John 1:6-8, 19-28
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.
The Testimony of John the Baptist
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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
If you have ever stood at the rim of a canyon, you know what it is to comprehend the immense majesty of emptiness. These clefts in the earth, carved by the incessant flow of water over millennia, are rocky vessels holding a world unto themselves.
Peer over the edge and look down into the sky held between the canyon walls—a highway for the howling wind and winged creatures of the air. Look down upon the stubborn shrubs clinging to the ledges, where tiny crawling things seek their precarious shelter.
And then look down, down, down to the bottom, to the river—the originator of this landscape, still eroding and shaping the earth in its onward passage towards a distant sea.
In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by the vastness of what is missing, what has been hollowed out, as we are by what remains. There is a sense of seeing deep into the heart of things that are usually hidden under the surface.
And perhaps it is in just such a wilderness place that we might imagine John the Baptist, his voice crying out, echoing off of the carved-out rockface, mingling with dust, proclaiming a coming that will soon carve its own path through the path of the human heart. A coming that will strip us bare of falsehood and pretension. A coming that will carve out an authentic understanding of ourselves in the cosmic landscape.
Like the emptiness of the canyon, though, our authenticity is predicated, first, upon an honest assessment of that which is not there, in order to reveal the deep truth that remains.
“Who are you?” John is asked.
“I am not the Messiah,” he says.
Are you Elijah? “I am not.”
The prophet? “No.”
Relinquishment of these identity markers is his first act of truth-telling. John knows that he must name the roles to which he is not called before he can affirm that to which he is. And so must we.
- How often we wish that we were the Messiah, the long-expected savior of our own small dominions?
- How often we take on the titles offered to us, not because they fit, but because they make us feel more real to ourselves?
- And how readily we assign these roles to others in order to suit our purposes.
But just as the canyon only becomes itself in the void, so, too, with us: in each of our own negations, we get closer to the spare, essential truth of our identity.
“I am,” John admits, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” A voice piercing the air. Nothing more and nothing less than this. And this is exactly what God needs him to be.
John, the man of the empty wilderness, is himself a canyon-like figure, characterized more by spaciousness and depth than by any agenda of self-promotion. He is one whose existence has been shaped to its depths by the Divine flow, and he embodies the way in which giving ourselves over to that movement is the pathway to honest, purposeful existence. He is the exemplar of how our lives become conformed to the shape of Christ—the Way-Made-Clear for the advent of God’s Living Water.
Not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not Moses. John is just a voice that makes straight the way for someone else.
Of course that someone else is the Messiah pointed to by Elijah and the promises God made to Abraham and confirmed through the prophet Moses. So called prophets in our day and age are always pointing to this or that but most often proclaim themselves and make a pretty good living at it. But John in his camel hair cloak, eating locusts and honey, baptizing with water, knows he is the prologue to a greater story that we find out later even he doesn’t fully understand. The question “Are you the one or shall we look for another?” is good news for those of us who stand in John’s shadow and point to the one we are unworthy to speak for or about. In the light of that thought I suppose I would be more likely to remain silent except that the sandals John felt unworthy to untie were not ashamed to walk the earth we tread and in the end were removed so that feet nailed to wood might reveal the true nature of God.
There is a lot for us to learn from him here, in the watery depths of the canyon, especially in this frenetic and anxious season. Faced with the multiplying needs of our families, our communities, and our planet, we are frequently tempted to take on far more than what we can actually do or be. And even as many of us attempt to slow down and be more attentive in this liturgical season, the world continues to surround us and shout, “Who are you? Who are you?”
But, like John, if we are ever to cultivate the space in ourselves for God to accomplish God’s work, then we must respond with: I am not the Messiah. I am not. No.
- We must be willing to disappoint the expectant throng.
- We must be willing to embrace the emptiness of what we were never meant to be.
And then, just maybe, we will find the one voice that was ours to claim all along.
For John, the purpose of his own voice is clear: the announcement of God’s incarnate promise. And so he baptizes in the river, that agent of transformative power, inviting others to let themselves be scoured by it—to let their layers of defensiveness and short-comings be stripped away, to hollow out a space in their hearts in preparation for “the one who is coming after,” Jesus Christ, the one who is making all things new.
And here, in another time and in another wilderness, John’s invitation remains open to us, and it is as urgent as ever because we are still learning who we are and who we are not. Like the canyon, we are still being shaped, still being laid bare to the wind and the light, still becoming as deep and open and vast as God imagines we can become. And, like John, it is only in the cultivation of our own holy emptiness that we will, at last, be the vessels of God’s inbreaking purpose:
as Isaiah said “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
This week we light the third candle on the Advent Wreath, sometimes referred to as the Shepherd’s Candle. Often light pink or rose in color, this candle reminds us of the joy the birth of Jesus brought to the world. Yes, this Sunday is what’s known as Gaudette Sunday, or Joy Sunday, when folks used to take a break from their Advent fasting and contemplation to celebrate. We are reminded that Jesus’ birth was first announced to ordinary people, societal outsiders even.
Your candle may be any color, but this year we are reminded that not even a global pandemic can steal our joy in the birth of Jesus and all that means. Whether we are meeting for worship this Sunday in person, in a parking lot, or via Facebook or Zoom, we shouldn’t miss an opportunity to celebrate joy in a time when more joy is sorely needed.
This Gospel lesson speaks directly to our time of Advent, our time of waiting and anticipation. We know, yet at the same time, we don’t know. John the witness tells us of Christ, but we have yet to see, meet, know, or touch Christ. We know Christ will come again; we just don’t know when. When Christ does arrive, then what? John tells the priests and Levites, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
This should make us think.
- Is this story our here and now?
- Is there someone among us whom we do not know?
John tells us Christ is coming, not just in the following pages of the Gospel long ago, but here and now. He is currently among us.
Do we know God among us? I am terrified by the question, “Am I so preoccupied with distractions that I don’t notice the one who is among us?” God is here, yet we are also waiting for the complete restoration of the world to the way God wants it to be. We continue to wait, and this waiting is not easy.