John 1:6-8, 19-28
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
The gospel of John begins at the beginning: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
All things came into being through the Word, and then, the light appeared. God sent a man to testify to the light. This man was not the light but simply the one sent to testify to the light. And that man was John. Sent to testify, testify he did. John testified: “This was he [Jesus] of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” Questioned by religious authorities, John confessed: I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet. “Who are you?” the authorities persisted. Finally, John proclaimed: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
John was clear about who he was and who he was not. John knew where his authority began and ended. He was meant to prepare the way of the Lord, to point to Jesus. If John had lived in the 21st century, he might have picked up one of those large foam fingers sold at professional football games and pointed that foam finger in the direction of Jesus, turning everyone’s attention to the star player. Or maybe he would have set up a Facebook page devoid of his own name but a wall full of Jesus’ activities, photos of Jesus healing and feeding people, videos of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. Or maybe John would have managed Jesus’ campaign, producing marketing materials, talking up Jesus with the locals as Jesus toured the countryside. This was John’s vocation, John’s identity: the one who points to Jesus.
Today, what strikes me about John is his authenticity, the way he stayed true to the call of God in his life. Two thousand years later, we can easily misunderstand John’s way of life as theatricality. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke paint John as a wild man who ate locusts and honey, who led the peasants of Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized. A man clothed in camel’s hair, a man with a harsh and biting message of repentance. The gospel of Luke tells the story of John’s birth by the barren and elderly Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. An angel of God told Zechariah that this special child would prepare the way for the Messiah. Even from within the womb, John pointed to Jesus for, indeed, when Mary the mother of Jesus greeted Elizabeth, John leaped in his mother’s womb. And so, Elizabeth was the first to recognize Mary as the mother of her Lord.
Today, I am grateful for John’s authenticity. His wild persona was not an act but real. God sent him into the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus, and John embraced the wilderness. He embraced his vocation as one who pointed others to Jesus.
I am grateful for John’s authenticity because it is easy to not be authentic, to not be who we truly are. Sometimes, we decide what to do or what to think based on what others do or think, others like people at work or school, like family or friends. We may even assume that we are obligated to please others, to do the things that others want us to do. We may not really know what we want because our family or friends have told us what they think we should do for work, what school we should go to, how we should spend our free time, what we should think politically or socially. Perhaps we even feel bound by the church, to be here, to do certain things that we don’t actually want to do. Perhaps we feel pressured to believe certain things we don’t really believe or to embrace a morality we think is outdated. In the clamor of everyone else’s expectations, it can be difficult to hear God’s voice calling us to do or be. But, as much as we value the opinions of those closest to us, including our church family, God’s voice is the only one that really matters. God who created us and loves us has called us to be children of God, people who love and serve God and God’s people, who proclaim the good news of God in Christ, who work for justice and peace. There are so many different ways to embody this calling, and we don’t have to be someone we are not for the sake of others. In fact, God created us differently to go about the work of God in different ways in the world.
During the summers of my college years, I worked at Bible camps in Wisconsin. Spending so much time with middle school and high school students taught me something valuable: you can’t fool a teenager. You can’t. I know you’ve tried. But you can’t. Kids know…everything. Right? They know when you’re lying. They know when you’re not authentic. They also know when you’re telling the truth about your life. This is a large part of why I love spending time with teenagers and young adults. I can’t pretend to be someone I am not. If I did, I would lose all credibility. It’s good for keeping me honest.
The twentieth century US poet Adrienne Rich wrote in 1977:
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives
The truth of John’s life was that God called him to point others to Jesus. If you were to split open your life, what would you find? How has God called you to be, and what has God called you to do?
Like John, we may be called into the wilderness; we may be called to be different than a lot of other people. At a time when many could have overlooked the advent of the messiah, when many could have ignored the coming of Jesus, John’s locust and honey diet, his camel’s hair clothing and wild reputation led people to follow him, to listen to him, perhaps just because they were curious. God prepared the way for Jesus through John. So, today, I wonder: How is God using us in our own particularity, in our own weirdness to serve and love God and God’s people, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to work for justice and peace?
In the church, we are so eager to be proper, to be appropriately godly, Christian, saintly. We seek to fulfill the expectations of the church—along with the expectations of family and friends. Part of the humor of Advent is the authenticity of John the Baptist, one defiantly not proper. The story of his life calls us to authenticity, calls us to split open our lives that we might find the truth waiting there.