting. For others it is a massive control issue. The Spirit is unpredictable and challenging and can lead us in new directions, upsetting our tidy view of reality in the process. Paul has some very good advice: Don’t quench the spirit — let the Spirit do its job. If we are truly “in Christ” then we should fear nothing — we should have the confidence and trust in God to test everything. We can accept and hold firm to whatever is good and reject the negative and unhelpful. But nothing is gained from fearful and nervous rigidity, narrow-mindedness and clinging to tradition for its own sake.

All four of the evangelists struggle to “sort out the Messiahs.” To many folks in the first century the respective roles of Jesus and John the Baptist were not all that clear. John the Evangelist makes a concerted effort to place the Baptist in a subordinate role — even putting the proper words in his mouth in this interesting passage. This detailed interrogation at the hands of a Jerusalem delegation is not reported in the other three Gospels. The interrogators run through the entire list of possibilities — Messiah, Elijah and a mysterious unnamed prophet and he denies all of them. Interestingly, in Matthew 17:11-12 Jesus responds to His disciples’ questions by affirming that John is indeed Elijah — clearly an example of competing theological traditions. In exasperation the delegation demands some sort of answer to relate to their superiors — labels are important. John’s reply is the standard scriptural identification used in all the Gospels — Isaiah 40:3. Throughout this Gospel the Baptist shows a spectacular lack of ego and desire for power and fame. Not only does John willingly and joyfully play a supporting role in the unfolding drama, he sent some of his own disciples to follow Jesus. He also deflects the attempts of some of his disgruntled disciples to stir up rivalry and competition with Jesus (3:25-30) and is content to diminish and disappear.

Playing an anonymous or supporting role in any worthy project — especially if it is God’s project — is not demeaning in the least. Both human nature and our culture cries out for us to make a name for ourselves, to receive proper credit and recompense and to engage in endless self-promotion. Great things happen when we are able to set aside ego and pride, allowing ourselves to be used as the instruments of God. The unheralded work of quietly doing good, giving hope and encouragement to others and helping others to be open to God’s spirit is truly the work of God.

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