Sermon: Share Your Story

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.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

My sermon from the Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2023) on John 1:6-8, 19-28.

Our text today from the gospel according to John might sound a bit familiar since we heard a version of this story last week. Mark, in the opening words to his version of Jesus’ life, introduced John the Baptist who was living out in the wilderness. The wilderness, according to the Bible, was more than simply a desert full of creepy, crawling things. The wilderness was always the place where our attempts at control broke down. John the Baptist, instead of living in a house, slept under the stars and relied on what he could find to fill his belly. We get the sense that if John was living today, he’d have a tiktok account showing him living completely off the grid. We’d watch as he collected rain water to wash his clothes and used an old solar panel array to provide all the electricity he needed. That kind of living might not be what we, personally, would want to do. But we’d be curious about the man who left so much behind. John, in a sense, was a kind of influencer who wanted people to see his story. But he wasn’t living in the wilderness as a way to disconnect himself from the world. Rather, there was something out there that he wanted to connect to the world. Scripture described the wilderness as the place where God lived. And John, I think, wanted to use that image as a way to expand the spiritual imagination of those around him. But he was a bit limited by the technology available to him. No one could simply open up their phones from the comfort of their beds and see what John was doing in the desert. They would need a different kind of invitation delivered to them in person. Yet by this point in the story, John had already figured out how to do that. Before he went into the wilderness, he developed his own status as a religious figure. He had his own group of disciples who followed his every word. Those disciples were, I imagine, sent by John to let people know he was doing. And as they told their story, others felt compelled to leave their villages and discover what God was up to in the wilderness. That began a movement of people constantly going in and out of the area. And when those people met John, their experience was exactly their own. Some decided to repent, to change how they lived their lives. While others might have wondered why they even went out to see John in the first place. The area was soon filled with people sharing their stories about a wildman preaching, teaching, and baptizing in the place God lived. And as those stories spread, a few religious leaders from the city of Jerusalem decided they wanted to hear this story for themselves. 

Now since John the Baptist kept drawing people to him, we sort of imagine him as a confident, over-the-top, and very charismatic person. In fact, he’s even described in other parts of our Bible as a firebrand with a bit of a temper. He was, I think, always himself. And yet, when the religious leaders asked who he was, his first response was to tell them what he wasn’t. I wonder, though, if that was his way of trying to reframe their experience of him since what the religious leaders knew was through the stories other people told. It was all those folks who defined who John was by sharing all they had seen and heard. And while we don’t know exactly what those people said, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them turned to the stories and images found in their Bible as a way to describe what their experiences were all about. As they processed and shared their stories, they began to wonder if John really was the Messiah. He was, after all, developing a spiritual community that didn’t seem as if it would stay in the spiritual realm for very long. John actively pushed against Roman rule and he argued extensively against those who appeased them. Many felt as if he was laying the groundwork to try and re-establish the kind of kingdom David had ruled nearly 1000 years before. Their expectations for the Messiah and their experience of John in the wilderness swirled together in a way that made everyone wonder. And when the religious leaders who came to see him, those stories filled their heads. They didn’t know which ones to believe or push aside which is why their first question was so general. They wanted John to tell them who he was and he responded by letting them know that their expectations would not limit who he might be. John didn’t want them to simply hear the story; he wanted them to have their own story too. And so that, I think, is why he started his whole entire conversation with them with a lot of “nos.” He refused to fit into the stories they already carried because God’s story was already on the move. The people assumed that John was preparing the way for the Lord as if God God needed us to do something before God would show up. But John, I think, was doing something else. He wasn’t preparing the way for God; he was preparing us for the Jesus who was already here. 

And that, I think, is why telling our personal stories with our God is so central to John the Baptist’s ministry. It’s also why the gospel according to a different John made the sharing of our story a defining characteristic of what it means to follow Jesus. When we share our faith with others, we’re not only supposed to talk about Jesus himself. We don’t limit our words by only describing his divinity and what he did while walking the earthy nearly two thousand years ago. Instead, we talk about Jesus, we need to talk about the life we’ve actually lived. We need to talk in a way that sounds completely like us – naming our doubts, worries, fears, and joys. We need to admit what we got wrong and all the parts of our lives that have changed. We need to be honest about those moments when we felt God with us no matter how odd those stories might be. And we need to be willing to be vulnerable and reveal those times when God felt cold and distant. When we do this, we’re not doing it to brag or to pretend that all experiences of the divine are supposed to resemble our own. We are, instead, inviting others to discover the God who is already here. Our story, then, becomes the invitation into a wider story where grace, love, and hope transforms us all. As we move into this week before Christmas, let’s remember that there’s always more to God’s story. We don’t have to only focus on the joys, the miracles, and the parts of Christmas that feel angelic, peaceful, and pure. We can, instead, start with us and show others how Christmas is big enough to hold their story too.