Online Sermon for Sunday December 13th (3rd in Advent):
Gospel Reading: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Therewas a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said,
"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord"", as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
"What do you say about yourself?" they ask John the Baptist. We imagine that he has infuriated them, these delegates from Jerusalem - every time they suggest an identity for him, he says, "No, that's not it." So they demand some kind of answer; they need him to define his role so that the bigwigs back in HQ can have some idea what on earth is going on out there at the river Jordan. John gives them an answer, but it comes out of a different frame of reference from the one they are working with. They want to find a title for him, they want to place him in a hierarchy of religious importance. Instead, he just tells them what his job is - to prepare for the One who is to come. John isn't interested in his own status; his focus is firmly on the God-given task he is to fulfil.
I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of time and energy in my life trying to work out who I am. Trying to get my story straight about myself, if you like; trying to nail down my identity, so that at least something can be clear and certain in the midst of life's confusion. And I wonder sometimes how fruitful all that effort has been. Often the best I can do is, like John, to look at the options and say, with a shake of the head, "No, that's not me." Maybe you are less prone to navel-gazing than me. But most of us care about, or worry about, our position, our status, and that would be part of our answer to the question, "What do you say about yourself?" Most of us would want to give an answer that says something about our self-understanding and our standing in the world.
But John, I think, challenges us to answer in a different way. This charismatic, uncompromising figure turns out to be defiantly uninterested in his own identity and status as ends in themselves. He says, in effect - don't mind about me, I'm just a signpost pointing to the one who really matters. If you want to work out exactly who I am and how important I am, you're barking up the wrong tree. The only significant thing about me is what I am meant to do - my function, my calling.
So perhaps you and I need to spend less time worrying about who we are and where we stand in relation to others, and more time focusing on what God is calling us to do - saying, in effect: never mind about me, what matters is my willingness to point to Jesus, to help others find the goodness and joy of God in the midst of life's troubles. Just as John steps back to let Jesus take centre stage, so my little noisy ego needs to make way for the wonder of God. It's another lesson in humility, in other words (will they ever stop?). And another chance to reflect on the example we are given by God's prophets: full-throttle boldness and strength of purpose, allied with a deep-down refusal to play the me-first game. Like John the Baptist, we are called to refuse the lure of preoccupation with ourselves, and instead make more room for God.