Saturday, December 13, 2014

Who Are You?

John 1:6-8, 19-28
Advent 3
December 14, 2014
William G. Carter

There was 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. 

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.

A good number of us know what it’s like to survive an interview. There is the standard job interview, where a position is posted, you apply, and they call you in to talk. A professional with her hair pulled back motions you to an awkward chair. “Thanks for coming in,” she says. “We want to find out more about you.” For the next thirty-five minutes, however, you are sitting on the edge of the seat, doing your best to look confident. If you’re in charge of your senses, you try not to say something stupid or immature. When you stand to leave, perhaps you have no idea yet of how it really went. Even if it goes well, an interview can be an unsettling experience.

Tonight when our church staff gathers for our Christmas dinner, I may ask them what they remember about their own job interviews. As I recall, we asked one of them to play a hymn that the search committee could sing, another one to direct us in singing a piece of music, and another one to lead us in a prayer. No pressure there. Imagine praying and hoping for a passing grade.

Maybe you have had the experience of being interviewed by the media. It’s no less unsettling. My first interview was for a newspaper in Allentown. The reporter wasn’t very prepared. He asked questions that I couldn’t answer, and they printed the wrong answers anyway. In my young mind, I had hoped it would become a feature story for People magazine. Sadly the paper misspelled “Presbyterian,” and most of the facts wrong. I was deeply embarrassed to see what they actually put in print. 

Today we hear an Advent interview with John the Baptist. He is down by the River Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea. Everybody knows about John. The Gospel writer doesn’t say much about him, because he assumed everybody already knew. He gets plenty of ink in all four of the Gospels, because John’s appearance ignited the imagination of the whole nation.

He dressed in the garments of memory, in a robe made from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. That’s just how the prophet Elijah had dressed, about nine hundred years before (2 Kings 1:8). Everybody remembered that. And when John spoke, he sounded like a prophet. There was fire in his voice and God was in the present tense. So the religious officials sent a team of investigators to find out more about him. Their questions echo like firecrackers within the canyon walls: Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? What do you have to say about yourself?

The interrogation is relentless. One question after another is hurled at John, and it’s not clear why. Maybe the Religious Officials are trying to intimidate him; as far as they are concerned, the Temple is the center of their universe and this strange character is pulling people out to the dry sands of the desert. Or maybe they want to discover the secret of his charisma; what is the strange magnetic power that makes him so compelling? Or perhaps they secretly hope to trip him up and relish in his fall from glory. That still happens.

Maybe you saw the headline just the other day: “True Secrets of Beloved Public Figures.” I couldn’t look away. I looked both directions in the checkout line to make sure nobody saw me, and then I read the article. John Lennon sang about love and peace, but treated women with cruelty. Clint Eastwood writes love songs and believes movies are too violent. John Wayne hated to ride a horse. And then, the big shocker: Doctor Seuss didn’t like children. The greatest children’s author in our lifetime didn’t want any children in his house.

I don’t know how much of that is true, but I know there is a strange attraction for discovering details about public figures. What kind of secrets are they hiding? Did she have a facelift? Did he have a girlfriend on the side? There is a hunger that feeds upon itself, and people want to know things that really are nobody’s business to know. How else do we explain “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? A married man confessed to me that, even though he knows it’s a show about nothing, he can’t stop watching it. When his wife walks into the room, he flips the channel to ESPN, and she says, “No, go back, I wanted to see that too.”

Who are you? What do you say about yourself? That’s what inquiring minds want to know. Could there be some dirt beneath your fingernails?

I recall a conversation with Dave Brubeck, the great pianist. He told me about the cover of one of his first recordings. The record company posed him at the piano in a nightclub with a gorgeous brunette hanging over the keyboard. Brubeck has a big toothy grin. I asked, “What did your wife think about that?” “She didn’t like it one bit,” he said, “but the record sold a lot of copies.” The truth is Dave was a real family guy. It was his saxophonist who was always running around.

So the interrogators go to John the Baptist: Who are you? What do you say for yourself? And he says, “I’m not the one.” Are you Elijah? “I am not.” Are you the prophet? “No!” 

Who are you? “I am not the Messiah, merely the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

But if you’re not Elijah, not the prophet, not the Messiah, why are you doing what you are doing? And he says, “The One who is coming after me is so great that I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Imagine the look on their faces, the question in their hearts: Who is he talking about? Where is he? And then John says the most haunting thing of all: “Among you stands One whom you do not know.” He is present. He is greater. And you do not know him.

This is a preview of coming attractions. In fact, it’s one of the recurring themes of the Gospel: the Messiah has come, and it is Jesus, and you do not know him. The One we are looking for is here, and we do not see him.

Throughout the Gospel, this will happen over and over again: Jesus, who can turn water into wine, but does it when nobody is looking. He tells Nicodemus about the birthing power of God and the Pharisee says, “How can this be?” He reveals living water to the Samaritan woman and she replies, “Where is your bucket?” He heals a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years and the authorities say, “Who did this to you?” Over and over, Jesus reveals the grace and truth of God and most people miss it.

The Gospel writer says this is the way it is: “He was in the world, and world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11). Please don’t read that as a judgment on first-century people who happened to be in the same time and place as Jesus when he was walking around. It’s really a description of everyone who has ever been alive. The power that gives the Life of Eternity to all things is right here, right here among us – and we don’t see it, we don’t know it, we don’t trust it. That’s the human predicament.

It could be that we are simply looking in the wrong direction. That’s what John the Baptist says. They went out to question him as if he is a trouble-maker, or an outsider, or a celebrity. They want to know who he is, and who he thinks he is, and what he believes he is doing --- but John’s response is essentially this: it’s not about me. I am not the One. I’m not very important at all. What a remarkable re-direction! They went to interrogate, and it is they who are exposed.

To look around our time and our place, there are a lot of people who are focused on themselves. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told the National Press Club, "In a world where everyone has a cell phone with a camera, everyone's a paparazzi. In a world where everyone has a blog, everyone's a reporter. Now everyone else is a public figure, leaving digital footprints everywhere." We live in a Selfie culture, among people not particularly interested in looking beyond themselves.

Or there is our national life. One young adult wrote publicly about her dismay at recent high profile deaths of black Americans and this week’s Senate report on torture. She’s pretty upset. She wrote, “It is has become increasingly clear to me, particularly over the past few months, that the American Way has become synonymous with the most horrifically perverse and self-seeking behavior imaginable. We justify the most heinous acts as necessary... I’m sorry, but torture, racism, rape, abuse, greed, and lying do not constitute the Kingdom of God.”

OK, that’s a lot to work through. But the Gospel of John is not surprised by any of this. We live in a world that is turned in upon itself. We live in a world that is suffocating on its own self-absorption. We live in a world that justifies whatever it wants to justify. As one old crotchety Presbyterian teacher once said, “Sin is nothing more, and nothing less, than being inclined in our own direction.”

John the Baptist gets it right. He says, “It’s not about me.” The One who is coming is so great that we can’t even untie the thong of his sandals.

He’s speaking of Jesus. He is speaking of the One who doesn’t need to come and impress us. He is already among us and we don’t yet see him. Jesus Christ will give us the freedom to go about our affairs. We can act as if we are a world unto ourselves - - and he will simply wait us out. And when we are lying on the rocks, shipwrecked, he will be there too, asking ever so gently, “How’s that working out for you? Anybody want to try it another way? If so, then follow me.”

I think I know why the Pharisees sent the priests and the others to interrogate John. It’s a pretty good hunch, and I think you know it too. They sent him in a vague attempt to stop him. John was doing the work of God, and they didn’t want too much of God in the world, thank you. They were content with mere religion, with rules, routines, and rituals, and nobody getting too excited. They wanted business as usual. Even if they knew it wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for them.

And John breaks through it all and says, “God is coming, and we’ve gotten pretty lazy. God’s Savior is already among us. We’re too busy posing for pictures of ourselves and we don’t see him. The fire of God’s Spirit is coming and it is going to burn away everything that doesn’t belong to God.”

They said, “Who are you, John? What do you think you’re doing?”

John said, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness. That’s who I am. And I am testifying to the Truth that comes in Jesus of Nazareth. His truth can set you free. It will push you out of all insulated self-righteousness. It will prompt you to sing with joy. It can transform you from the inside out. His truth can turn the world upside down. But it’s going to cost you something. It’s going to cost you everything.”

Do I really want that? 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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