Church of the Redeemer, Cincinnati, Ohio
There is an old tradition that says there are 100 names for God, 99 of which can be pronounced. The 100th is still beyond speech, a mystery. What names do you know? Father, Son, Holy Spirit are the easy ones. Jesus, Lord, Savior; prince of peace, mighty counselor, advocate, holy wisdom, emmanuel, the one you claim as your name â redeemer. It may be that one of the most important is the one that Moses hears â âI am,â or âI am who I am.â Johnâs gospel builds on that name, and has Jesus identify himself in a whole series of âI amâ statments â the way, the truth, light and, life; I am true vine, good shepherd, bread of life, from above, gate, resurrection. The last one in John, as Jesus is dying on the cross, is filled with ambiguity: âI am thirstyâ â both a human thirst and the great divine thirst for ultimate justice and restoration of creation to the reality God intended.
The âI amâ gospel story begins in the part of John we heard this morning, starting with a query, âwho are you?â The whole gospel is an attempt to answer that question. John Baptist starts off that series of âI amâ statements by saying, âI am not â the messiah â or Elijah or the prophet.â He does claim one name, however, âthe voice.â He echoes Isaiah when he says, âI am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, âmake straight the way of the Lord.ââ I am the voice of one who struggles to build straight roads through the desert, highways home to God that are open to all travelers.
Where else have we heard such a voice? Remember the beginning of Genesis? âThen God said, âlet there be light.â And there was light.â Itâs echoed in the beginning of this gospel, âThere was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.â In Genesis, the voice of God speaks creation into existence, beginning with light. Thereâs also a voice in the other gospels that speaks when Jesus is baptized, that we talked about here yesterday â the voice from heaven that says, âyou are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.â
In this last gospel, Godâs Word becomes the light, and a voice testifies to this Godly presence, making creation new. The voice crying in the wilderness is not unlike the chaos, the formless void and darkness covering the face of the deep, crying out for light and life.
Any chaos around here â or darkness? Darkness is different from wilderness, for that is where Moses and Elijah, and John and Jesus go to encounter God. I often tell people that the hardest part of living in New York is that there is nothing wild. That hunger for wilderness is very much like yearning for light when youâre in a cave â or like yearning for light in the dark of December.
Our world has more than its share of darkness, and not just in the northern hemisphere. Your neighboring state is embroiled in a corruption scandal â what price do we put on justice and democracy? The current financial mess seems to keep spinning off new storm clouds. The dashed hope for a bailout for the automakers has left more darkness in its wake. The rolling layoffs will disperse their own clouds of despair and darkened futures.
There was a piece in the New York Times on Friday about how the financial situation is trickling down to domestic workers â the invaluable people who look after children, clean houses, and cook meals in households that have come to depend on their assistance. Their employers are suffering job cuts, layoffs, and salary reductions themselves, and have no choice but to pass on their economic pain. In October alone, Wall Street lost 16,000 jobs. Yet there is light â at least some glimmers â in the midst of this. Those employers are often trying mightily to find other positions for their helpers. Some of those workers are the primary support for relatives in the Dominican Republic or Poland, and if they donât find enough work, they will return there when their jobs evaporate. Some have already gone.
Around here, the economic situation is resulting in entire factories closing, and those who formerly made a very good living can no longer find meaningful work. Public spending is in peril here, too â even the jail.
The reality is that we are all connected, and the economy here has depended in many ways on workers who are sometimes thought expendable, whether they are raising children or building cars or caring for prisoners. When those jobs are lost, we may not see the human pain right here, but we will see the consequences later â in greater chaos in other countries and in our inner cities, which will eventually have its consequences here.
Where is the light? Where are the voices crying in the wilderness?
This body is filled with voices, each one capable of crying out for justice â which is what those straight roads are all about: good news to the oppressed, liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners. Itâs talking about people released from the chains that bind them, not just jail cells but grinding poverty and the poorer health and possibilities in life that result.
Where is the light? Whose voices will cry out?
More school children are qualifying for free lunches here â how can you make a difference? Your voices, crying for light and life in the worldâs darkness, can make the presence of God evident to the world. When we were baptized, we took on the same identity that John claims, âI am the voice.â Those vows we repeat so regularly are about putting our voices to work â confessing wrong and going in a new direction, praying, saying and doing good news, naming the light of Christ in our neighbors, and using our voices to build communities of justice.
Thereâs something else really important about voices. Theyâre not just meant for crying or clamoring â theyâre meant for rejoicing as well. Paul says, ârejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.â Even in the midst of the worst the world has to offer, God is doing something new and unexpected, so rejoice! Rejoice, give thanks, and sing!
What is your voice going to do in the coming days? Cry out for straight-ruled roads of justice, helping to make the kingdom of God a reality? Is your voice going to sing out in joyful strains, fanning the light in the midst of darkness? Or is your voice going to be silent, listening for Godâs voice in the sound of sheer silence, like Elijah in the wilderness?
All of us probably need to do all three.
Watch and listen for God with us as you wait at a traffic light or stand in line, or endure the dark watches of the night.
Cry out for justice as you see the poorest suffering most in these times. If we all shared, weâd all have enough. Thatâs actually what taxes are supposed to do. Whatâs wrong with the system, and what can you as a community do to fix a piece of it?
And rejoice, be thankful for the still small voice, for the ability to see injustice and do something about it, for the dream God has planted in our hearts, and for the presence of God in our midst, whatever name we use â redeemer, sanctifier, wisdom, Christ. God is born again, giving voice to a new creation, bringing light that the darkness will never overcome. Thanks be to God. Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice!