Sunday Night Worship – 12/14/08


John 1: 6-8; 19-28

Imagine being home for Christmas break and your uncle asks you one afternoon, “So, what are you studying at school this year?” To which you reply, “Well, I’m not taking any music classes.”

You could play a game of 20 questions, proceeding this way until your uncle finally narrows down to your real major. But a game probably isn’t what he’s looking for.

What were the priests and Levites looking for when they asked John, “Who are you?” John responds, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:19-20). What an odd way to answer a question.

And what a strange and unfamiliar John we encounter here. As distinct from the other three gospels, a lot of what we readily think of when John’s name is mentioned is simply missing in the gospel of John. No locusts, no eating wild honey, no weird and scratchy camel’s hair clothing. No talk of repentance. In this passage we just read, we don’t even see or hear any crowds gathering to be baptized. None of that.

So what’s left? Who is John without all those memorized, funky, and distinctive props? Without the descriptions we’re used to, who is John? What is it about this nobody that stirs baptizing and questions?

Perhaps he is wild-eyed and gruff, barking commands and scripture to anyone who comes close enough to hear. His hair curly and unruly, his voice husky like someone in need of a long drink of water. His words searing in some strange, barely-recognizable way, telling of something and Someone to come. This John scares even as he attracts.

Or maybe his eyes aren’t wild at all. Maybe there is a look of censure about them, causing an unwelcome and sudden feeling of guilt to wash over you when your eyes meet his. This John isn’t scary but neither is he alluring. Standing in his presence is like standing too close to a roaring fire – for a split second you feel warmth but mostly it’s an uncomfortable heat.

But that might not be John either. What if he is winsome? Curiously attractive? What if he compels you to forget where you came from or the direction you are headed? What if in the moment when his eyes catch yours you know with a certainty you’ve never felt before that you can believe whatever it is he tells you? What if this John invites you to the edge of the riverbank?

How does our image of who John is affect our reading of his answer to the Jewish leaders? Who are you? I am not the Messiah. Why does he answer like this?

Maybe he has only just discovered who he is not.

There was a time when I was in my mid-twenties, still wandering from place to place and job to job, still very uncertain of my calling in life. And broke and frustrated, too. During this time I had a conversation with my Dad.

The thing you need to know about my Dad is that he’s an electrical engineer who has been quoted as saying that there is “no point” to fiction. The thing you need to know about me is that the first thing I ever really knew for myself is that I loved reading stories and novels – and I thought the grandest occupation in life must be to be someone who writes these wonderful things.

So here I am in a spiritual-vocational-quarter-life crisis and my loving father says to me that he’s often thought my brother and I both would have been better off if we’d been engineers.

Some of you may be wondering if my father ever met me before this point, or at least if he’d ever seen me try to figure out the tip on a restaurant bill. Of course, my Dad was worried about my apparently directionless path in life and the paltry balance in my bank account.

And though I shared some of my father’s concerns about the bank account and the desire for direction, at that same moment when he wished engineering on me…at that moment when I still had absolutely no idea what the next step was…at that same moment, I knew with complete certainty that he was wrong about the engineering. I had not yet figured out who I was and how I was being called, but I did know who I was not.

What if John’s been spending his time in the desert working out his own calling? We know from Luke’s gospel that there is promise implicit in John’s conception and birth but we aren’t given many details. In John’s gospel we get none. How many details would John himself have had? Well-wishes and great expectations from his proud parents? Sure. A general inkling that God had something specific in mind for him? Perhaps. A signed contract with explicit directions? Certainly not.

So here he is – picture him as you will – spending a lot of time alone in the desert, with at least a vague sense of purpose. He has grown up in the Jewish faith and he knows the prophecies about the one crying out in the wilderness and about the long-expected Messiah. As he begins his crying out, what if there is a moment or two when John wonders if he himself might be the Messiah? He tests the scriptures, searches his own heart, prays to God, and walks the dusty rough ground of the desert, pondering who he is, who God has made him to be.

When it first occurs to him it is a thrilling and daunting possibility. He knows so well what his people long for. Isn’t this passion in his chest a fire from God? He could lead the people. Is this what God is asking?

John asks himself, Is my voice only going to be a witness to me?ÂÂ

After some time he realizes with complete certainty that he is not the Messiah. It takes a while to work through it and he might still be working through the implications, but he knows now. He knows. He has a role but it is not as Messiah.

Then along come these uptight, pencil-pushing temple leaders. It must have taken them some time to trek out here in their wing-tips and argyle socks, but they don’t seem interested in quenching their thirst or in the waters of baptism. Without an introduction or an explanation they launch that weighty question at him: Who are you? They say they’ve been sent, implying that a lot rides on his answer. As if he doesn’t already know this.

And it’s the easiest thing they could have asked. Where is the Messiah? What is the Messiah planning? These would have been difficult to answer. But once you’ve worked out your answers with God, who’s going to be scared of a bunch of priests and Levites?

Who are you? I am not the Messiah.ÂÂ

Maybe what John hears in their question is the echo of that struggle. And this is one question he knows the answer for. Maybe it’s not such a strange way to answer the question after all. Sometimes discovering who you are not is the first and most important part of discovering who you are.

And sometimes discovering who you are happens when you let go of who others think you might be. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who ran an underground seminary in Nazi Germany before being captured and eventually killed in a concentration camp. In his book Letters and Papers From Prison, he takes up this question of John’s in a poem entitled “Who Am I?”

Listen to Bonhoeffer’s words with John in mind:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equally, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

You may know a little something about the struggles of Bonhoeffer and John. You may know what it’s like to feel around in the dark for an answer that makes sense. You may know how the Spirit of God can blow in like a full force gale, wrestling you into a fight you weren’t looking for. You may know about parents and professors pushing for a path you aren’t sure you want to walk down. You may know about late night conversations with God, hoping for an answer to the question, “Who am I?” You may know what it’s like to decide who you are by first throwing out the other options.

This time of year the path is not well lit, despite the ubiquitous Christmas lights in our Advent sky. We are waiting for Christ to be revealed to us in the details and dramas of our lives. We are waiting for something like birth and we have been told that the time is near.

Whoever you are – whoever you are not – know that you are God’s. However long you’ve been waiting, know that God can still be born in the messy midst of your life. Know that God is calling you to something bigger than you would plan for yourself, something grander than a major or a job or anyone’s notion of “success.” Know that in the struggle and in the wait and in the “I am nots” God is with you. Emmanuel.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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