Help me out here for a minute. We’re going to play a game of free-association. When I say “John the Baptist” what comes to your mind?
(The assembly is invited and encouraged to call out words, phrases and images connected with John the Baptist.)
That’s a great assortment of associations, but I have to be honest and confess that for me, John the Baptist reminds me of the teenager who comes to church showing too much skin, or people who don’t remove their hats during the national anthem at the ballpark. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s distracting.
That’s how John the Baptist always strikes me, he’s distracting. He gathers people outside the city walls, wearing animal skins and eating weird food, making apocalyptic threats and, ultimately, losing his head. He is strange and wild and dramatic. He’s riveting. He’s hard to take your eyes off of. He’s doing guerilla street theater, insisting that we give him our full attention and then, just when he’s got us, John reveals that he is not the main attraction, not the headliner, not the one we’ve come to see.
All the costume, all the pageant, all seems designed to grab our attention so that John can deliver his overlooked and possibly his most important prophetic word. It’s not the one you’re thinking. Not, “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.” John’s most important prophetic word, I think, is his first response to the temple authorities who make a site visit in the wilderness to find out who this guy thinks he is. John provides them with a radically, deceptively, prophetically simple answer. He says, “I am not the Messiah.”
“I am not the Messiah.” That is John’s prophetic word for us this morning, so I’m going to ask you to repeat after me. Let’s preach John’s strong word together: “I am not the Messiah.” (“I am not the Messiah”) Again, “I am not the Messiah!” (I am not the Messiah!”)
Good! Now you are all prophets – just like John the Baptist! But do we understand what we’re saying, what John was saying, when we share in his proclamation that we are not the Messiah. I suspect we don’t, at least I’m sure I don’t. I know I’d like to believe, and generally conduct my life as though, I have the power to bend the world to my will. But I am not the Messiah, which means that I cannot be counted on to save anything. I can try my best, I may succeed at some things and fail at others, but I will never be the answer to any question of ultimate concern.
You are not the Messiah either. Odd how that sounds like an insult, when it should really come as a relief. Think about it. Consider the larger-than-life burdens this means you can finally lay down:
- Parents, this means that despite the worries and burdens and pressure you feel to provide every opportunity for your children, you can relax a little bit. Frightening as it may be, you cannot control the world that surrounds your children and you cannot prevent every harm that might befall them. They will stumble along life’s path, they will hurt and be hurt, they will learn and grow, fail and succeed. You will always be a primal, formative influence in their lives – but you are not their saviors.
- Children, this means that despite the pressures you feel to live up to your parents’ expectations, to make them proud, to carry on their traditions, to redeem their failures, to ease their grief, you can relax a little bit. No matter how dependent, or grateful, or resentful, or proud you are of your parents you are not their Messiah. You have your own separate existence and value apart from them, they are not defined by you any more than you are by them. You may be their most important relationship, but you are not their saviors.
- Elders, this means that you are not responsible for ensuring that the legacy of all that you have learned, and experienced, and cherished is carried forward indefinitely into the future. God has reached out to you in amazing and powerful ways, but God will continue to reach out to the world to come in equally amazing and powerful ways – because that’s who God is, the one who saves and restores. You can lay that burden down, you are not the Messiah.
- Young people, this means you are not responsible for maintaining and preserving the values and priorities, the dreams and visions of those who’ve gone before you. You have heard it said that you are the future, but you know your life is happening right now. You do not have to carry the weight of so much expectation from your bosses, your professors, your mentors, your elders. You are free to savor all the blessings of your one precious life right now, as it is happening. You are not the Messiah.
This is what John the Baptist says to the authorities who want to pin him down and lay the blame for civil unrest on his shoulders. They want him to say something as crazy as his clothes suggest he might be, but he does not. They ask him the question that faces each one of us, every day, as we go about the trying business of our lives, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
In reply, John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Talk about grace under pressure. What a beautiful response. He says, “I am not the Messiah. I am the voice.”
- I am not the news, I am the newscaster.
- I am not the gospel, I am its preacher.
- Or, in the terms we used with the children in this morning’s children’s sermon, I am not the light, I am the battery.
These two statements, taken together, represent so much freedom for us. The first, “I am not the Messiah,” frees us from the idolatry of believing that our thoughts, our beliefs, our prejudices, our practices, our habits, our methods, our culture, our nation, our politics, our religion are of primary importance. We are not God. It sounds silly and obvious to say it out loud, but so often we live our lives as though it were true.
The second, “I am the voice,” guards against complacency, refuses self-negation and infuses with self-esteem, bespeaks a mandate, bestows a vocation, dignifies and ennobles our lives. God needs us. God has a message and we are its heralds. God has good news and we are its bearers. God so loved the world, and we are God’s lovers. God is light, and we are like the batteries in the flashlight – both perishable and essential.
The gospel says, “this is the testimony given by John.” St. Luke’s you have been testifying like John throughout your 111 years of ministry. You have been a voice in this neighborhood, across our city, throughout our church, and before the nations crying out, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”
Throughout this past year you have been offering your testimonies. Just like the religious authorities asked John, “what do you say about yourself,” you have been asked to share the faith that is in you as well.
- You’ve done this in the one-on-one conversations with members of the Social Justice Team that helped shape the agenda of our work with the Community Renewal Society.
- You’ve done it in small groups and bible studies and private conversations with one another.
- Some of you have done it in front of the congregation, giving your testimony about how God has reached out to you and been present in your life.
- Cynthia shared her faith story.
- Judi talked about the church’s role in helping her and Bill raise their children.
- Ben and Heather encouraged us to be proud of the ways that our commitment to the arts translates into real and practical resources for working artists – actors, dancers and musicians.
- Pat reminded us that our community health mission has deep roots in a feeding ministry that has touched thousands of lives.
- Dale showed us how a life lived in the church shapes us for service and supports us throughout life’s joys and sorrows.
You have all been giving your testimony, with words and with actions, and in the process you have been clearing a way for God’s presence to enter more fully into the world, one life at a time, starting with your own. You are not the Messiah but, oh, what powerful voices you have!
John the Baptist, so colorfully dressed, so dramatically inclined, was one you could not take your eyes off of. God used that, just as God is using our own colorful, dramatic lives as well. In times like these, when it can seem like the whole world is lost out in the wilderness, listening for good news, we can say with full humility and fuller confidence, “I am not the Messiah, but I am the voice!”