John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the Prophet.”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
Hopefully we can hear in John’s confession of who he is that he is not here trying to step into the shoes of the Messiah, especially their notion of the Messiah or wear the mantle of Elijah. John only claims to be himself. He is who he is and indeed he has a sense that God has called him to be a witness to the light. To testify that Jesus is the light who is already among us.
May be if nothing else today we can take a leaf out of John’s CV and his Job description. John made no pretence to be somebody he wasn’t. He merely saw himself as trying to do what God had called him to do. As I watch young people today trying to write their CV for a job you get the feeling they have to try on the shoes of a great engineer, or the successful entrepreneur or the gifted scientist. Wouldn’t it be great if they could simply write, I have learnt a bit, I have some experience and I have some natural wit, and more importantly I know I have an enormous amount to learn.
Then when you watch politicians trying to win an election. Again, they feel they have to claim to be the messiah. They tell their followers on Facebook and twitter they will make the country like it was fifty years ago and at the same time move the country to where it needs to be in 50 years’ time. They declare they can fix the national economics as easily as slicing a pie.
But maybe we can hear in this inquisition of John an invitation to revel in God’s acceptance of us. God delights in us as we are with our gifts and strengths. But also, God delights in the areas of our life where we have to rely on others for their strengths and gifts. How good is that, we can all have a collective sigh of relief. God loves us as we are. Certainly, God invites us to grow and blossom as he has created us. But we don’t have to be something we are not.
Clearly John had a strong sense of vocation. John saw himself as a voice in the wilderness. John was clearly inspired by the great prophets, people like Elijah and Isaiah. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, John even dressed like Elijah. And like Elijah he was calling the people of Israel to order, come back to God, you have turned your back on God, hence “repent”, turn around. Even his understanding of the Prophet Isaiah had overtones of the fire breathing Elijah. “You brood of vipers” he called the religious elite. At least, that is how Matthew portrays John the Baptist. In John’s Gospel the Baptist only has one job, to point people to the light.
Now maybe the flip side of that leaf we took out of John’s CV is the call to point to Jesus as the warm light that brings laughter and joy, love and hope. So to witness to Jesus doesn’t mean we have to be a fire breathing prophet like Elijah or an evangelist like Billy Graham or an orator like Martin Luther King. Remember the first side of the CV we learnt we are loved by God as we are. So, each one of us will be able to point to Jesus in our own way and in so doing help others to discover God.
Some will point to Jesus in their acts of service: sitting behind a computer making our worship available for those at home; or preparing the altar linen or music for worship; or serving food in the park; or taking the food down to the pantry at Chermside. Others will use words to encourage people through well-chosen prayers, or written in cards to those who are grieving, or remembering to ask after those who have been struggling. Words expressing love will point to Jesus. Others will take time to listen when someone is in pain, or spend time helping someone to learn. Still others will express their love with gifts generously given. Each time love is shown we point to Jesus. From time to time we will need to explicitly explain our intentions, our expressions of love are deeply rooted in our faith in Jesus. As such our love is a witness to the loving generous God whom we encounter in Jesus.
Now if John came to bear witness to Jesus, then we had better turn our focus to Jesus. While John the Baptist was clearly inspired by the prophets especially the likes of Elijah, Jesus seems to have been more inspired by Isaiah. I trust when you heard that passage from Isaiah you thought to yourself, I know this passage, this is what Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth. (See Luke 4:16-30)
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord ’s favour,
Now admittedly if we only read John’s Gospel you would hardly know that Jesus went to Nazareth. You might not even be sure if he came from Bethlehem or spent time in Galilee. But for that matter even Mary his mum barely gets a mention. The humanity of Jesus is barely visible in John’s Gospel. What we hear are phrases like, I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14); or I am the vine and you are the branches (John 15); or I am the light of the world. (John 9). In John’s Gospel John the Baptist is pointing us to the one in whom we encounter God. For that reason, many love John’s Gospel. The Jesus they know and love from John’s Gospel takes their life when it is no more exciting than a glass of water and transforms it to a glass overflowing with sparkling champagne. When their life feels like they are suffocating from abuse or loneliness or depression, Jesus breaths life into them bringing joy and hope. This is the person they want others to discover, the Lord they bear witness to.
Others among us are more at home with Jesus as portrayed in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the suffering servant who has a heart of compassion. Here Jesus quotes form Isaiah bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour. This Jesus has an earthy humanity. His suffering is very real. They are inspired by Jesus’ dream, his vision of the Kingdom where the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are fed. This earthy compassionate Jesus is the one they are keen to point people to.
That is the whole point of knowing that we are loved by God as we are. We don’t all have to agree exactly on how we experience Jesus in our lives or exactly how we live out following Jesus. Our invitation today is to revel in the God we encounter in Jesus. To know that we are loved by God. And then in our own way, using our own gifts lets point to Jesus and help others to encounter God in Jesus. Some will see Jesus in us and hear his words in our words. Others might see Jesus better in the person beside you. That’s OK.
Spiritual Exercises to help you revel in God’s love
Now I have said that God loves us as we are and that we can revel in God, yet even as I say that I realise many of us hit barriers. Our image of God might actually be more like an image of a headmaster with a cane in hand or a Magistrate or maybe an angry parent with their belt in hand. With this kind of image, we feel we are never good enough. Now it may be that you are not conscious of having a harsh image of God, you may have a picture in mind of Jesus taking a child on his lap with love but you still feel you are never good enough. Maybe that feeling gives us a clue to our deeper subconscious feeling.
So this coming couple of weeks as we come to Christmas I invite you to use your imagination. Sit with the image of Jesus with a child on his lap. If it is not you as a child wait with the image and imagine Jesus turning to you with a smile and inviting you to sit on his lap.
Then sit with an image of the Last Supper. To begin with you might see your self as someone bringing the bread or setting the table. Maybe that is where you feel more comfortable. Wait with the image and imagine Jesus saying, come and sit with me, using your name to call you. Drink the wine as he passes it along the table.
Finally imagine a place and a time in your life where you felt most loved. In your mind go to that place and that time. Savour the feeling of being loved. Then imagine Jesus present in that place, smiling! Hopefully you will sense Jesus’ smile of a strong sign that nothing gives him more joy that to see you experiencing love. Sit with his smile. Hopefully in time you will realise that the love you experienced in that place at that time was God’s love as much as it was your parents, your husband or wife, your close friend or your puppy dog.
These exercises in imagination are tools for helping you remember that you are loved by God as you are, and that you can revel in the love of God. Hopefully they will help you set aside any unhealthy subconscious image of God. Like John the Baptist you will be called to use your gifts to bring others to know Jesus. We do that best by being ourselves. We can only ever point to Jesus as we know Jesus and we do that through acts of love.