Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who are you? In a culture obsessed with self-actualisation, we feel the constant pressure to ask ourselves who we are and how we define ourselves. We’re pressured to identify ourselves by our jobs, financial status, successes, family, sexual orientation, gender, appearance, what other people say about us. There are numerous ways that we may identify ourselves. But what happens to our identity when things change? We may experience failure or rejection, lose our family. We might find ourselves completely burned out. When our circumstances change, our identity, our sense of who we are, can change too. Someone whose identity is wrapped up in their spouse is going to have a difficult time if that spouse dies. So, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” That’s the question posed to John the Baptist by the delegation from Jerusalem, the religious priests and Levites who were sent to investigate this strange wilderness man. How John identified himself can help us find a reliable answer to this question: Who are you?
“I am not”
The Temple functionaries came to John. They liked keeping tabs on people. Especially if someone was behaving in a strange new way, announcing a message from God. They had a good thing going and didn’t want anyone rocking the boat. So they began questioning John, “Who do you think you are? Calling people to repentance. Baptising all sorts of filthy sinners – prostitutes and tax agents and riff raff – as if they could just take a bath and all would be forgiven. Who are you? Dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Calling us a ‘brood of vipers’ and daring to call good, respectable religious people to repentance. Who do you think you are, John?”
Some thought John the Baptist would make good messiah material. But John knew who he was and who he was not. “I am not the Christ.” Some thought he was Elijah, whom Malachi said would come to prepare the way of the Lord. But John would not apply that designation to himself. “I am not,” he said. Some thought he was the Prophet foretold by Moses. But again, John denied it. “I am not,” even though he stood at the end of a long prophetic line and he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word. In our text, John is described as who he is not — he is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. He is not the light that shines in the darkness.
There were many answers John could have given. He was a Nazirite from the time he was born. That means, he never cut his hair, he never touched a dead body, he never drank wine. He lived a pure, physically uncontaminated life. He could have talked about his miraculous birth and how he was filled with the Holy Spirit even before birth. He could have told them how it felt to live a solitary life of self-denial in the wilderness. He could have talked about his survival tactics in the wilderness or perhaps his grasshopper diet. He could have discussed his devotional routine or published a manual of discipline for those who wanted to follow God.
The religious leaders sought to make John define himself by their own standards. Like John, we live in a world that seeks to define us by its own standards. Your gender, sex, ethnicity, class, callings and vocations are important, but our primary identity needs to be one that will never change, and that can encompass and give meaning to all other parts of our life. We shouldn’t think that our jobs or our families and such things are not important, but there is something which is more important, more central. Notice, what John does. He refuses to define or describe himself by the world’s standards, or even by his family or his way of life, or even religious vows. His identity does not come from those things. John says instead, “I am not,” and invites us to do likewise.
“Behold the Lamb”
With all of these “I am nots,” John the Baptist does identifies himself. John’s answer is that he is getting people ready for someone else. “Who are you?” They ask. John’s answer: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness. Nothing more than a voice.” John was a witness sent from God to testify, to point, to direct attention away from himself to a Coming One, one who was greater than John, One whose sandals John was not worthy to untie, one who was the Christ, the anointed One, the messiah of God. He left it to Christ to give him his identity. He was content to simply be a voice in the wilderness.
Despite his resolute confession about who he is not, who John the Baptist is and why he is here is inseparable from Jesus. John talks about who he is, in connection to who Jesus is. Can you make a similar claim about your identity? Can you respond to “who are you?” by talking about your relationship to God in Christ? Is your identity intimately connected to Jesus?
In the verse right after our text, John points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” We can know who we are, because we know whose we are. We belong to God, because he has purchased us with the precious blood of Christ. God has shown you uncalled-for generosity simply because he loves you. Jesus is the one who willingly offered up his own life so that your relationship with God might be mended. All that stood between you and God has been removed. Your sin, your shame, your guilt, your failure, even your death, have all been taken away. Christ, out of his great love, offers you mercy, because he offered himself completely and fully, even to the point of death. This mercy gives you the confidence to know that the worst that is in you does not define you in God’s eyes. What defines you in God’s eyes is his love for you in Jesus.
Our identity is not located in our own capabilities, our family, our job, or anything that may one day change. Our identity is located in this uncalled-for generosity of God. An identity grounded in God’s mercy means that when we think of who we are, we need to see ourselves as God sees us. Justified, forgiven, deeply loved by God. We no longer need to find our worth in external circumstances. Instead of changing who we are based on the opinions of others, our professional success, how we see ourselves, and all the other ways we may define ourselves, God tells us who we are. We are shaped by our relationship to God and to God’s people. In Christ we find our true self-worth and we become our authentic selves.
The John of the third Sunday in Advent is the John that doesn’t point to himself. Instead, he points to Jesus and says, “Behold, did you see him? It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Sin is unbelief which has as its tragic consequence separation from God. Being separated from God, is to no longer know what it means to be truly human. We are all sinners. But that isn’t the end of the story. I am a sinner, yes, but I am forgiven, justified, and redeemed because of God’s uncalled-for generosity. As Christians, we are people who have died with Christ, in baptism. Christ himself presently and actively lives and works in our lives. Because of the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, because Jesus is the very Lamb of God who took away our sins, we are no longer defined by things which are here today and gone tomorrow. Our identity is in Jesus, the Lamb of God and Light of the World.
May the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.