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. John 1:6-8
‘Who are you?’ ‘What do you say about yourself?’ (John 1:22) These are the questions posed by the authorities to John the Baptist as they searched him out and demanded he account for his actions.
The authorities had the same concerns and questions for Jesus when he started his ministry and was gathering disciples and followers around him.
And you may not remember this fact, but this is the same question asked of us in our catechism, seeking our declaration of faith as we put into words our commitment to God made at our baptism and at our confirmation.
I suppose the context for the question might shape your answer. But what would you say? There are many possible responses within the life of faith.
My first instincts go something like this: I’m an Anglican priest, a Christian, a woman, a wife and lover, a parent and grandparent, a friend, an academic, a writer, reader and speaker, an activist and a carer. It could be long list depending where I am and to whom I am speaking.
Or I might choose to answer like John: I’m not the Messiah, I’m not your Saviour, I’m not a miracle worker, I’m not the Archbishop or Bishop, I’m not a theologian, or overseas missionary, or ….. and it depends how far my ego lets me go. It depends on how far I’ve managed to see myself clearly and honestly.
However, our faith and our baptism teaches and encourages us to answer very clearly and simply about our real identity: ‘I am a child of God.’
Such a joy-filled answer! A shout of faith and recognition. I belong to God. I’m a member of God’s family. This is who I am!
Our church’s faith teaches us this is our primary identity, beyond any worldly category, above and beyond any family function or dysfunction, beyond even our own self-understanding as a sinner. I do think defining ourselves only as a sinner can also have tragic consequences. Like John, we remember God’s grace given freely as our very first and defining identity before we go to any other aspects of our lives.
The authorities’ rapid-fire questioning of John the Baptist use the same words again and again, of testimony, (martyria) seeking and obtaining confession about who he was and his role. John 1:19-28
John knew who he was. He was the ‘one sent from God’, to give testimony to the ‘light’!
John’s answer does not satisfy the authorities, who stick on his three previous denials. If he is not the Christ, nor Elijah nor the prophet, why does he baptize; they demand to know!
The interrogation of John by the authorities was repeated with Jesus.
We too are being asked: Do our credentials match up to the expectations and standards of those around us in the world; or, do they express God’s deepest desire and longing for us.
What is your testimony?
John’s witnessing is extraordinary. As his identity and ministry authority are questioned, his fearless response contrasts with Peter’s later three-fold denial and betrayal.
John describes his relationship with Jesus by stating he is ‘the voice’ prophesied by Isaiah (40.3) as he diverts attention from himself as John and clearly asserts his function as the prophetic forerunner planned by God. John identifies his role as the witness to the Word. John carries out his divine appointment by testifying to the truth of God’s self-revelation in Christ.
To look upon God in the Hebrew scriptures was to die. In the person of Jesus, says John, we behold God’s glory, but rather than die we are given a pathway to life.
John’s self-emptying for God’s purpose is profoundly humbling and his commitment to God’s plan already created before the world came into being, is exemplary. His willingness to put aside his ego and to be present for God’s purpose is a lifetime’s work for all of us, and in this time Advent it is definitely our work now.
And like John, God’s plan for each of us, beloved as a child of God, is already waiting for us to claim in our relationship with God.
As we think about the questions being fired at John, he goes on to say:
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 1:26-27)
I shivered at this point. I wondered how can we not see God when God is standing among us? At issue is where we are looking for God or not. We must look at the light that is Jesus Christ and the witness and testimony we give to others as Jesus’ followers as a consequence.
Are we blindly looking around us and not seeing God at work already with those actively seeking Gospel justice, peace and healing? Are we refusing to see Jesus in the eyes of those struggling and presently in the wilderness today?
Advent is about hope, love, joy and peace. And today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday with joy at the good news of the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who lives among us and who is coming again.
Advent is also about clearing away the clutter in our lives, recognizing where we are choosing to ignore the signs of God, perhaps refusing to believe what is happening in front of us, not acknowledging where we have created a different God to suit us, so we can go on doing what we want.
Mary’s hymn of praise to God is a shout of protest and triumph (Luke 1:46-55). A call to recognition and action. In the despair and poverty, chaos and death around her in a time of huge conflict, violence and suffering, she was calling out the world and God’s presence as she saw it and experienced it. It is a song of overwhelming love of God. It is a clarion call to all who hear her words echoing Isaiah, John and Jesus through the millennia.
And what is your answer to the question, ‘who are you’? And does your answer ‘I am a child of God’ affirm to those around you, that you see Jesus among us today showing us the way? How do we rate in this world as a model for others to follow?
Isaiah, Mary, John and Jesus give us insight about our identity and our work as we seek to show God is alive and present today. What have we been asked to do?
To bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to comfort all who mourn. To give gladness instead of mourning, flowers instead of ashes, praise instead of criticism, to build up and not to destroy, to repair and raise up. To rejoice and be glad.
And we do all this because the Lord loves justice, hating robbery and wrongdoing. These are really clear expectations.
So my reflection on this story of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, is of a man trusting in God in the face of all that is being set against him, and to be as clear in my answer to God’s call when those around me ask: ‘who am I?’ as he was; and my answer is joy-filled:
‘I am a child of God. ‘
The Lord be with you.