Saturday, July 5, 2008

An Unplanned Encounter with A Voice in the Wilderness

An Unplanned Encounter with A Voice in the Wilderness

Life is often what happens in-between the things you were expecting. One of those was an unexpected request to do a short commentary piece for Spectrum's Sabbath School Lesson Commentary, which wound up consuming those bits of time I tend to set aside for this blog, which resulted in the lack of posts for the last couple of weeks. However, since moments like this are indeed a part of the ebb and flow of life that I try to reflect on a bit here in Footnotes, I decided I would post it here as well (without the benefit of the editor who will, I am sure, work it over a bit before it appears on Spectrum's blog in a week or two), since that's "where I've been" for the last week or so in my more free and reflective moments.

I'll be back to the more usual (or unusual, as the case may be) stuff when I return from a week of backpacking in the Sierras. In between then and now, here are some reflections on the ministry of John the Baptist and how it might speak to the ministry of our church:

“A voice of one calling . . . prepare the way for the LORD . . .’” I wonder if we were asked to come up with a couple of key phrases that would express our sense of identity and mission, if this is the kind of language we would gravitate towards?

Phil Cooke describes “what . . . people think of when they think of you, your product or your organization” as a “brand.”[1] He then goes on to quote Wally Olins, the Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants:

. . . in a world that is bewildering in terms of competitive clamor, in which rational choice has become almost impossible, brands represent clarity, reassurance, consistency, status, membership-everything that enables human beings to help define themselves. Brands represent identity.[2]

It makes you wonder what is represented by, or reflected in, the “John the Baptist” brand? What is communicated by an identity that is described simply as “a voice”? What is reflected by a mission statement that is not about establishing and protecting our own interests?

As I think about Isaiah’s description of John’s ministry, my mind drifts back to the mid 70's, when as a young person still quite new to Adventism, I used to listen to the Voice of Prophecy on the radio. Each broadcast would begin with the King’s Heralds singing , “Lift up the trumpet and loud let it ring, Jesus is Coming Again.” And then at the appropriate moment, their voices would fade into the background just long enough for HMS Richards Jr. to deliver the line that described their ministry as “a voice calling out in the wilderness of these modern times, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” It was a clear attempt to link the identity and mission of their ministry (and the Adventist Church in general) with that of John the Baptist. What is less clear, is whether or not the “John the Baptist brand” has always been at the heart of our concerns about preserving them.

But what if it were? If we were to thoughtfully consider what it might mean, both personally and corporately, for us to assume the “John the Baptist” brand, where might that take us?

As counterintuitive as it might seem, perhaps one of the first steps in exploring that question would be to ponder what it might mean not to be the center of our own brand. We glimpse a bit of what this might look like as we watch John responding to those who are pressing him to define and frame his ministry in terms that were mostly all about him.

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord.”[3]

It is important that we not allow the unassuming nature of his response to mask its significance. What John seems to grasp (even if all of those who responded to his message did not) is that his ministry is not an end in itself. His mission was not to establish of group of people who would have a unique “John the Baptist” identity. Rather, his mission and identity were wrapped up in the task of pointing others to Jesus and preparing them to embrace a Kingdom that was bigger than the movement he was leading. However much those who followed him appreciated, or were shaped and blessed by his ministry, he would have been the first to point out that tying their primary identity to him or the movement itself, instead of the Jesus to Whom it pointed, would be a mistake.

You yourselves can testify that I said, I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him. 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now completed. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.[4]

What might it mean for Adventism to see itself as less the entity that people are called to join, and more as the friend of the bridegroom? Would taking this seriously provide us, individually and corporately, with a more modest vision of the “remnant,” perhaps as those scattered bits and pieces that might appear to simply be left over, but which find their identity in knowing they are a part of a bolt of cloth that is much bigger than themselves? Something to ponder!

In addition to how John’s message is framed, is the uniqueness of his content. For example, John invites his hearers (Jews and Gentiles alike) to carefully consider if the ways in which the way they are living their lives are in sync with the way of life that God is calling them to. According to John, this new Kingdom was one in which people would be defined less by nationality, pedigree, or even theological purity, and more by the justice and genuineness of the way they live and interacted with each other. Now that the Kingdom of God is on the verge of being established, they have the opportunity to change course, to repent, and embrace to life of the Kingdom.

Second, he invited people to celebrate and express their decision to do so through what appears to be the rather new and innovative (and in the context of the ministry of both John and Jesus, unique) practice of baptism.

Since the first century culture in general seemed to have no shortage of baptismal imagery from which to draw, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that people would have some familiarity with it. Water had been ritually used in Babylon by the cult of Enki, and in Egypt for removing blemishes from newborn children and from the dead in preparation for the afterlife. Other religions used baptismal like practices as initiation rites, which also carried the connotations of purification, regeneration, transformation, the reception of a special knowledge, etc.[5] Sometime during the time of the exile, Jews also appear to have developed a practice closely associated with purification rites for converts to Judaism, that of proselyte baptism.[6]

It appears then that both John and Jesus adapted known ideas and thought patterns, infusing them with a unique and distinctly Christian meaning, when then invited people to be baptized, perhaps as a way to help people understand and celebrate what it meant to become a part of the Kingdom in a way that was meaningful in their context. While there is a clear call to disengage from a way of living that runs contrary to the life of the Kingdom (repent), there is also a willingness to engage the thought patterns found in the culture, and through adapting, changing and infusing them with new meaning, provide ways for people to more fully understand and embrace the message of the Kingdom.[7] The voice that cries out in the wilderness is one that has both the ring of genuineness and authenticity to it, and yet also a willingness to be innovative in finding meaningful ways to redirect and infuse cultural patterns and ideas with the values and the life of the Kingdom.

But perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the John the Baptist brand, is that while many respond, it is not everywhere well received. John is arrested, struggles with his own questions about the meaning of what is happening, and ultimately is executed, raising questions in minds of some about his ministry. However, when speaking about the significance of John’s ministry in the days just prior to John’s death, Jesus declares that “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist,” reminding us that we need to be careful about how we measure significance or success.[8] Whether or not the movement John started continued to survive and flourish with its own unique identity intact, was not nearly as important as whether or not it had accomplished the purpose for which it began.

These are just some of the questions reflecting on what it might mean for us to take the “John the Baptist brand” seriously, in both its individual and corporate expressions. For those who might still consider themselves a part of that voice calling out in the wilderness of these modern times, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, they are worth pondering!

[1] Phil Cooke, Branding Faith: Why Some churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t, (Ventura, California: Gospel Light, 2007) 11.
[2] Cooke, Branding Faith, 38.
[3] John 1:19-23. (NIV)
[4] John 3:28-30 (NIV)
[5] Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., s.v. “Baptism,” by Michel Meslin, 779-780.
[6] See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1983), 153.
[7] The writings of Paul also reflect ways in which cultural imagery continued to be used to expand and explain the meaning of baptism. One example is the concept of being clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:27) which may draw from the toga virilis ceremony. See J. Albert Harrill, “Coming of Age and Putting on Christ: The Toga Virilis Ceremony, Its Paraenesis, and Paul’s Interpretation of Baptism in Galatians, “ Novum Testamentum 44, no.3, (2002): 253-256.
[8]Matthew 11:11 (NIV)

1 comment:

Melody said...

"What might it mean for Adventism to see itself as less the entity that people are called to join, and more as the friend of the bridegroom?"

Indeed. What an interesting prospect. It's hard, when you believe in something, to invite someone else to explore the same belief, rather than to encourage them to join your organization. And sad that our organization has tended to be it's "own brand". Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ken. I'm encouraged that you and others like you are in positions of leadership and writing for the church. We would all do well to think more deeply, as you are doing.