“Who are you?” – Dec. 17, 2017
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Who are you?” Who are you not?
In the Jewish Talmud, there is a teaching that says, “Everyone is responsible to be as great as Moses.” And yet there is also a verse at the end of Deuteronomy, part of a final eulogy to Moses that reads: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses…” Astute talmudic students have sometimes wondered and worried: “How can I be expected to be as great as Moses, if no one will ever be as great as Moses?!” Rabbi Shoni Labowitz offered a response to such a concern when she wrote: “There is no need to replicate, imitate or impersonate another, not even the rich and famous. There is need only for you to be yourself and take responsibility for acting in the uniqueness of who you are. If God wanted another Moses or Miriam, the film of life would rewind and we would be back at the Red Sea. That does not happen. Although you can access or remember times past, the steps you are now taking are into the future.” Put more simply, if God wanted another Moses, or Miriam, or Elijah, then God would make one. Instead, God made you. So the only question is: Who are you?
Today we hear some of the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. Each of our four canonical gospels tell very different stories about the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry. What we generally think of as the biblical “Christmas story” mostly comes from the Gospel according to Luke, though we tend to conflate it with some of Matthew’s account. Each taken on their own, however, the two stories are wildly different. The Gospel according to Mark says nothing of any miraculous birth, beginning instead with a short account of John the Baptist appearing the wilderness and then a fully grown Jesus presenting himself to John to be baptized. The beginning of John’s Gospel is different again, with no Joseph or Mary, no journey to Bethlehem or Egypt or back again, no angels, no birth in a stable… indeed, no birth at all. Instead, the fourth gospel begins with a prologue of cosmic proportions: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
It is into this poetic, cosmic view that a human drama breaks. Today we hear the moment the focus shifts “from the eternal Word to the historical” at verse 6. It is the moment the timeless and eternal “is wedded to concrete human experience through the person and witness of John.” (NIB, 521) “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” In and amidst all the differences between the four canonical gospels, the presence of John the Baptist to announce the coming of another, a voice crying in the wilderness, remains consistent. John is there in every Gospel story, though his portrayal is distinct in the fourth, as one commentator describes: “John has a slightly different function in the Fourth Gospel than in the other Gospels. He is never identified as ‘the Baptist,’ nor is he ever called the forerunner of Jesus. Instead, John has one function in this Gospel: to witness to Jesus (v.8).” (NIB, 520) “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.” Once he is so introduced, his part in the historical, human drama once again fades into the background and the grand, cosmic view once more takes to the fore to complete the introduction. With the stage thus set, several verses later, John returns to give a detailed account of his testimony.
“Who are you?” the authorities wonder. And John’s first response is not to give a straight answer, but rather he is quick to confess who he is not: “I am not the Messiah,” he says. So the questioning persists: “What then? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” “No.” “Who are you?”
A couple of lifetimes ago, I worked for a man named Alan Hobson. He had been an elite athlete and mounted several expeditions to Mount Everest, summiting once. He was an author and busy motivational speaker. Then he was diagnosed with leukaemia and his life stopped right in the middle as he underwent aggressive treatment, including a bone marrow transplant. I began working for him just his life was resuming and he was returning to the speaking circuit. I remember him talking about the losses… he had gone from being in the prime of life: strong, fit, career-flying… to being a cancer patient. To being sick and tired and weak. Now life was starting again but he wasn’t who he had been… at least not yet… maybe not ever… it was too soon to know. This man who had once been an elite gymnast, a summiteer of Everest, a sought-after speaker, a go-getter by any definition… needed afternoon naps. After a kind of trial-run return presentation, reflecting on the lessons of Everest and cancer treatment, when he talked about who he had been, what he had lost, I remember asking: who are you now? “That’s actually a deep, spiritual question you’re asking,” he replied. “I know,” I said… and should have known then I’d become a priest. Who are you? Maybe a little like John, Alan’s answer had to start with who he was not.
Perhaps less dramatically than someone like Alan, we all have times in our lives when who we are changes. In late childhood through adolescence and young adulthood, our primary task is figuring out who we are… what do I want to be when I grow up? What am I good at? What am I passionate about? These are the questions undergirding the more fundamental one: who are you? Some are lucky to know instinctively… immediately. Others take longer… take alternate routes… or get derailed by forces or circumstances beyond our control. But all of us experience changes along the way. Identities that form early on are lost and others are gained. We learn what it means to be a student and then we graduate and that identity is lost… are you a student? No. Who are you then? We enter relationships and leave them… are you married? Yes. No. Yes. Who are you? We become parents and then grandparents, one way or another, or we don’t. We develop careers; we start businesses; we return to school; we change jobs; we retire. We lose some identities and gain others… maybe we wanted it thus, maybe we didn’t. Regardless, the question persists: Who are you? Who are you not?
John declared that he was not Messiah. He was not Elijah. He was not the prophet. Others had been speculating about him but he would have none of it. After sorting through who he was not, John finally said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” John didn’t need to pretend to be someone he was not. If God wanted another Moses, or Miriam, or Elijah, then God would have made one. Instead, God made John. And it was up to John to take responsibility for acting in the uniqueness of who he was. And so John baptized with water, while believing that one was coming, greater than he. His job was to bear witness, to testify… to testify to the light, so that others too might believe.
The time is coming when we will profoundly wonder about God: who are you? If God is coming to enter our world and our lives… If God is coming to break into our human drama… from timeless, eternal Word to concrete human experience. If God is coming as… of all things… a baby. Not a great warrior. Not a powerful political leader. Not a wealthy elite. But a baby. Small. Vulnerable. Needy. Really? Who are you, God? If we experience suffering and confusion and excitement and possibility and grief and joy at our many identities lost and gained, what must God experience in the incarnation? The story of God in Christ is the ultimate story in re-defining identity. Not submitting to what others say about you, but defining who you are for yourself. So who are you, God? Who are you not?
As we prepare for this coming… for God’s coming… let us follow John’s example of being himself. Not trying to please or placate the authorities or even friends who mean well. Not trying to be someone we are not but rather defining who we are for ourselves. Like John, we might need to get to who we are by naming who we are not. If God wanted another John, God would make one. So let us be ourselves and take responsibility for acting in the uniqueness of who we are. In doing so, may we testify to the light… the light that is in all of us… the light that is coming into the world. And may we too see its brightness anew.