“Who are you?” the Jewish priests and Levites asked John. He had the manner and many of the eccentricities of a prophet. He dressed and lived simply… he ate simple food. He called the people to repentance and restored them to ritual purity. And he sure could preach a lick! But who was he, really? Could he be the long-awaited Messiah? The Christ? “No,” said John, “I’m not the Messiah.” Perhaps the faces of the priests and Levites fell… the Jews had been looking and hoping for their Messiah for more than half a millennium… since the time of Isaiah and Daniel. And most of them still are, today.
This reminds me in an odd, sideways sort of way, of a book for young readers: Are you my mother? written by P. D. Eastman many years ago. Do you remember it? It’s a story of a mother bird, and a nest, and an egg that’s about to hatch, and a journey. Momma wants to make sure her hatchling has something to eat when he comes out of his shell, so she leaves her egg alone, just for a few minutes, and flies off in search of some grub (literally!). Of course, the baby bird hatches while his mother is away. He wonders where she is and wants to find her. So, he steps out of the nest… and falls way, way, down to the bottom of the tree. Isn’t it funny how we call Adam and Eve being sent out of the Garden of Eden “the Fall.” But I digress… or do I? In any case, he couldn’t fly, but he could walk, and that’s what he does—all over the neighborhood—searching for his mother. But he didn’t even know what she looked like, so he had a hard time recognizing her. In fact, he walked right by her. In the course of his search, he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow if they are his mother, but none of them are. Where could she be?
Refusing to give up, he becomes increasingly desperate. He’s not walking any more… he’s running. He sees an old jalopy sitting stripped and rusting in a field. “That can’t be her,” he thought. He saw a boat down in the canal, and an airplane… way up high in the sky and called out to them: “Here I am, Mother!” But they didn’t stop. Finally, the baby bird comes across a humongous excavating machine… a power shovel, with a big bucket… with big teeth in front. He ran right up and climbed into the bucket: “Mother, Mother, here I am Mother!” But the big machine just said, “SNORT!” and began to raise its bucket high into the air. You’re not my mother, you’re a… Snort! I have to get out of here! But it was too late. Up, up, up went the bucket… and up, up, up went the baby bird. And then the Snort ground into motion and began to move forward. “Oh, no!” said the baby bird, “What is this Snort going to do to me? Get me out of here! I want my mother!”
And do you know what the Snort did? It slowly came to a stop and, very gently, dropped the hatchling back into its nest. The baby bird was home. And at that very moment, his mother returned with a big, fat worm in her mouth to feed her baby. “Do you know who I am?” she asked. “I do now,” said the baby: “You are not a kitten, or a hen, or a dog, or a cow. You’re not a boat, or a plane… or even a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.” So, this story has a happy ending. After leaving the nest, and wandering for a long, long time in what seemed like a vast wilderness, the baby bird found its way home, to the source of its existence, thanks to the salvific Snort, an entity of awesome and amazing power, fearsome, yet gentle… implacable and yet unbelievably kind. Hmmmmm.
But now, back to our Gospel story: like I said, most Jews see themselves as still waiting for their Messiah to come and save them… and lead them home, back to the Paradise of God. But lest we Christians be too quick to pat ourselves on the back for recognizing our Savior in Jesus Messiah… are we not also prone to getting lost in the spiritual wilderness of sin and unbelief, looking for more-temporal saviors than Jesus to accompany us through the wilderness of this life, to keep us motivated, to set us an example of “right behavior” and to offer comfort when we are confronted with loss and disappointment? Maybe we hope to find a savior in our political ideology, or religious ideology (which may have very little to do with faith in Jesus, by the way). Maybe we look for salvation in our cultural or family heritage (American by birth… Southern by the Grace of God!). Perhaps it’s career success, pride of position or wealth that will save us. Or could it be people and relationships… those with whom we associate, as we work overtime to “keep up with the Joneses.” There are lots of would-be temporal saviors out there. Impostors crowd ‘round us. And it’s nothing new… it’s always been that way, even back in Jesus’ time.
John told the Jewish seekers, “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…” One whom you do not know. And like the baby bird in Are you my mother? the Jews in our Gospel story today had a degree of “plausible deniability.” No one had ever seen God face-to-face, no one since Moses, at any rate. And so, John was giving them a hint of what was to come. But only a hint. John knew that God would reveal the Messiah when the time was right… and he knew that the time would be soon.
We, on the other hand, are a little short on plausible deniability, aren’t we? We’ve been washed in the Blood of the Lamb and adopted into the Body of Jesus the Christ through Baptism. We’ve professed our faith in the words of the Creeds and placed all of our hopes for salvation on Grace apprehended through that very faith. So, when we fall short of the glory of God by placing our faith in temporal saviors… false messiahs… impostors… it puts us in an awkward position, doesn’t it? It’s not that we won’t be forgiven for our inconstancy… our God is a God of a million second chances. And that’s a good thing, because we need all of the help and forgiveness that we can get! It’s awkward because we need to ask for that forgiveness… and that’s sometimes hard for us to do. Humility is sometimes in short supply… for me at any rate. But here’s the thing: the reason we have to ask for forgiveness is not because God demands the asking… we must do it for ourselves. It’s for us. Only in asking God for forgiveness can we become reconciled with ourselves… which is necessary for us to be atoned (remember, that means “at-oned”) with God. God doesn’t hold us at arm’s length. We do that to God. Yeah, it’s a mystery.
And so, my friends, here we are in the latter half of Advent, the season in which we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the coming of the Son of God… God’s Christ… our Messiah—into the world, and into our lives. He was in the beginning with God. He is God. In him is life and light…and the darkness will never overcome us as long as we put our trust in him, and him alone (cf. John 1:1-5). So, take heart. It may be awkward, it may be frightening, but if we will only allow ourselves to “step into the bucket” of God’s overarching Grace and forgiveness, we’ll be lifted up… out of the wilderness of sin and unbelief and brought home to the Paradise of God.
Let us pray in the words of the Apostle Paul in today’s epistle: “May the God of peace sanctify us entirely; and may our bodies, souls and spirits be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls us is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thes 5:23-24). In his name we pray. Amen.
 P.D. Eastman, Are you my mother? New York: Random House, 1960.