+ A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 13, 2020 +
Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28
‘You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,’ they say.
Perhaps that’s why I sometimes struggle with how to act when I meet someone new, whether it be a potential new friend, a new colleague, even a new barber.
Maybe you’ve felt something similar—when you’ve applied for a new job, gone on a first date, or when you walked into a new congregation for the first time.
How should I introduce myself to someone?
What parts of my story do I tell them to explain who I am?
How do I answer that question, “Who are you?”
In the age of social media, this becomes all the more complicated.
When first impressions can happen in an instant and without even meeting a person.
When platforms like Facebook or Instagram allow us to curate our identities, or at least the identities we’re willing to show the world—which pictures we allow ourselves to be tagged in, how carefully we craft our status updates, how we conveniently we hide the messier parts of our lives.
But deeper than our public personas, longer lasting than the first impressions, the question remains.
Who are you?
Who are you really?
When you’ve let your guard down.
When it’s just you and God.
What is your place in the world?
What is your role?
Today, we hear John the Baptizer answering that same question, “Who are you?”
And I guess the Evangelists never heard that you never get a second chance at a first impression, because each of the four gospel writers tries to answer this question for John in a different way.
Last week, we heard Mark’s opening of the gospel describing wild John in the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey.
Matthew describes John as a fiery and cantankerous prophet.
Luke tells us that John is Jesus’ cousin.
And in each of these three gospels, John’s primary role seems to be the one who baptizes Jesus and inaugurates his ministry.
But in the Gospel of John (a different John, mind you), the author has a different focus for this important and confounding figure.
We even hear how the priests and Levites literally ask him, “Who are you?” as the author attempts to confront this question.
But John answers in an interesting way, doesn’t he?
He doesn’t start by telling them who he is, but rather who he isn’t.
‘I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the Prophet. I’m just the one out here in the wilderness doing my part to prepare the way for the Lord.’
John makes it clear that he isn’t Jesus, he isn’t the one they’ve been waiting for.
Instead he is the forerunner, the one who is pointing to Christ.
In today’s culture of self-promotion and self-importance, John’s reply feels rather like a breath of fresh air.
In a time when it’s so easy to create a false digital persona, John’s honesty is almost surprising.
He refuses to make too much of himself.
He refuses to claim a title that isn’t his.
Instead, he is confident in his calling to go into the wilderness, call for repentance, baptize with water, and prepare with eager anticipation the way of Jesus.
He is sure in his role as the witness to the light because that’s exactly who God called him to be.
And you know what? That’s enough.
He doesn’t have to be Jesus, because Jesus is coming.
He doesn’t have to be the Messiah, because Christ is at hand.
I said a couple weeks ago that Advent is a time in which we take stock of ourselves, see our shortcomings and our need for Christ in our lives.
So perhaps, on this Third Sunday of Advent, it’s time for me to take stock of myself and boldly claim with John, I am not the Messiah!
I am not Jesus.
I am not the Savior of the world.
And you know how I know that?
Not once have I been able to feed 5,000 people or heal the sick or raise the dead.
I’ve never even been able to turn water into wine—no matter how hard I’ve tried.
I’m not Jesus, I am Paul.
I’m just a guy who is trying to do what I believe God is calling me to do.
Which doesn’t mean I’m not important, it means that I am at least trying to accept my role in the world’s transformation—not as its savior, but as a partner in that work.
And there’s a grace in recognizing that reality and realizing that it is enough—that that’s all God wants from me.
God knows who I am and accepts me for it.
I don’t have to save the world, because God is already doing that.
And the sooner I accept that for myself, the sooner I can live into my calling, freed from that impossible burden, and let God be God and let Paul be Paul.
So perhaps John is serving not only as a forerunner for Christ, but also as a role model for our calling as Christians—to prepare the way of Jesus and point to Christ wherever we see him.
As Christians, we are bold to claim that that God is at work in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, working to reconcile the whole world to Godself.
That God is at work right now, coming among us in pure and gracious love.
And we have been appointed as ambassadors of that love—sent into our homes, sent into our neighborhood, sent out to the ends of the earth to bear witness to the love of God.
We have been anointed by the Spirit of God, as Isaiah reminds us, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort those who mourn, and point to the places where God’s reign is breaking into our world.
And I really love how John points to Christ in today’s gospel text.
Did you hear it?
He says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
John isn’t just looking to the future advent of Christ, he’s talking about the present.
The here and now.
In fact, just a few verses later, John literally points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
John is fulfilling his role by pointing to Christ and saying ‘Look! There he is! There is your Messiah! Follow him.’
During the Advent season, it’s easy for us to focus so much on the future coming of Christ—the birth of Jesus at Christmas and his second coming in glory.
But, as John reminds us, it’s so important to never forget that Christ is already here!
We don’t have to wait for God to come among us, because God is all around us.
And this season of waiting and watching urges us to be on the lookout for where we can glimpse Christ among us now, where we can see the Kingdom of God breaking into this weary world.
So, who are you, dear Church?
Who are we as a congregation?
We know how easy it can be to look at the world and all its problems and either want to save it all or despair at the magnitude of work to be done.
As your pastor, I feel it is my duty to assure you that you are not Jesus and this congregation, this synod, even this Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cannot and will not save the whole world.
But that doesn’t mean we’re not important.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play in its salvation.
John was not the light of the world, but he came to testify to the light so that others may believe through him.
John was not the Messiah, but he came to prepare the way of the Lord.
John could not transform the world by himself, but he still went out into the wilderness to baptize and to preach a message of repentance to do his part and partner with God.
And by fulfilling his role, the world was changed.
So, who are we, dear Church?
How are we bearing witness and preparing the way?
Well, we have a chance to answer that question today at our congregational meeting.
Not by crafting the persona of how we want to look to the world, not by saying the right words and making ourselves more attractive.
But by committing ourselves to the work that John exemplified.
By fulfilling our role as a congregation of Christ’s church and members of Christ’s body.
By looking at our budget and seeing where our funding priorities are, how we use our time, talent, and resources to point to Christ.
By taking the next steps of our future planning process—determining what our living legacy will be and discerning where God is calling us in the world.
By adopting a welcoming statement that not only repents of our shortcomings, but boldly extends a welcome to our LGBTQIA+ siblings and declares that we are working towards reconciliation.
So, who are we?
We’re a people of hope.
A people of love.
A people of anticipation.
A people working for reconciliation.
We’re a people who are doing our best to live into our God-given calling.
To partner with Christ through works of love and acts of justice.
To witness to where we see Christ among us in the presence of loved ones and the faces of strangers.
To proclaim that Jesus is Lord and to take our part in the world’s preparation for the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth.
Now, in the face of all the world’s needs, I know that this may not seem like enough.
In these times of seemingly unending pandemic wilderness wanderings, we may start to doubt whether it’s making a difference or if we can go on.
And it’s true, we cannot save the world all on our own.
We cannot house every person or repair the wounds of the whole Church or heal creation.
But we are doing our part to prepare the way of the Lord through the witness of our lives and point to Christ wherever we see him.
I know it may not always seem like a lot, but I assure you, my friends, it is enough.