Monday, December 15, 2008

a cure for the messiah complex (john 1)

John the Baptist is a prominent figure in Advent. He shows up each year in at least a couple of the gospel readings, and then he reappears in January when we remember the Baptism of the Lord and renew our own baptisms. This year I have tried to listen to John the Baptist, and the lesson for me has to do with humility. We hear this again and again in his words: “I am not the messiah. I am not Elijah (the greatest of the prophets). I am not the main attraction. The main attraction is coming, and I am not worthy to shine his shoes.

This humility was not only John’s perception of himself. It is also recorded in the gospel writer’s description of him. He---John---was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. It is important that we claim John as a model for our lives, as human beings and as Christians. We are not the messiah. You are not the messiah. I am not the messiah. Now a messiah is someone who saves people, who rules people, who fixes people. Many people in Israel were waiting for a messiah in the first century. Life was difficult, harsh, oppressive.

A messiah would come and change all of that. Right now, politically, we are in what is called a “lame duck” period. A president is leaving, another president is coming into office. Will the new president fix the crises and salvage the messes? That is the twenty-first century hope.

Folks who lived in the first century held out a similar hope. Life was hard, and John was attracting large crowds who were seeking him out, there was a buzz. Maybe John was the messiah?

No, he says. I am not the messiah. I am not the light. I have come to bear witness to the light. But I am not the light. I am not the messiah.

John’s entrance into the drama of Advent each year might not seem relevant, on first glance, but in fact his is a needed voice. It is good to claim John’s words for ourselves. It’s liberating, isn’t it? We know, deep down that it is true, we are not the messiah, but the idea does sometimes creep into our ways of thinking and behaving.

A few years ago a psychologist wrote a book about some research into the lives of three psychiatric patients in Michigan, who suffered from delusions of grandeur. Each of the three lived with the conviction that he had a unique calling among all of the billions of people on the planet: each thought that he was the savior, the messiah. These were full-blown, hard core cases of grandiosity.

The psychologist made no progress with them individually, and so he came upon a creative idea: he decided to put them into a group, together, three men who each labored under the delusion that he was the one messiah sent to save the world. The conversations were provocative.

One day they are in group therapy.

One begins: “I’m the messiah, the Son of God. I was sent here to save the earth.”

“How do you know?”, the psychologist would ask.

“God told me”.

One of the other patients would chime in. “I never told you any such thing!”

Each had a deep-seated messiah complex, and only by staying in community with each other did occasional glimpses of reality sink in. They were not the messiah.

Orthodox Christian theology teaches us that there is one messiah. In Advent we pray, and wait, and hope and prepare for his coming. But we are sure that the messiah is not us. This belief leads us to an appropriate posture for a Christian: humility. None of us is the messiah. The position has already been filled!

Humility is a misunderstood concept, and it may be helpful to say what it is, and what it is not. It is not low self-esteem. We are created in the image of God, and that is good. Humility is not false modesty. We have been endowed with gifts, and they are to be used for the glory of God and the common good. One preacher put it this way: humility is not thinking less of ourselves. Humility is thinking of ourselves less. Do you catch the difference?

This can be liberating, and it can be liberating for a crowd like us. In our community, in our congregation, there are lots of folks who I would describe as overachievers, overfunctioners. I see your names in the newspaper, I hear you being interviewed on television and radio, I write letters of recommendation for you when you are getting ready to go to college. A week does not go by that someone in our congregation is not recognized in his or her profession. You are overachievers, overfunctioners.

When you are congratulated you say “Oh, it’s nothing”, or, “it’s not as special as it seems”, or, “yes, oh, but you should see what my brother or sister or neighbor or colleague is doing”. But I am talking about you, and, if I am honest, myself. Humility is not the first virtue we think of in a community like this. One of my seminary professors poked fun at the “I love me” walls that preachers love to have in their offices---degrees, ordination certificates---and I do wonder about how all of this helps us to preach better sermons about humility!

It is all mixed together with the drive to succeed, and ambition, and performance, and goals. And if we don’t have these hopes for ourselves, we surely have them for our children.

There is something constructive about all of this. Objectives are accomplished. Goals are met. Good is done. But there is also a dark side. And the dark side can be a heavy burden. We begin to think that we are, in fact, the source of light, but sometimes the bulb begins to dim. We might not use the precise language, but we might begin to think that we are, in fact, the messiah. We see other people as problems to be solved, we see daily lives as a series of messes to be cleaned up, dilemmas to be sorted through, damages to be repaired.

And if you and I don’t do it, who will?

There is a dark side to the Messiah Complex and the symptoms are burnout, cynicism about the world, frustration about other people, and paradoxically, self-rejection.

But remember: you are not the messiah. I am not the messiah. And in fact a dose of humility does help. We have limitations, and boundaries. We talked about this a little last week, when we reflected on stress and sanity. It turns out that Advent comes along each year to give us this dose of humility, when once again we meet John, who helps us to get clear again about our perspective.

Make no mistake. John the Baptist was a person of strength. He attracted people to his project. “Among men born of women”, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “there is not greater than John the Baptist”. John was not weak: “What did you expect to find when you went out and found John in the wilderness, Jesus asks the disciples in the middle of Matthew’s gospel, …a reed shaken by the wind?” The literal meaning was a weather vane which bent with the currents of the wind. John was not weak, he was strong---he could withstand the forces of the winds and the storms--- but he was humble. And his humility is found precisely in his understanding of who he is and who he is not.

Humility is not weakness. Humility is the awareness of the source of our strength.

John the Baptist knew this. Listen to him:

I am not the light. I have come to bear witness to the light. He is the light. I am not the main attraction. I am not the messiah. He is the messiah. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire.

Again, we can claim something from the witness of John. We are human. In preparing for this morning I came across the insight that there is a connection between the words humanity, humility, and humor. Each word has a common origin, in our word humus.

My grandparents had a humus pile, that included soil and leaves and kitchen garbage and probably some things I would not want to mention. It was a mixture of the most organic matter, the compost pile, and it was a rich, fertile place. That says something about us: in our humanity we are always a mixture of many things, and out of all of it comes life and growth.

Humility and humor are connected in our ability to laugh at ourselves---and sometimes we do have to laugh at ourselves. As we light the candle of joy on the third Sunday of Advent this seems appropriate. Some of you attended the United Methodist Women’s Christmas dinner the year my wife Pam spoke, and in the midst of her talk she listed some of the really wonderful gifts I had gotten her early in our marriage: a waffle iron, a ceramic chicken, flannel pajamas.

If I did not know how to laugh at myself, I would have learned to do so that night! And this only inspired other men to come forward, like a self-help recovery group, with their own confessions---one man had purchased his wife an iron and ironing board, another a paper shredder. Pam, would only recall what one of her friends said to her, “be patient, it’s a training program.”

All of this is related to our humanity. We have limitations, boundaries. We are finite, not infinite. Humanity is a reminder of our need to be grounded---again, the connection with the earth. It is not accidental that the most fundamental posture of humility is kneeling. And this self-awareness prepares the way for something more, something greater.

In the last century one of the greatest theologians, Karl Barth, had above his desk for fifty years a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald. Grunwald was a sixteenth century German renaissance painter whose works can be seen throughout Europe, and one small painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The work that captured Barth’s imagination is referred to as the Isenheim Altar.

At the center is the crucified Jesus. To the left are John, Mary and Mary Magdalene, in mourning. Above is a darkened sky, and beneath is a lamb embracing the cross. But most striking to Barth, was the figure to the right, of John the Baptist, the scriptures opened in his left hand, and his right hand, and in particular a long, extended bony index finger pointing to Jesus. Barth asked, “Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely?”

He was not the light. He came to bear witness to the light. Our humility is always deeply connected to the glory of God, who is present in the Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

And so the cure for the messiah complex is to open the scriptures and learn of the One who stoops to our weakness, who is born in a manger and dies on a cross, who removes from our to-do list the need to save ourselves, and others, by offering the gift of salvation that always comes from beyond us, and sometimes even in spite of us!

This gift of salvation is grace for the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the lost and the found, the certain and the confused, the overfunctioner and the underachiever.

In Advent the occasional glimpse of reality sinks in: grace pierces our illusions of perfectionism and our delusions of grandeur, reconnecting us with the true source of our strength, putting us in touch with reality; we are all of us huddled together in the compost pile of humanity, pointing with John the Baptist to the light that is just beginning to emerge on the horizon: Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Sources: John Ortberg, “What’s Really Behind Our Fatigue?”, Leadership, Spring, 1997. John Burgess, “The Difference That Theology Makes For Pastoral Ministry”,


Blogger ruth said...

Hi Ken: Thanks for including Eastern Music Festival as one of your links. Unfortunately, the link is not correct and should be

5:57 AM  

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