I hit a wall this week, with a bad case of writer’s block. It was a busy week, with layers of things going on. And, at times when I hit this wall—as my staff and my wife know far too well—I rearrange the furniture.
Cynthia helped me move my office around, and I must say it’s lovely. I now have room for the Jacuzzi tub I have asked for for Christmas.
But I struggled with this week’s text. I don’t know why, on one hand. It is a very well-known text, with St. John’s account of the experience of John the Baptist—what folks thought of him, how they struggled to understand him. It isn’t an unfamiliar text, but it was difficult to write this sermon… I was completely hooked by one question the crowd asked of John: “Who are you?” The crowd wanted to know who John was… It is a deceptively simple question… “Who are you?”
So I also took the chance to do another practice that often helps me break through the wall of writer’s block: I went through the office and polled the staff and volunteers. I walked through offices and told the folks not to censor themselves, to give their first, honest, gut response to the question: “Who are you?”
The answers were absolutely wonderful…and so different!
One staff person said, “I am a mother…” Another said, “I am a beloved child of God.”
Another said, “I am a misfit.” Yes…that answer was appropriate for that person!
But then it got interesting…
One person said, “Darned if I know,” and another person said, “Well, I don’t know the answer to that. It’s complicated. There are lots of ‘mes’” at which point I went and had Cynthia make an appointment with this person in hopes that her mental struggles could be supported.
But in all honesty, it is a difficult question isn’t it. If I were to ask you…I am asking you.. right now… without censoring yourself, what would be your gut response to the question “Who are you?” how would you respond?
This pesky little question invites us into a very deep space on this third Sunday in Advent.
John the Baptist was an intriguing figure in the lives of those in the community. He was a person on the “outskirts” of the community… It was a time in which frustration and anger was bubbling just under the surface, anger that was fueled by pressure from the Roman Empire.
The time was rich for a religious revolution. The environment was ripe for resistance, and there was a resonance of spiritual revival throughout…
And there was John the Baptizer, dressed in camel hair, eating locusts and honey. Many scholars believe he was a member of the Essene community, a gathering of people who were very focused in their practice…who had enormous religious zeal…who anticipated the arrival of the Messiah at any moment.
The people were drawn to what John was saying, but they couldn’t quite figure him out. They believed the Messiah was coming. He had to come soon, given the situation they were in with political oppression. Something had to happen…
But who exactly was this John the Baptizer?
Some of the people sent for the religious leaders. Surely they would know what to make of this person.
They went and consulted the Levites, who were a special class of religious folks within the Jewish people. The Levites shared that some folks thought that John was really Elijah come back to the people after his assumption in the chariot of fire. Others thought he was another prophet. Others thought he actually was the Messiah himself.
But John said simply, “No. I am none of these things.”
It was complicated… Can’t you see them scratching their heads, standing there in the desert…. And they all but beg him, “Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself? Who are you?”
It’s complicated…. Or is it?
John knew who he was. John knew what he was called to do. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”
John was carrying on the tradition of the prophets, like Isaiah, who cried out for a new message from God, who prayed for God to come among the people.
John picks up Isaiah’s mantle, whose message we hear in today’s Old Testament reading: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…” In other words, God’s Spirit has come upon me to announce that something new is coming your way…that God Himself is coming…among you…within you…
As we hear in our Advent prayer, “Keep awake, for you do not know the hour that the master will come…”
John knew who he was. He knew what he was to do, what message he was to bring.
The question rolling around in my head this Advent Season is this: within the complexity of our own identity, within the myriad “selves” we have (parent, mother, father, daughter, brother, sister, teacher, lawyer, doctor, priest, janitor, store owner, painter, artist, musician, student, veteran, soldier….) within the myriad selves we are… do we recognize our own identity as a prophet, the herald of Good News in the world today?
That’s the “trick” of the texts themselves, isn’t it. They are not just words on the page to be read and studied. They are, in fact, messages, glimpses of grace, to be embodied in our daily lives. We aren’t just supposed to read about John the Baptizer and remember his story…. Rather, we are called to embody it, to live into it, to take up the mantle of prophet, of herald, just like John did from Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets. We are called to take our place as we cry out in our own day and age,
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
We, too, are voices crying out in the wilderness of our own day and time: wildernesses of poverty, hunger, grief, homelessness, mental illness, oppression, war, racism… We have a long list of wildernesses. And in our wildernesses, we too are called to point the way, and invite closed eyes to be opened, cold hearts to be warmed, shackled minds to be freed…
We too are called to embody the collect from today’s liturgy, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us!”
Sure we’ll get strange looks. You can count on that. Sure we’ll feel awkward at times. You can count on that as well. We will be unusual if we live into our vocation as prophets. Maybe we won’t wear camel skin shirts, but we won’t be able to blend in to the culture around us.
We will have our own experiences, much like Alice in Wonderland, standing in front of the crazy blue caterpillar who repeatedly asks us—just like the Levites asked John—“Who are you?”
What will you say?
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Advent III, Year B
John 1:6-8; 19-28
December 14, 2014