Who are you - what are you waiting for?
Christmas is only days away!
12 days away .... so it not unreasonable to suppose that all the conflation of stories and images that we have from Bible and seasonal cards are swirling about - including the story of the camel riding astrologers who were following a star so as to be in time to offer gifts to the newborn baby.
But the gospel of John, from which our reading comes today, has none of these nativity stories in it. Commentators suggest that the writer (who, confusingly is called John and the story today is about John the one we know as the Baptiser) chose to leave them out. Given he was writing in the 90s CE, he would likely have been familiar with them - he probably had Matthew’s account of John the Baptist’s birth available given it was written toward the end of the preceding decade! It would seem the writer, John, wanted to paint a different picture of Jesus in the time of trouble after the fall of the temple, so chooses to begin his account in a very different way. There is no virgin birth or angels to give importance to the origin of the man Jesus - who we note, was still a point of controversy 60 years after his death. Instead of using the familiar Roman tropes he uses very Jewish allusions and images to point to who Jesus wa, and what he was on about. This account begins with a relative of Jesus, John the ‘wild-man’, dressed in skins and eating locusts and honey, who emerges out of the wilderness and draws crowds with his preaching of repentance and revolution and the act of ritual baptism. John suggests, by using well known images from the Jewish scriptures, that the one the people have been waiting for is imminent.
Not surprisingly, as this story goes, the Jewish authorities send a delegation of Levites and Pharisees to check out John the Baptiser, to find out who he is and what he is hoping to do. Times are tense between Jesus' followers and Jews and Romans and local Jewish residents. So who is this John who is gathering crowds, and what is his purpose?
Is he a priest like his father? It would seem not.
Is he a prophet? If so, is he one of words and proclamations, or one of protest actions?
“are you the messiah?” they ask him?
“are you Elijah?
“are you a prophet?”
“No” he replies to each exhortation. “ I am not... I am the voice of one crying in the wildernesses...”
And he points the way toward Jesus who is to come after him referencing the passages from Isaiah that his Jewish hearers would have been familiar with. by using such a device he sets out his own credentials and those of Jesus.
The rest of the gospel, in effect, sets out using storytelling and imagery to tell us who Jesus is and why we should follow him.
As John tells the story the authorities are not sure what to expect as they see the growing crowds gathering around Jesus when he is baptising and they see the various signs he enacts, and they hear tell of his teaching. What’s more, this Jesus even challenges them! Who is this man?
Jesus is not simply a disciple following John, nor is he gathering a crowd of sycophants to boost his ego! Rather he is appealing to the deep covenantal relationship of the people with God: that covenant is shaped to care for the poor, feed the hungry, bring life to those who are disheartened, sight to those who are blind and freedom to those experiencing imprisonment. Jesus is pointing to God and toward the fulfillment of the hope that God’s vision for the world as it could be has begun. He is encouraging the people to begin living as though it were so; to expect change; to expect each other to care about what is happening and about what could be. To imagine a different world, a life embraced by peace and justice.
We can look around our communities and our world and often what we ‘see’ are things we don’t like all that much. We point out what is wrong with our society and our community, we talk readily about the climate crisis, about the ‘me too movement’ about housing insecurity and food insecurity even the world famine we have been warned is coming, we protest continuing racism and the struggle of many on fixed incomes to feed and house themselves and manage their health. To this end we are prophets of doom: based on our experiences we expect the worst and are trying to protect ourselves and those we love from such fate.
A few weeks ago I asked the question in a sermon “What matters to you?” I was wondering what had shaped the way I had voted in the general election and what I was going to do to continue to express those concerns. I was wondering what I hoped for in the next few years, and what I was prepared to do in the face of that hope - notwithstanding my experiences or the experiences of others whom I care about. Most of what I seemed to care about emerged from my fears - either for myself and my extended family or for others facing a future of possible difficulties.
Our experiences do shape what matters to us, and often what we might do as well, if we have the spare time! But, what if instead of speaking and acting based on those experiences that disposed us to expect a future we would do well to fear, we were prepared to be courageous and proclaim the hope that our Christian story sets before us week by week? What if we went even further and lived and demanded others were able to live that hoped for world too? Would things change?
Buried within the disappointments in our lives, hidden in the darkness of our greed and confusion there are signs of what might be. They are already there! They are the good news that we don’t spend much time on and which our media seems to have an aversion to. If we took a different track and noticed the signs of love, of kindness and generosity and sought to emulate those behaviours would we help to shape a vision of possibility? What if we noticed and drew attention to positive acts to reduce climate damaging emissions and the waste that pollutes the world, and the decisions move toward lifting children and their families out of poverty, would this encourage a climate of hopefulness instead of fear? Would we come to expect nonviolence and kindness, enough for every one instead of some going without? What if this time we saw ‘the light’ - were prepared to be open to the enlightenment and life John was pointing to in the person of Jesus; what if out of the chaos in our world the Word, the Wisdom of God was enabled to bring order and wellbeing through our participation? What if we faced the question of the authorities to John “who are you?”
John points to Jesus as the embodiment of the Word Of God inhuman life, but Jesus keeps pointing beyond himself, pointing as it were to God, to the capacity of humanity to be life-bringers for each other.
Using powerful archetypal language John has Jesus saying: “I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the gate; I am the way, the truth, the life”. John’s gospel goes on to unpack all those saying - with illustrations. But that is not my task today!
Rather it is to wonder
Who am I?
Who are you?
At this Advent time in the Christian calendar we are used to talking about ‘hope’ and encouraging ourselves to ‘wait expectantly’. I want to ask what are we waiting for? We have a hope for the world that as people of faith we can proclaim; we have a vision that can stir us to act for love of people and place; we have a faith that will hold us when the unknown confronts us; we have each other to hold our hands and say “come on we are waiting for you”.
This coming year let’s help each other unpack the gift of who we are.