This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.
The text is John 1:6-8, 19-28.
I was at a church meeting in Lyons Falls this past week and brought my daughter along in tow. She played while the grownups talked. During the meeting, she came up to sit in my lap. I asked her, “Don’t you want to go back and play with your puzzle?” She replied, “The puzzle is broken.”
After the meeting was over, Diane Hausserman and I were helping to clean up the room and we discovered what she meant. There was this one puzzle that was being totally uncooperative. I don’t know why they called it a “kids puzzle” because it apparently takes two full-grown adults to get the job done!
It took us a while to get all the pieces together. When we finally did, we could tell that the picture on the puzzle was supposed to be Jesus (precisely what one would expect to find in a church nursery). But, even when we had all the pieces together and arranged in the right order, we discovered an additional problem: for some reason, the pieces just didn’t want to fit inside the frame! So there we were: two educated adults, one a pastor and the other an elder in the church, who were pushing, pounding, rearranging, and then pounding again all because we wanted Jesus to fit nicely and neatly inside our convenient little frame, so that we could put him back on the shelf at church (where he belongs) and then go home.
I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. It’s a perfect metaphor for what people do all the time. We do it with each other, we do it with God, and we even do it with ourselves. We’re not the first to do it, either. Look at this morning’s reading from John’s gospel, we can see people trying to force John the Baptist, that great puzzle of a prophet, into their own neat and tidy little frame.
This is the second week in a row that we’ve talked about John. Last week, we talked about the fact that he was a person of great faith, a prophet even, who wasn’t afraid to get loud and shake things up when necessary. This week, I want to look at John as a prophet who could not be squeezed into a framework of preconceived notions and categories.
After John first showed up and started causing a stir in Judea, the religious authorities took notice and sent a committee to interview him. They wanted to know what to do with him. Was he a dangerous radical? Was he a heretic? Could he be the real thing?
Their list of questions centered around one core question: “Who are you?” And they presented it as a multiple choice question.
a. The Messiah.
c. The Prophet.
First, they wanted to know if John considered himself to be the Messiah. We are all familiar with this term. It was later applied to Jesus. In Hebrew, it means “Anointed” and referred to a coming king who was supposed to liberate Israel from foreign occupation and inspire the people to follow the laws of the Torah. Many modern day Jews still await the coming of their Messiah. Christians believe that Jesus filled this role during his lifetime (although they radically reinterpret the meaning of the word). In the days when John the Baptist was alive, lots of revolutionary leaders were jumping up and saying “I’m the Messiah!” These violent revolutionaries (one might call them terrorists) did more harm than good, so the leaders of the religious establishment knew to not take them too seriously. In that sense, asking John whether he was the Messiah was a loaded question. If he said “Yes” then they would automatically know that he wasn’t the real Messiah. But John didn’t fall into their trap. He answered right away, “I am not the Messiah.”
Next, they wanted to know whether John was Elijah. As we mentioned last week, John acted and dressed in such a way that reminded people of Elijah, one of Israel’s ancient heroes. What made that possibility even more important was something said by another Jewish prophet named Malachi. Speaking in the name of Israel’s God, Yahweh, Malachi said, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” The rabbis and theologians in John’s day understood this to mean that Elijah, who, according to Jewish legend, had been taken up into heaven alive, riding on a chariot of fire, would one day return to earth, and that his return would herald the coming of the Messiah. So, like the first answer, this was another trick question. If John answered “Yes” then they would know that he still had some kind of Messianic agenda and was a potential threat to national security, which depended on keeping the Romans happy. Once again, John dodged the bullet by answering, “No.”
Finally, the religious authorities asked John whether he was “the prophet.” By asking this, they were referring to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses tells the Hebrews, “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” Some rabbis thought Moses was referring to a particular person whose appearance, like Elijah’s, would herald the coming of the Messiah. Others thought Moses was simply referring to prophets in general. Whichever interpretation was implied in the question, John once again declined the opportunity to take up that mantle.
Given options a., b., and c., John goes for:
d. None of the above
What’s odd here is that, elsewhere in the New Testament, John is very much regarded as a prophet, even the greatest of all prophets. Also, Jesus himself directly identifies John with Elijah. Why then wouldn’t John publicly acknowledge who he really was?
We’ve already addressed some of the political concerns associated with such a loaded term as “Elijah.” But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there may have been a deeper reason why John didn’t feel the need to have the proper labels attached to him. Perhaps, for John, being was more important than appearances. This conviction is beautifully summed up in the Latin phrase that serves as the state motto of North Carolina, where I grew up: Esse Quam Videri. “To be rather than to seem.”
Being and living out of his true self is far more important to John than any title or position. John may have been the long-predicted prophet or even Elijah himself, but he didn’t need to be recognized as such in order for his ministry to be authentic.
For the religious authorities, on the other hand, recognition was everything. They wanted John to have an official title so that they could fit him inside their little frame, put him back on the shelf, and forget about him.
You and I do this all the time. We like to use names and buzzwords to organize and separate people into categories. Instead of “Messiah” or “prophet,” we use words like:
- Male and female
- Black and white
- American and Afghani
- Liberal and conservative
- Gay and straight
- Christian and Muslim
We attach labels to people so that we can dismiss them and not listen to what they have to say. Like that puzzle, we fit all the pieces into a neat little frame and put them on a shelf in the back of our minds. But people are complicated and tend to resist being categorized so easily. When we do that, we only cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to learn something important from another person.
More importantly, when we categorize and dismiss other people like that, we’re really doing it to God. The Bible tells us that every human being is made “in the image of God.” Every human life is a prism that reflects and refracts the eternal light of divine mystery in a way that is totally unique to that person. When we shut our eyes to that rainbow of light, we are ultimately turning away from God. It’s God that we’re putting on that shelf in the back of our minds when reality doesn’t conform to our simplistic expectations.
Finally, if we’re going to try and open ourselves up to the light of God that shines through the lives of our fellow human beings (like it shone through the prophet John the Baptist), we need to start by recognizing how that light shines through ourselves. You too are made in the image of God. The eternal light of divine mystery shines through you in a way that it utterly unique unto you. There are truths about God that only you can reveal to the world. If it weren’t for you, something of God would be lost to the world forever.
All of us have internal “tapes” or “scripts” that we play over and over again in our heads. We categorize ourselves. We think these messages tell us who we are. These internal tapes say things like:
- “I’m no good”
- “I’ll never amount to anything”
- “Nobody will ever love me”
- “I could never do that”
- “I’m too fat/short/skinny/tall”
- And many others…
All people have tapes like these playing in their heads. The particular words may vary from person to person, but the result is the same: you are trying to force yourself into those same old categories rather than see yourself as you truly are: a human being, unconditionally loved, and made in the image of God. Learning to love yourself in that way and letting that love drown out the noise of the tapes playing in your head is best way to let the light of God shine through the prism of your life.
My prayer for you, as we move through this Advent season and into Christmas, is that you would be a person like John the Baptist, who refused to be put into any neat and tidy categories. I pray that you would be able to see the “light of the world” shining in your own face, so that you can go out into the world and see it shining in the faces of the people around you. I pray that you, like John the Baptist, will be “a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe.” Testify to the light. Tell the world what you have seen. Tell them how you found that light in yourself and how you see it in them. Rise above the categories that this world imposes upon people. Be who you really are. Take the holy light that shines so uniquely in you and sing out loud, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”