by David Baer, December 31, 2017
Text: John 1:19-34
“Who are you?” It’s an easy question—just three words. How would you answer? I’m a husband and father. I’m a Christian. I’m a pastor. I’m an American. I may have lived in New Jersey for more than half my life, but when I was a kid, my mother hung a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson in cross-stitch in the upstairs hallway of our home that said, “To be a Virginian, by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a benediction from Almighty God.” So there’s that too. How do you answer the question, “Who are you?”
This year we’ve been hearing the story of God and God’s people as the Bible tells it, beginning with the creation story back in September, and on through covenant, slavery, exodus, the giving of the Law, the Prophets, exile and return, and the promise of a Savior to come. And now we’ve arrived at Christmas. The promised Savior is here. In some other year, we might be hearing a story on this Sunday after Christmas about the child Jesus, about his dedication in the Temple, or about his escape to Egypt. But this year we’ll be reading the gospel of John, and John tells a very different kind of story about Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus is more than a Jewish rabbi who lived during the first century of the common era, though he was that too. For John, Jesus is the pre-existent Word of God, the one who was with God—and who was God—from the very beginning, the one through whom the whole cosmos and all its creatures were created. For John, the purpose of Jesus’ coming is to make God known, and to reveal who we are as well. So that’s the question we’re meant to wrestle with this morning. “Who are you?” is a question you can answer in many different ways. But how do you answer that question now that Jesus has come down to Earth?
“Who are you?” is what they asked John the Baptist. The religious authorities in Jerusalem had caught wind of this revivalist preacher out in the desert by the river Jordan. John preached the need for a repentance, for a new beginning. He invited people to confess how they had strayed from God’s way, and to come out and re-enter the promised land through the water of the Jordan river, just as their ancestors had done. He had enough of a following that the religious establishment had to sound him out. Was he a revolutionary, or a harmless kook?
Now, John does not seem like the easiest guy to talk to. If someone asked me, “Who are you?” I’m not sure how I’d answer, but I don’t think I’d say, “I am not a Nigerian. I am not a woman. I am not a Buddhist.” But that’s how John begins. He begins by telling them who he is not. And the first thing he is not, he says, is the Messiah. He is not the promised leader who is coming to save God’s people. So the representatives from Jerusalem ask a few follow-up questions: “OK, so you’re not the Messiah. What about Elijah? Are you the prophet Elijah?” You might remember that in the scriptures of the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah never dies. He’s taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot. So tradition held that Elijah would come back to finish his prophetic work by announcing the coming of the Messiah. But John shakes his head and says, “Nope. I’m not Elijah.” “What about the prophet?” they ask. “Are you the prophet?” God had promised in the Torah to send a prophet like Moses, someone with direct access to God (Deut. 18:15). But John answers simply, “No.” Now the representatives are getting impatient. They don’t want to keep playing 20 questions with John, so they tell him, “Look, we need to give something to the people who sent us. What’s your story? What do you say about yourself?”
And what John says next is really striking. He doesn’t claim to be a prophet at all. He doesn’t claim to be a hero, a visionary, a freedom-fighter, or anything else we might think of when we think of someone close to God, someone worth listening to or following. “I am a voice,” he says. Not a person at all, but a voice. A vibration traveling across the air, gone in an instant. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” he says. He is the voice of someone who is speaking, not the speaker. He transmits a message that does not belong to him. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” John the Baptist is quoting from the prophet Isaiah, who used these words to instill hope in a people living in exile. God was about to blaze a straight trail across the desert in order to bring them home. John is the voice announcing that help is on the way, that God is about to save God’s people. And all his preaching, all his baptizing, all his ministry depends on the one who is coming after him. His life is a trust-fall—you know, the exercise where you close your eyes and fall backward into someone else’s arms, even though you can’t see them? That’s John. That’s his work. That’s his life. That’s who he is.
The very next day, John catches a glimpse of Jesus, and he knows he’s been caught safely, that he was right to trust. “Here is the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sin of the world!” But John says not once, but twice, “I myself did not know him.” Listen: “I myself did not know him, … I myself did not know him, … but I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” It’s just like the conversation with the folks who came from Jerusalem: I am not this, I am not that—I didn’t plan, I didn’t foresee, I didn’t know. I didn’t make this happen. I’ve preached and baptized and lived my life in the hope of seeing God’s promise come true. And just now God opened my eyes to see the wonderful thing that God has made happen. Who is John? A voice, a pilgrim who walks by faith and not by sight, and a faithful witness to God’s promise keeping.
Who are you? John’s story today is an invitation for each of us to give an answer in the light of Jesus’ coming. What part do you play in what God is doing through Jesus? John reminds us that we don’t need to understand everything God is about. Sometimes it’s enough to live by the promise.
When I was a college student, my campus ministry would go on spring break work trips. And I think some of us had the expectation that these trips would be these mountaintop experiences, where we would be bathed in heavenly light as we extended a helping hand to the needy, who would express their humble gratitude for what we gave. The reality was somewhat messier. We spent a week in Mexico City digging a hole for the foundation of a house that wouldn’t be built until long after we had gone. We spent a day painting walls in a preschool classroom in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. When we did visit with the kids, they were… I believe the polite term is “spirited,” taking whacks at each other and at us. Another time we served in a soup kitchen, where one of the guests complained loudly about the food and harassed his fellow guests. I remember reflecting on these experiences in a journal, and being struck by the Bible passage, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats—those who took care of their brothers and sisters in need from those who didn’t. Every kindness—every warm meal filling a hungry belly, every piece of clothing protecting a naked body, every welcoming word to a stranger—Jesus tells them they did all of it to him, to Jesus. “But we never saw you!” they protest, and Jesus explains, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And I realized it was OK. It was OK not to see God moving in every encounter. It was OK just to hold onto the promise that these things were worth doing anyway, that God was honored and glorified in these small gifts. You didn’t have to see or feel it in the moment—that’s why it’s called “faith.”
There is a Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sins, sickness, and sadness…. But—thanks be to God!—I am not he, and neither are you. We live our lives out in the light of the promise that he has come and will come again. We give ourselves generously in the hope that when we fall backward we will be caught in the everlasting arms. And we bear witness, together with John, to the glimpses God has allowed us to see of promises being kept, of salvation close enough to touch. Who are you? A child of God, living by God’s promise, which is enough for today. Thanks be to God. Amen.