A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Third Sunday in Advent – December 11, 2005
Text: John 1:19-28
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was thinking the other day about what a detail-oriented person I am, at least in some parts of my life. You know what I mean, don’t you? I’m sure you have moments when a certain little kind of insanity seizes you up and makes you care about measuring just the right combination of ingredients to make Grandma’s classic banana bread. Or about logging on a spiral-bound notepad every mile you put on your car, along with the amount of gas put in at each stop, the price you paid, and when you last changed the oil. From time to time, each of us is taken by these little manias. Our loved ones may scratch their heads, but they learn to love the small obsessions that make us interesting…or at least love us despite that detail monster that hides out inside us.
But even folks who normally aren’t very fussy when it comes to particulars can get a bit uptight when the big things in life are concerned. During a friend’s recent wedding, more than a little bit of fun was had at the expense of his self-proclaimed “detail-driven bride” – but it’s hard to blame her. When something matters as much as giving yourself forever to the person you love, maybe there’s something to be said for wanting to have everything in line, to know about and have control over every little detail, so that those important moments in life are the best they can be. Our detail-driven bride’s heart was in the right place – and she wasn’t really as fanatical about her wedding as we all joked together about.
For me, one of my small obsessions is maps. Ask anyone who’s been traveling with me, and you’ll quickly find out that I love them. In fact, for reasons I couldn’t even begin to explain, something about maps makes me happy even when I’m sitting safe and sound in my own home. I think it comes from the same place that all of our little detail passions come from – a concern about having all our ducks in a row when it comes to something important to us. And what could be more important than knowing where you are, and where you’re going next? What could matter more than having the right map to get you there – a highway map for cruising cross country, a downtown map to help you find all the interesting places, a trail map for keeping your bearings in the middle of the woods.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m pretty concerned with knowing God’s will for my life – I want his course all highlighted for me in nice, pocketable strip maps, complete with annotations and travel instructions! In fact, I think this concern for discovering God’s intentions for us is pretty much universal. For me, it plays off my map obsession. For a detail-driven event planner, it might appear more like a desire to know God’s agenda, right down to the minute. For you, it probably looks a little different. What stays the same is our passion about knowing what heaven has in store for us, because we get fussy about the important things in life, and there is nothing more worth getting fussy about than God’s plan for us.
Which makes John the Baptist an especially interesting character.
Do you notice how completely unconcerned John seems to be with the details of his future? When some Pharisees – important people, no doubt – come out to him by the river and interrupt his work, he’s not the least bit rattled. They challenge him: “Who are you? What do you say about yourself? Speak up!” They question his authority: “What’s your business baptizing these people? You’re not authorized for it – you don’t have the right.” Talk about detail-driven! They want to gather every bit of intelligence they can on John the Baptist.
These Pharisees were messengers, you see, sent to feel John out and bring a report back to the religious authorities. Odds were, if John looked out of line to the establishment, there was trouble ahead for him. John must have known this – no one can grow up learning the Hebrew scriptures without reading again and again of the cruel fate of the prophets…usually death by a thousand stones. John must have known that his life could soon be taking a sharp left turn into dangerous territory on account of his message. Yet he seems so at peace. He answers his interrogators simply and honestly, stating his purpose in life – to prepare the world for someone coming later – and then he gets back to his business, apparently unconcerned about the future.
Where can we get peace like that! I suppose it’s possible that John was actually the most terrible worrywart you ever met, and that after his run-in with the religious authorities, he fussed over every detail of his part in God’s plan…especially what might be in his future. But I don’t think so. I think that John the Baptist’s peace comes from letting go of that natural obsession with detail, even the terribly important details like “Am I going to be killed for saying this stuff?” He seems to have realized that God’s will isn’t often handed down to us in a single, grand master plan. It’s more like daily dispatches.
You can think of it like this: I’ve got a pocket computer, the sort of thing you see business people keeping track of their appointments and so on with. One of the more useful abilities this little toy has is to pull up a map of whatever address I tell it. (I did tell you I was obsessed with maps, didn’t I?) When you’re in an unfamiliar place, it’s reassuring to be able to tap in the address off the nearest house, and in an instant see right where you are.
But I’ve always been annoyed that the map on this little computer has to be loaded in pieces. There’s no way to grab, say, the entire state of North Dakota, much less all fifty states at once. I have to load up a Valley City area map, or a Fargo-Moorhead map. If I’m going to be traveling outside of my usual territory, I need to have small maps for each part of the journey. It’s the same as driving on a dark night with no moon – your range of view is limited by the lights on the front of your car. Where you’re going comes into view and then passes away into the darkness again, and no matter how you squint your eyes, you can’t see any farther than the end of your headlights. With my map program, I can only see my journey in stages, and whatever is outside those stages remains unknown to me.
John the Baptist’s peace comes from understanding that God’s plan for us is like that map program, or like that moonless drive. God reveals enough of his plan so that we know he’s got one, and so that we can get started in the right direction, but we really don’t ever get the whole trip all in one big revelation. He just keeps giving us new bits and pieces of his will as we near the edges of the old ones.
John didn’t know what was fifty miles down his road, but he could see perfectly well what God had set before him for the next hundred yards. God’s plan for his far future was a mystery to John, but that didn’t keep him from following the part he could see perfectly well with his own eyes. John was at peace before the Pharisees because whatever twists and turns God’s plan for him held, John knew two things: First, that he could pursue God’s will for him – the part he could see plainly - right now. And second, that God would continue revealing more and more of his plan for John, a new leg of the journey whenever it was time.
For detail-driven people like you and me, that’s good news. Jeremiah the prophet proclaimed that God knows his plans for us, and that they are good plans that will make us prosper and not hurt us. They are plans that will give us a hope-filled future. We can’t know the whole length and breadth of God’s plan for us now, but like John, we can find peace for our souls by plunging wholeheartedly into the parts of the plan we can see clearly, and knowing that God will reveal each new stage to us when the right time comes.
May God fill the final weeks of your Advent with the peace of John. Amen.