Flame On

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 3rd Sunday of Advent (December 14, 2014) on John 1:6-8,19-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.


Our text today from the Gospel According to John might sound a bit familiar. Last week, we saw this same John the Baptist as he was presented in Mark – a wildman, living in the desert, wearing a coat made of camel hair and eating bugs and honey. In Mark, John the Baptist is Elijah – one of those old timey, speaking-truth-to-power, kind of prophet. He’s telling people they need to repent, that they need to come clean about who they are, and that something more is on its way. People from all over Jerusalem are heading to him, coming to hear his word, and be baptized by him. John the baptist is a man of God – a man from God – and he’s confident, powerful, prophet of God and no one tries to dispute that.

But looking at the words we hear today – from the Gospel According to John (who isn’t John the Baptist – this gospel was attributed to some other John), we get a very different kind of Baptist. He’s kinda lost his edge – his overpowering sense of confidence. People are still coming to see him, to hear what he has to say, but there’s something new – people who question him. There are people who don’t fully buy what he’s trying to say. Last week I described Mark’s vision of John the Baptist as a grizzled, super tough, flannel wearing, Colorado mountain man kind of prophet. This week – he’s different. He doesn’t feel as big, as confident, as overpowering. Instead of a Colorado Mountain Man – he feels more like a Williamsburg kind of Mountain Man. And this transformation is centered in verse 19 – a verse that illustrates just who John the Baptist is – what he does – and what he models for us in our lives – and it’s found in that question asked by the priests from Jerusalem – “who are you?”

Who are you – person by the Jordan, preaching, teaching, and listening.
Who are you – person with authority who seems to know something about God that we don’t.
Who are you – person we are unsure of, nervous about, suspicious of – just what exactly do you say about yourself?

What an uncomfortable question. And it’s why this mountain man from Mark seems to get smaller today. He’s no longer a man just a person proclaiming God’s coming – he’s now a person in conflict. He’s no longer the only dominating presence and he no longer dictates the whole story of what is going on. There are people who disagree with him and who are challenging him. The invulnerability seen in Mark is replaced by something more raw, something more relatable, something much more human.

And John answers these questions from the priests in a very human way – like we all do when we’re faced with these questions about who we are – about our story. In moments of vulnerability, we’re now stuck sharing about what we’re not. We have to ask questions about ourselves. We doubt and wonder who we are. And maybe, just maybe, the others have it right. Maybe we’re not as great or as strong as we pretend. Maybe our confidence and truth is false. Maybe we’re less than we should be.

A few weeks ago, someone stopped by the church as I was getting ready to leave. They came in and they wanted to pray here in the sanctuary. So I unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and we came right up here to the rail, and kneeled. It was just the two of us in the middle of this huge space. And then we prayed. We asked for help, guidance, support. We asked for God to give us hope. And then we did the hardest thing – we gave ourselves permission to not be strong. We gave ourselves permission to cry even though we didn’t want to. We testified to who we are as humans – that we’re vulnerable. That we can’t always be as strong as we want to be or as strong as others tell us we need to be. And that, sometimes, the weight of the world, just wins.

John the Baptist was asked who he was and who he said he was. Are you Elijah? Are you the Messiah? Are you everything we hope you will and can be? And he did the only thing he could do – he said “No.” John the Baptist isn’t the greatest thing. He’s not the one the prophets pointed too. He wasn’t going to change the world or reconcile it to God or destroy the Roman Empire so that Israel could be its own kingdom again. He wasn’t going to fulfill our dreams or wish list and he wasn’t going to right every wrong in the exact way we want. He wasn’t because that’s not who he was. He was something else. He was vulnerable. He was human. He wasn’t what everyone hoped he would be.

Instead – he did what he could. No longer only the strong, immovable man as imagined in Mark – John the Baptist is instead made small because, in the gospel according to John, the stories about John the Baptist that he heard, recorded, and that spoke to him and gave life to his community – were the stories that made John the Baptist human. He’s one of us. He’s faced with questions about who he is, about what he can do, about how exactly he’s going to change the world. John the Baptist isn’t Elijah, he’s not the Messiah, he’s just one of us. So he does the only thing he can do – he testifies to the light.

He points to the one that will change the world – to the one who will reconcile the world. He points to Jesus in everything that he does and says.

And by doing this, John the Baptist, shares something we know as people with our own very individual stories full of joys and hardships and struggles – John testifies that we need light in our lives.

We are not perfect – though we act like we are.

We are into power – even though, ultimately, we are powerless in the face of death and time.

We’re into making boundaries based on wealth, race, age, and gender – defining who is the right kind of child of God and who isn’t – even though we all are made in God’s image.

And we believe we ourselves are the light – even though we spend so much of our time living and perpetuating darkness.

John the Baptist knew this. And he knew what was to come. He couldn’t change the world. But he could point to the One who will.

Testifying – sharing with others Jesus and with our need for God’s light in our lives – isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being honest about our vulnerability. It’s about being honest about our fear. Because testifying about the light – about what’s to come – about the strength beyond us that fixes the world – that turns us away from ourselves – turns us straight towards our neighbor in need – to our friend who hurts – to the stranger who could use a little help today – testifying to the light is about not trusting ourselves but placing our trust fully in the promise of God – that this world, everything in it, including you and me – that we matter to God.

That’s what it means to testify to the light – to share God’s story – to share what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Because to be a child of God is to see that God, as one theologian I read stated, “God is committed to dealing with the tragedy of our natures.” God is committed to dealing with our darkness. God is committed to being with us in our darkness. And God is committed to overcoming it.

The story of John the Baptist, as we read today, is about God’s commitment. God is committed to Creation – to God’s people – to all that God has created and God won’t let it go. That commitment – that promise – that’s our strength. That’s what gives us life. The things we usually run to as ways to protect us – to give us strength – such as money, power, class, skin color, lifestyle, intellect, and a million other things that we use to build walls around us – we run towards all those things and hide behind them, thinking that vulnerability does not have a role in our story with God. That being weak, frail, doubtful, unsure, or just plain small is something that we cannot be.

But even as we run and hide in places where we feel strong, mighty, and protected – even as we run behind gates that we build against all that is uncomfortable to us – God still smashes through. And God does something very unexpected. God blesses our vulnerability. Because when God comes, when the light comes, it’s not in form of an army or lightning bolt or laser beam that destroys all before it. No, the light that John the Baptist points to – comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – as a newborn baby.

That’s how God change’s it all.

And that’s our story. That’s our testimony. Vulnerability isn’t against what it means to be human – vulnerability is at the heart of our Christian story. And that’s our invitation as we get closer to Christmas. We’re not called to only testify to our strengths and just how awesome we are. We’re not called to point to all the things we get right and all that make us better and stronger and tougher than those around us. In the Christmas letter of our lives that we share with family, friends, and everyone we meet, we’re not called to only testify to the greatest hits of our lives. We’re called to point to the vulnerabilities – to point to the weakness – to point to the unexpected and see God at work there. We’re called to say that God is there. That Christ is there. We’re called to say that Jesus – the One who is coming – the One who has come – and the One who will return again – he entered the world in a stable at the back of an inn – and started as a vulnerable and weak newborn babe. God’s light is found in the places where we’re most vulnerable – in the places where our self-assurances break down – where trust in ourselves is no longer good enough.

John the Baptist isn’t just a prophet from God. He isn’t someone we can ignore as someone different from us. John the Baptist, the one baptizing by the river, the one sharing God’s story – he is us. We are him. We are all vulnerable. And John does what we are called to do – he points – he shares – he says that in the unsure parts of who we are, in the parts of the world where God should not be, in the parts of our lives where we are weak and vulnerable – God’s light is there – and that light will never be overcome. Amen.