3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This week we turn to the far left panel of the second view of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. We begin with Karl Barth’s reflections on this scene:
“Its subject is the incarnation. There are three things to be seen in the picture, and it is difficult to say where the observer should begin. In the background upon the heights of heaven, beyond earth’s highest mountains, surrounded by innumerable angels, there is God the Father in His glory.
“In the foreground to the left there is the sanctuary of the old covenant. It also is filled with and surrounded by angels, but inexorably separated from the background by an immensely high, gloomy partition.
“But towards the right a curtain is drawn back, affording a view. And at this point, at the head of the whole world of Advent looking to see the Messiah, stands Mary as the recipient of grace, the representative of all the rest, in adoration before what she sees happening on the right side. Over there, but quite lonely, the child Jesus lies in His mother’s arms, surrounded with unmistakable signs reminding us that He is a child of earth like all the rest. Only the little child, not the mother, sees what is to be seen there, the Father. He alone, the Father, sees right into the eyes of this child. On the same side as the first Mary appears the Church, facing at a distance. It has open access on this side, it adores, it magnifies and praises, therefore it sees what is indeed the glory of the only-begotten of His Father, full of grace and truth. But it sees only indirectly,
What it sees directly is only the little child in His humanity; it sees the Father only in the light that falls upon the Son, and the Son only in this light from the Father.
“This is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly. It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself. Because of this light streaming down from above, it worships before this human being as before God Himself, although to all visual appearance He is literally nothing but a human being. John the Baptist too, in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point—and here everything is bolder and more abrupt, because here all indication of the revelation of the Godhead is lacking—point to a wretched, crucified, dead man. This is the place of Christology. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery. It can and must adore with Mary and point with the Baptist. It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this” (Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.125).
The only thing the church has to offer our world, the only thing it cannot find elsewhere or get on its on, is its witness that in a newborn two thousand years ago God himself came among us to save us. Barth identifies the postures appropriate to humanity as witnesses to such an imaginable, scandalous reality: face it, adore it, point to it.
-This mystery claims our attention. It decenters us from ourselves and our concerns.
-This mystery claims our affections. It disposes us to worship the true and living God and turn away from all other powers and idols that seduce us and lead us astray.
-This mystery claims our action. All we have and are point to this one, this low-born child who ends his life on a traitor’s cross.
THIS MYSTERY, THIS CHILD, THIS MAN – holds the place in our lives that only God should hold. This is our witness to the mystery who enters history riveting our attention, altaring our hearts, and shaping our lives into a coherent testimony to him.
About twenty years ago Joan Osborne had a hit song that asked “What if God was one of us?” Just an ordinary human being living his life amid the joys and sorrows, the hopes and hurts of human life. One of us? But one in whom, with no special evidence to buttress our witness, we testify is God come among us one of us!
Old Testament saints saw this one dimly through a veil. Mary beheld him as a babe in her lap. John saw him dying agonizingly on a Roman cross. But this man himself beheld God and reflected his will and character in such a compelling way that if one trusted him life was turned upside down, or better, inside out. Our attention, affections, and actions are enabled to take their proper shape and form our lives as God always meant them to be.
He calls us to bear witness to himself, this one. And we must respond. His call is not a theology test to which we can give the right answers. Nor is it a moralism we can satisfy by doing the right things. It’s a call to find the clue to all things human and divine in following this one in all things to offer a living witness to him in whom we have found God!