A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014
by the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Who are you?
That’s the deceptively simple question posed by the priests and Levites in today’s Gospel passage. They have come down from Jerusalem—down from the precincts of the Temple and from the carefully ordered life of the Holy City—into the wilderness. They have come down to ask John the Baptist that three-word question: “Who are you?”
But the very fact that they have come all this way—the fact that they have left the seat of their own power and prestige to interrogate a wild prophet in a wild place—shows just how important the question is, and how much is riding on John’s answer.
“Who are you?”
Perhaps for some of them it is a hopeful, expectant question. Will John reveal that he is the long-awaited Messiah, the long-awaited redeemer of the nation of Israel, the long-awaited rescuer of the people of God?
“Who are you?”
Surely for some of them it is an anxious, fearful question. Will John challenge their authority as the religious leaders of the nation, upending their orderly traditions and taking away the power of their privilege—the prestige of their position?
“Who are you?”
So much is at stake in that simple, powerful question. Their future, John’s fate, and the destiny of God’s chosen people all hang on John’s reply.
Two thousand years later, that question has not lost its power. “Who are you?” is a question that you and I face frequently, sometimes with the direct accusation heard in the voices of the priests and Levites, and sometimes subtly, quietly, implicitly. It is a question we hear from others who want to understand us better, and it is a question we pose to ourselves in the quiet of our own hearts. It is a question we answer constantly, both through our words and in our deeds—with our priorities and by our decisions.
“Who are you?”
The question comes, and I might answer with a nod to my national identity, saying simply that I am an American, a citizen of “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Or I could answer with respect to my education, pointing to the schools and institutions that have molded my mind and shaped my character.
Or I could answer with reference to my family, defining myself through the long line of those who came before me (which, I’ve come to realize, is a very popular choice here in South Carolina) or by the great web of those now living who mean the most to me.
Or I could answer by describing my work—the satisfaction I derive from my labors, the self-esteem I gain through the faithful use of my gifts.
“Who are you?”
There are so many ways to answer that basic, essential question. And yet, in these final months of 2014, what we find is that many of our safe, standard answers have begun to crack and crumble.
“Who are you?” comes the question, as this weary year draws to a close.
If we answer by citing our identity as Americans—by pointing to the values that define us as a people and to the commitments we hold most sacred—then surely the last days and weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and Washington, D.C., and all across our nation must give us pause. Can we still claim to be a nation with liberty and justice for all? Do we still recognize ourselves amidst the swirling turmoil of racial unrest, and in the face of serious questions about the fairness and equality of our justice system? How do we understand ourselves and our principles in light of the revelation this week that the use of torture in the War on Terror—torture done in my name and in your name—was far more widespread than we first realized? Those of us who claim the name “American” must surely now begin to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”
Or what about the schools and institutions that shape our lives? The last month has been filled with news of disturbing allegations about student behavior at one of our nation’s most prestigious universities. Whatever the veracity of the claims that lit this conflagration, the firestorm of pain and betrayal burns on as each day as and more and more women and men from more and more schools come forward to tell how they were victimized and exploited in the very environments where they hoped to grow in knowledge and deepen in wisdom. Do we still recognize ourselves when we are forced to consider the dark side of bright college years? How do we understand ourselves when we learn of disgusting abuse and inadequate oversight in the places we trust to safeguard intellectual integrity and develop sterling moral character? Those of us who have been formed by the gifts and culture of academia must find the courage to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we?Who am I?”
Or consider the state of your relationships this holiday season. As the drive to acquire infects each aspect of our interaction with spouses and friends, with children and with parents, how do you understand your place in your own family? Do you still recognize the bonds that tie you to those you love and care for? Those of us who feel ourselves neck deep and near drowning in the rising tide of consumerism and crass consumption—who find ourselves alone with technology even in houses full of people–who chase after a security and a satisfaction that we know our stuff can never bring—we must beg the grace to ask ourselves, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”
Or at last, beloved, as we come to the end of another year, look to the work to which you have given yourself in the twelve months now almost gone. Has you striving brought you peace and pleasure? Has your toil guaranteed you goodwill? As you look back over what you have accomplished—over the way that you have spent 365 days that cannot be recovered—do you find yourself confused and frustrated, demanding of the reflection in the mirror, “Who are you? Who are we? Who am I?”
The stresses and strains of this fall and winter have show how all of our ordinary answers to that simple question are feeble and fragile. All of the answers that look to what our work has made us or what our family has told us or what our society has decided for us or even what we ourselves most desire deep within us cannot bear the weight of that basic question: “Who are you?”
And this is why John the Baptist’s exchange with the religious authorities matters. For the truth is that all of the anxieties and uncertainties present when we ask ourselves the question “Who are you?” are present, too, for the priests and Levites interrogating John. And all of the various, ultimately unsatisfying answers available for us are available, too, for John.
“Who are you?” comes the question, and John could respond with his national identity as an Israelite, or point to the heritage of his forebears.
“Who are you?” they ask, and John could answer with the work that he has accomplished and the way that he has gone about it.
“Who are you?” they demand, and John could claim for himself a title of importance or a position of significance or a place in the life of his people that would strike his questioners dumb with terror and with joy.
“Who are you?” they cry with desperation, and John turns to answer them.
But John’s answer to the great question flows not from his background or his accomplishments or even from what the Pharisees want and fear him to be. Rather, John’s reply points beyond himself–beyond what he has done, beyond what his people long for and fear–and points instead to the One who sent him, the One to whom he bares witness.
“I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ as said the Prophet Isaiah.”
“I am but the fulfillment of prophecy. I am but a voice in the wilderness crying. I am but the forerunner and messenger of One greater than I.”
John’s identity depends not on John, but on Jesus. John knows who he is not by what he does or by what others want him to do or to be, but because of who God is and what God has called him to do and to be. His identity is not founded upon the yearning of his people or the anxiety of the leaders or even on the self-determination and self-resolution of John himself. But for John the Baptist, everything—everything—stands on the promises and purposes of God.
For John is the fulfillment of what Isaiah professed and prophesied when he told of how “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Isaiah, both in his own ministry and in expectation of John the Baptist, paints for us a picture of a human being fully alive, a human being most fully himself—and behold, that is a human being whom the Lord has claimed and consecrated wholly and completely.
“Who are you?” comes the eternal question, and from the lips of Isaiah, and John, and Mary the mother of Jesus comes the ready answer, “I am the servant of the Lord—and so I am free. My whole being exults in my God—and so I am truly myself. I am the Lord’s—I know myself only because he first knew me, and all my hope and my confidence are in him alone.”
So what about for us, beloved?
“Who are you?” rises the accusing cry to nations and institutions—our nation, and our institutions—whose actions cry out for God’s just judgment.
“Who are you?” cuts the incisive question into lives and hearts—my life and heart, and your life and heart—that are not as they should be; not as we would have them be.
“Who are you?” comes the demanding query in a time when the very foundations of our facades are quaking and the categories we once relied on are tottering and we find ourselves exhausted by the question itself.
What will be our answer in that day when the question comes to us? How will we define or excuse ourselves? Will we rest our hopes on the roles which our social place and status have thrust upon us? Will we stitch together our identity out of the passing fads and catchphrases of popular spirituality and self-help manuals?
Or will we, with John the Baptist, point only and always to the Living God at work in us? Will our deepest identity be not a monument to our own wealth and workmanship—our own insight and enlightenment—but, like Isaiah, will it be a marker, a signpost, a witness to the One who has called us to his service and who has empowered us for his work? Will our hearts, with Mary, sing the story of what God has done for us? Will our eyes show the joyful strain of watching for his return?
Dear people, our hope for renewal in our nation and in our homes—in our institutions and in our own hearts—lies not in our own power and striving but in the promise of this season. For we, with John the Baptist, have become witnesses to the true light. We have heard the announcement of the Word made flesh. We have seen the power of the God who came down to stir up the muck and mire of our existence—to bear our griefs and to carry our sorrows.
Our hope is in the promise of Advent: the assurance that the God who came once in great humility will come again with power and great glory to judge both the living and the dead, and to set this world to rights. Our hope is in the promise and the prayer that between the first and the second coming of Christ, God has not left us comfortless.
But by grace and with great might, he is still at work among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he has come “speedily [to] help and deliver us.” In his love and mercy, he knows us, and transforms us, and so he is making us truly ourselves.
“Who are you?” comes the question. May we ever make our ready reply: “I am the Lord’s, and his alone.”