Sunday, December 17, 2023

Third Sunday in Advent

Joy — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, NRSVUE)

Gospel Reading (John 1:6-8, 19-28, NRSVUE)

For my birthday a couple of years ago my family bought me one of those DNA test kits that’s supposed to tell you where you come from. I’d always wanted to confirm the anecdotes that had been passed around my family for years about our ancestry and, thankfully, modern science has now made this an easy and relatively inexpensive thing to do — just pay your fee, spit in a test tube, seal it up, put it in the mail and wait for the results to show up. About six weeks later, I got an email telling me that they were ready.

Now, as I’m sure many of you know, family lore can often be an undependable source of information but, surprisingly enough, it happened to be pretty accurate in my case. The genetic data confirmed what I’d been told all along: I was thirty-five percent Lowland Scot and sixty-five percent Germanic (from the Netherlands, to be precise). In other words, I was exactly who I’d always thought I was.

Recently, however, I logged back into my account to have another look at the data and learned something new. As it turns out, I’m now sixty-six percent Germanic, thirty precent Central Lowland Scot, three percent Swedish and Danish, and one percent Irish. Swedish, Danish and Irish? No one in my family had ever mentioned that to me before. After doing a little more reading, though, I was able to understand how this happened.

In a nutshell, as more people do these kinds of tests the sheer amount of data increases, which allows researchers to put a finer point on their statistical conclusions.

For example, as the number of samples from people with long-standing roots in specific places continues to grow, it becomes easier and easier to make connections between their information and information about people like me whose ancestry emantes from various places This is why the results can change over time, and why I’m now part Swedish, Danish and Irish. I guess I’m really not who I thought I was after all.

On the one hand, it’s kind of cool to think that I might logon to the website in a year and suddenly discover that I’m now also Portuguese or Slovenian. On the other hand, though, I’d like to have a definitive understanding of my own identity, to know once and for all who I really am.

It’s for this reason that I find myself feeling a little envious of John, the one crying out in the wilderness. As we’re introduced to him in today’s passage from John’s Gospel, he seems to have no doubt whatsoever about who he is.

By all indications John has created a bit of a ruckus by baptizing people there in Bethany on the far side of the Jordan, out in the middle of nowhere, which is why the leaders in Jerusalem have sent the priests and the Levites to have a little chat with him.

While baptizing is the activity that’s apparently drawn the authorities’ attention to John, the Fourth Gospel doesn’t refer to him as either “John the Baptist” (as Matthew does) or “John the baptizer” (as Mark does) or “John the son of Zechariah” (as Luke does); here, in John’s Gospel, he’s just called “John.”

For the record – John, the author of this gospel, and John, the Baptist described in all four gospels are two completely different people). To make things even more complicated, John who wrote the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament is an entirely different person who just so happens to have the same name — but I digress.

The John we meet in our reading for today is, by all accounts, a baptizer but, in this particular version of the story, baptizing Jesus isn’t mentioned as one of John’s core job responsibilities, (though it’s a important one for him in both Matthew and Mark). In fact, we don’t ever learn whether Jesus was baptized at all here — it’s just kind of assumed that he was.

John’s Gospel also doesn’t give us a vivid description of John the Baptist as a strange, wild man clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey, like the one we heard last week in Mark. John the Author’s portrait of John the Baptist is a little thin on details. 

But the first two verses of today’s passage make very clear that John isn’t just some random guy out there on the banks of the River Jordan doing all of this baptizing for no apparent reason; he has been recruited by a higher power for a very specific mission, he is “a man sent from God… as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And that’s kind of a big deal.

The priests and Levites — the religious authorities in these parts — don’t know this, though, and so when they arrive on the scene in order to speak with John, they want to see some form of ID, they want to check John’s baptizing license.

But people didn’t carry around such things back then, so these priests and Levites do the only thing they really could do; they ask John, “Who are you?”

We already know that he is “John” — truth be told, these guys probably knew at least this much too.

People in positions of power don’t tend to ask questions they don’t already know at least part of the answer to, and they don’t often ask simple, straightforward questions either. The inquiry these priests and Levites pose to John here is certainly no exception to these general rules.

So when they ask John “Who are you?” they’re not asking him what his name is; they’re asking him “Who the heck do you think you are?” They’re asking him, “By whose authority are you out here baptizing people and talking to them about this light that’s coming into the world?” Like I said, they already kind of know the answer because they’re the only people who could have given John permission to do what he’s doing. And they didn’t do that.

But John won’t actually tell them who he is; all he’ll tell them, at least at first anyway, is who he isn’t. He’s not the Messiah (which is odd because, as far as I can tell, no one actually implied that he was). And he’s not Elijah. And he’s not the prophet (by which John means the new version of Moses that everyone is expecting to show up at some point).

These priests and Levites, unsurprisingly, aren’t satisfied with John’s answer, and so they press him for more information; they ask John again, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

But, even then, John dodges the question by letting the prophet Isaiah do the talking for him: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” is his reply. John doesn’t really give them an answer, and he also chooses to define himself in relation to the one he’s there to pave the way for.

John then abruptly shifts his focus to the aforementioned Lord. Sure, John might baptize with water, but he pales in importance to the one who is coming — indeed, the one who is already here. For John, it’s never about John, it’s always about Jesus.

John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the the light, but he came to testify to the light.

“Who are you?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

“Who the heck do you think you are?”

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

For John, the answer is always the same.

Who are you?

In our day and age, the answer to this question tends to be about us: our roles, our jobs, our allegiances or our affiliations. For example, I might reply, “I’m a spouse and a parent” or “I’m a minister” or “I’m an American (who just so happens to be three percent Swedish and Danish, and one percent Irish),” and it’s hard to argue with any of these answers on a factual basis.

If, however, I decided to tell you who I wasn’t, then quoted the prophet Isaiah in order to tell you that I was here to serve the Lord, and then directed your attention towards the one who is coming after me — telling you that I was not fit to untie his sandals — then you’d probably find my responses a bit peculiar.

But part of the reason that John’s words here seem so strange is that his entire sense of self is so much different than what we typically experience in our place and time.

You see, John sees himself as someone sent by God to do something. Everything that John says and does — everything that John is — proceeds from that essential premise. It is not about John, but it comes through John.

John understands, with unwavering conviction, that he has been put here to do God’s work in the world, to pave the way for Christ’s arrival, to testify to the light that shines in the darkness and to reflect that light to others. This is who John is.

But here’s the thing: This is who you are too.

And in contrast what the world may tell you,

in contrast to the ever-changing results that those DNA test kits give you, that answer’s never going to change.

I mean maybe walking around in a camel hair shirt, eating bugs and baptizing people in a river isn’t exactly your thing — and that’s fine.

But what is your thing? How have you been called to do God’s work in the world? How will you pave the way for Christ’s arrival? How will you testify to the light that shines in the darkness and reflect that light to others?