3 Advent – December 13, 2020
John 1:6-8, 19-28
If you’ve ever applied for a job, an internship, applied to graduate school or possibly for a grant, you’ve spent a lot of time crafting strategic answers to one question: “Who are you?” If you’ve ever obsessed over your Facebook profile, or spent hours perfecting a Tweet, you know how complicated the question can get. Who are you? What is your brand? What carefully packaged version of yourself do you want to show the world?
Let’s think about this, because beneath those questions of presentation, are deeper and far more significant questions: who are you, really? When no one is watching; when you’ve let your guard down; when it’s only you and God, hidden away from the world, who are you then?
On this third Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading gives us John the Baptist, confronting this very question at the start of his public ministry. He has barely taken up his post at the banks of the Jordan River when his interrogators — priests and Levites from Jerusalem — show up to classify and contain him. Who is this wild, disheveled preacher calling people to repentance? Where does his authority come from? Is he crazy? Is he a threat? Is he — dare they entertain the possibility — an actual messenger from God?
Well, John prefaces his answer to the religious leaders by saying who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet.”
So perhaps when trying to answer that question ourselves, we would do well to begin where John begins. Before we can figure out who we are, we have to clarify — for ourselves and for the world — who we are not. We are not Jesus. We are not Saviors. We are not infallible. We are not omniscient or all-knowing. (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2846-who-are-you) And that, my friends, should be freeing.
John begins his ministry from a place of humility. He doesn’t allow his calling to go to his head. He doesn’t claim any identity that doesn’t belong to him. He makes his listeners no promises of ease and comfort; he simply asks them to prepare themselves for the One who is greater than himself. He stays in his lane. “I am not the Messiah.”
To be clear, this does not mean that John is weak. It also does not require denying John’s gifts and abilities. He has many. No one who reads the prophet’s story can call him anything other than strong, self-possessed, and authoritative. But John knows both the source and the purpose of his authority. Celebrity holds no attractions for him, and neither does religious or political power. Notice that he carries out his vocation in the wilderness, far from the centers of power and prestige in Jerusalem.
So, the question, “Who are you?” is a very large question. It asks us to do deep work. It asks us to interrogate what we hold dear, what we trust, what we love — and why. Once we’ve peeled away everything we are not as followers of Jesus, what’s left? After we’ve figured out what we don’t support, what we don’t believe, or espouse, or love, what version of faith remains? What positive, vibrant, living core will we offer to the world in the name of Jesus?
This Advent, this time of living in darkness, is a time when it might be possible to dig deep and contemplate who we are. “Who are you, really?…when it’s just you and God.
You know, Jesus had this way of using parables to get around our defenses, to get around that persona that we present to others. Parables are stories.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry talks about meeting a priest out in Utah a couple years ago, who after the 2016 election brought together people in the town where he lives, red and blue, and brought them together, not to debate issues although they talked issues. He invited them to engage the issue not from trying to convince the other, but tell us the story of your life that brought you to the conclusion that you happen to hold. That shifts things. That creates common ground, because for everybody, there’s a story. His daddy used to say, don’t judge a book by its cover, read the book, because there is a story there.
A friend of mine said, one of the reasons God told Moses to take off his shoes in Exodus, is because God was about to tell Moses his story. And whenever someone reveals the story of their life, that ground on which they’re standing is holy ground. That’s the common ground: we’re human, and we’ve got a story. And if I listen to yours, and you to mine, we may not agree on a whole lot, but we’ll understand each other. And that produces common ground.
The texts of Advent and Christmas shimmer with the light that God brings into our midst as we hear in John’s Gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5). Yet if we lean too quickly toward the light, we miss seeing one of the greatest gifts this season has to offer us: that the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us. In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we can’t see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in the darkness. I will give you the treasures of darkness, God says in Isaiah 45:3, and riches hidden in secret places. For the Christ who was born two millennia ago, for the Christ who seeks to be born in us this day, the darkness is where incarnation begins. New life.
Take some time this Advent and Christmas season, to dig deep and think about who you really are. Who am I at my core? Ask God to meet you there, at the core of your very being. What are the precious stories of your life?
This Christmas will be a little different for most of us, so why not try something new. Perhaps set aside holy time, on holy ground to share a personal, from the core, story with the people you are hunkered down with during this shut down – your spouse, your partner, your kids, your friends, your roommate.
In this Sunday’s gospel, John in the wilderness is testifying to the light. He is clear that it is not about him; he is simply here to point to the light. Though the light is among us, he says, we do not know it. But the light is here, now, today and the light is here to mend and restore us.
I end with a Mending Blessing from Jan Richardson:
O my friend, take heart.
The work of repair is aching in its slowness and beautiful in the inches by which it will arrive.
Do not pray to be patient but to persist.
Ask for the endurance that helps us learn to breathe in the midst of fear, to love in the presence of sorrow, to dream within the rending of the world that might be made. Amen.