John 1:6-8; 19-28
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2011
Last week, we talked about who John the Baptist was, and what his ministries were.
Today’s text is all about who John the Baptist was not, and what his ministries were not.
John was not the light, so says John chapter one, verse 6-8. “He came only as a witness to the light.”
John was also not the Messiah, so says John chapter 1, verse 20, and this claim is a quote straight from John the Baptist’s own lips. You see, the priests and Levites had shown up to ask John who he was, but instead, John answered by saying what he wasn’t. “I am not the Messiah,” were the first words out of his mouth. He admitted it readily and freely.
John was also not Elijah.
Not the Prophet, with a capital P.
Not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.
And, while John was on a roll, testing negative at every turn, he tested his questioners as well and the results were similar. He discovered what they were not. “Among you stands one you do not know,” John said to them, which may sound like he was addressing their knowledge, but really, John was speaking to their identity. The priests, Pharisees, and Levites were supposed to know God better than anyone—it was their vocation, after all—but they did not recognize the Messiah in their midst. They were not as knowledgeable and priestly as they thought. They thought they were the professional know-ers God, and generally-speaking, this perceived proximity to God gained a priest respect. But John was not your average person, so he saw past their portly perceptions to the undernourished spiritual vision beneath, and he pronounced with a prophet’s poise: “You do not know.”
Perhaps the priests’ inflated sense of who they were blinded them from recognizing the Messiah in their midst. Perhaps it was John’s humility in knowing what he was not that freed him up to see Jesus for who he really was.
I don’t mean to suggest that the priests and Pharisees were arrogant, per se. I think they were good-hearted with good intentions and good wits about them. So what when wrong? How did the ones whose job was to see God, fail to see?
I am reminded of a story about Barbara Brown Taylor, a priest with a tender spot in her heart for lost or wounded animals. One time, she tried to rescue a little bird. She kept it with her in her office, spent her lunch breaks driving across town to buy worms to feed the bird, she fussed and flitted about, meeting the bird’s needs and coaxing it back to health. Eventually the bird grew strong and healthy again, just like Barbara had hoped. The time came to let the bird go into the wild, but there was always a good reason to hold on just one more day. One day the weather wasn’t quite right; the next day the bird didn’t look quite strong enough after all. But after weeks of the bird flying around her office, Barbara finally realized she had to let the bird go. She took him outside to the field by her office and watched him soar away. With a twinge of sadness at the parting, Barbara headed to her car. She was sure going to miss that bird . . . suddenly, she felt talons latching onto the top of her head. The bird was back, he was back in a jiffy, and the grip of his claws seemed to say, “I’m not leaving. You can’t make me.” Turns out he didn’t know how to soar off and be free after she had sheltered him for so long.
Barbara Brown Taylor had to try multiple times before she was able to coax that bird to fly away for good. She eventually drove out into the woods somewhere and let him loose there. She realized she’d gone too far—she had tried to nurse that bird to health so it could be independent once again. Instead, she’d taught the bird to depend on her. Unfortunately, she admits, she’s often done that in ministry and in life too. She tries to be too much, and it poisons the relationship. She was meant to be a channel of blessing and life, but she tried to be the very life itself. Instead of bearing witness to the light, she became the light, and as a result the people she cared for started to think the world would go dark if they had to face it without her. Sometimes she starting thinking their worlds would go dark if she wasn’t there to help them.*
The moon can go on thinking it is the sun, but all that does is wear out the moon.
I suspect those priests and Pharisees began their vocational journeys with good intentions all around, and somewhere along the way, they got themselves in over their heads. By the time John the Baptist arrived, proclaiming that the True Light was now coming into the world, the priests and Pharisees were tired. Really, really tired. Too tired to listen. Too tired to see. They had been fighting hard for righteousness for a long, long time, and it gave them tunnel vision. So when Jesus appeared on the peripheral, they might as well have been blind, because they could not see Him.
We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble when we try to be the light, but it’s not like we meant to take things too far like that. It feels good to try and be a messiah to someone who in need, to someone who is hurting, to a family member we love. It can feel like we matter, like we’re making a difference, like somebody needs us.
But at the end of the day, our energy is zapped and somehow, despite all the good we’ve done, we feel like frauds. We have ensured that someone needs us, but we are not always sure if they love us, or if we can even follow through.
Maybe this Advent, we need to relinquish the delusion that we are light. Let ourselves sit with the darkness—darkness created by us, the darkness thrust upon us by hurtful people, the darkness inside us, the darkness surrounding us. Sit with all our varying darknesses, acknowledge them, and wait for Light to come.
The Light can shine on you and through you, but you can never be the Light. You cannot be the source, the giver, the electricity. You can conduct it like wire, and that is a worthwhile job, to be sure, but you are not the thing, the point, or the hero. You’re just you. You may be a voice of one calling, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” but you are not the Lord, and the funny thing is, sometimes we forget that. Truth be told, it is a relief not to be the Messiah, or Elijah, or The Prophet. It is a relief when you have the freedom to just be you, and nothing more. It is a relief, when you finally look sideways and see that The Light is coming.
If you see the sun rising on the horizon, and you are the moon, you get out of the way. Sometimes your life will work like a reflector—absorbing the rays of light and casting them back out again—and that will feel wonderful, like you’re alive. People don’t need that from you—heck, they’ve got the sun—but on occasion you will reflect a ray into some dark corner to someone for whom the sun’s blocked out. It will make all the difference to them, but chances are, you’ll never know it. The moon is modest like that.
If you do not know what you are not, the One you’ve been waiting for will come, but you will not know Him, though He is among you. The Gospel of John begins with John the Baptist proclaiming who he is not, which, apparently, makes room for Jesus to come along and proclaim all that he is.
“I am not,” says John.
“I am who I am,” says God.
Way back in Egypt, when God made one of his first appearances to humankind, Moses asked God who he was, and God said, “I am . . . Tell the people ‘I am’ has sent you.”
And when God came again, in the body of Jesus, his message was the same and yet bigger. The Gospel of John asks Jesus who he is, and listen to the ways Jesus responds:
“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born,
When you have lifted up the Son of Man,
then you will know that I am he.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth and the life.
I am the vine, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd,
I am the one who testifies for himself.
I am the light of the world.
I am with you.
Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.
I am the resurrection and the life.
You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.
I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
And, finally, when the soldiers arrived in the Garden to arrest him,
Jesus said, “I am he. I am he. I told you that I am he.”
Is there room in your heart this Advent for the invasion of Light? Or have you dressed up your darkness that it might parade as light, and thus stolen the show, worn yourself thin, and obscured your own sight?
The moon must not feel sad
that it cannot be the sun.
For the sun gives its all
and it gives it freely–
so there is nothing to envy.
There is much to receive
and much to reflect.
When the moon
Forgoes all pretension;
When the moon
loves the sun,
then, then the moon dances,
And I’m here to tell you
in the spirit of John the Baptist,
We were all meant
to dance like the moon.
* Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church.