December 14, 2014
Each of us is God’s beloved child, made in God’s image and gifted with many unique and beautiful expressions of God’s own nature. But we don’t all have the SAME gifts. For example, I love being Trinity’s Story-Teller-in-Chief, and I am always willing to serve as your movie or book advisor, personal shopper, or travel consultant, but I guarantee you, you never want me to do your taxes or fix your plumbing. Sometimes knowing who we are starts with knowing who we are not. That is one of the gifts we are invited to ponder by today’s Gospel lesson.
I know last week we heard from Mark’s Gospel about John, this crazy, camel-skin wearing preacher’s kid turned prophet, eating locusts and shouting in the wilderness that we should repent and be baptized to prepare for God’s Adventus (coming). What more can we possibly gain by visiting this guy again in today’s Gospel reading from John’s Gospel? Isn’t it just more of the same?
Surprisingly, no. What I never noticed until someone pointed it out to me this week is that in all of John’s Gospel, this character is never called “John the Baptist.” That makes me perk up and ask, “Well, if he’s NOT John the Baptist, who is he? What can we learn about preparing to encounter God from ‘John-NOT- the-Baptist’?”
Remember, figuring out who we are NOT is often a good place to start discovering who we are. John is quite clear about who he is not. He is quick to tell people that he is not the Messiah, nor is he Elijah. He says he’s not a prophet (though later Jesus describes him as one–but how other people see us and how we see ourselves are not always in sync). Well, then, they want to know, who ARE you, if you aren’t any of these people? John says, “I’m a voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
In the verses that follow this reading, when Jesus shows up in the Gospel of John for the first time, John-NOT-the-Baptist points to Jesus and announces, “Behold! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s job is like being the MC at a performance. He is not a performer, but he announces the talent, points toward them, calling to the crowd, “Behold! Look! Ta-da! The Word made flesh is here!”
What happens after people are introduced to Jesus is not really his job. John-NOT-the-Baptist is not a cuddly guy who goes on to become the youth pastor who plans fun events for the teens who follow Jesus. He is NOT a gentle counselor who helps people work through relationship difficulties with a non-anxious presence. He is a Witness. He is called to prepare people to meet Christ by acknowledging their own brokenness. He is called to point people to Christ’s presence, and trusts that God will take it from there. Though he does not bear the title “John the Baptist” in this version of the story, one of the things he does is baptize others, with the intention of preparing them to become witnesses as well.
And what about you? Who are you? What is God calling you to do and be? If you are not the Messiah, not Elijah, not even John-the-NOT-Baptist, what is your mission? How do you witness to God’s work in the world? You may not feel qualified to preach and teach, or comfortable explaining how Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean you can’t invite others to witness God’s redemptive work or hear God’s saving word. You don’t have to be a theologian to point and say, “LOOK!” or to urge others to “LISTEN!” when you hear a prophetic voice crying out.
It’s clear that not even John-NOT-the-Baptist understood the entire concept of Jesus as God Incarnate. (Later in John’s Gospel there is a scene where John-the-NOT-Baptist is in prison, expecting his own execution, and he asks Jesus, “Are you the one, or are we supposed to be waiting for another?”). I, for one, find that comforting. To me it is good news that we don’t have to have all the answers or to understand the cosmic expression of God in the universe in order to testify to the Light–because who would be qualified to be witnesses if such things were required? Instead, if John is our template, being a witness seems to involve mostly pointing at Jesus and urging people to “come and see” for themselves, trusting that God will take it from there. reveal God’s self in all of God’s humanity
One thing we cannot do, however, is refuse to testify to what we see and know of the Light. We cannot deny that we are all called to be witnesses in quite the same way that I can say I’m not called to be an accountant or you can say you’re not called to be a pastor. In our baptisms, we are each called to announce in word and deed the good news of Jesus Christ. But even if it were not mandated, it would come about naturally. Who we are is shaped by what we witness with our eyes and express with our actions. Our own identity is molded both internally and externally. Nature and nurture have roles to play in shaping and forming us.
The result is that when we point toward the truth of God as we understand God, it reveals and expands our faith. This is the sort of scary thing about witnessing. We offer testimony about what we observe, but we are not objective observers. What we notice and express exposes our own leanings, biases, passions, needs, beliefs. And sometimes, the more we look, the more we see. Sometimes what we see and what we say is difficult. Talking about such things can change us. And that can be scary.
Because it involves telling the truth, witnesses can become unpopular. They utter what they see, even things others prefer to ignore. They speak the words “I can’t breathe” for the sake of those whose breath is taken away. They say, “We need to hold our leaders accountable for actions done in our name.” They say, “None of God’s children deserves to be tortured.” They say, “Repent and make straight the way of the Lord.”
As a result, announcing God’s Advent is simultaneously a testimony to the Light, and an announcement of who we are, who we are not, who we have chosen to be, and to whom we have committed ourselves. When we point toward Christ and his kingdom, we make clear on what we are willing to stake our lives, our truth. And so my fervent prayer for you is Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Thessalonica from today’s second lesson:
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider