Summit Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2011
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Who are We?
The John who baptized people in the Jordan river remains a bit of a mystery. The four gospels describe him differently. In Luke he's a cousin of Jesus and the angel Gabriel announces his birth to his father Zechariah. It's the story of another miraculous birth, since Zechariah's wife Elizabeth was barren. In Luke John not only baptizes but teaches people to share their coats and their food -- and threatens judgement if they don't. Mark and Matthew say nothing about John's birth and have him appear suddenly in the wilderness, wearing a coat of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey. Matthew, Mark and Luke report that John baptized Jesus, and that he was put in prison and executed by King Herod. Matthew tells the story of his beheading at Herod's birthday party.
John - the writer of our gospel, also called John the evangelist (all these Johns in the gospels get very confusing!) has none of these details about John the baptizer's life. John the evangelist just wants to clarify who John was in relation to Jesus. He was a man, sent by God, a witness to testify to the light- the light that was life in Jesus Christ. The evangelist tells of a conversation between John and other religious Jews who didn't who John was - or who he claimed to be. Leaders in Jerusalem, and the Pharisees, sent priests and Levites to ask questions. The questions may seem hostile -- but they're perfectly appropriate. It was a time of diversity and turmoil in the Jewish community, with different schools of thought and practice often suspicious of one another, with charlatans as well as sincere would be messiahs and teachers. "Who are you?," they asked John.
John begins by saying what he is not. He is not the Messiah. All kinds of folks were claiming to be God's annointed, or to know God's plan, each with their own followers. But John says right away, "I am not the Messiah." They asked if he was Elijah. Elijah was a prophet of old, a healer and miracle worker, a messenger and defender of God against false prophets. At the end of his life he had not died and been buried in the usual way, but had been taken to heaven in a chariot of fire. It was said he would return before the day of the Lord, turning the hearts of the parents to their children and children to their parents. According to the other gospels, John had a lot in common with Elijah: he dressed like Elijah (the camel's hair), ate like Elijah (those locusts), and hung out at the Jordan just like Elijah. Indeed, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says John is Elijah. But not here: John says he is not Elijah. John also says he is not the prophet -- the prophet that Moses said God would raise up, like him, to speak God's truth - a prophet some were expecting. Finally, John says who (or what) he is: a voice crying out in the wilderness, "make straight the way of the Lord," as the prophet Isaiah said. His questioners ask why he's baptizing folks, but John ignores their question, and speaks of Jesus. "Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me." The next day John says that he saw the Holy Spirit rest on Jesus, and the day after he points Jesus out to his own disciples, who follow Jesus. John's role is to witness, to point others to Jesus.
We're fourteen days away from Christmas. In this country - and most places around the world - everyone knows that. Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, people of all faiths, beliefs and ages - know that Christmas is coming. And nearly everyone also knows that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. They may not celebrate the birth themselves, but they know that Christians do. So it would be natural for folks to be wondering: who are they? Who are these people who celebrate the birth of Jesus and who have gotten the whole world caught up in it? Who are we?
Let's take a page from John and start by saying who we're not. We're not a global advertising agency, commissioned by makers of toys, bathrobes, kitchen appliances, kindles, jewelry, gloves, mugs, ties, chocolates, ipods. We can understand why people might think that. Christmas is the occasion for an orgy of shopping, and Christians shop just as much- if not more- than others. Some Christians even protest if department stores say "Happy Holidays" rather than Merry Christmas -- as though shopping were the reason for the season. I do believe Jesus would be turning in his grave over that, if he were still in it.
We're not a civic organization, a place for folks to gather and work on neighborhood issues or raise money for good causes. We can understand why people might think that. We sometimes work on neighborhood issues and raise money for good causes. And 50 years ago, people joined churches not only to worship, but because it was the thing to do. The way to meet your neighbors, make business connections, find friends and activities for your children. Congregations built buildings like this one to accomodate their many members and programs. Those days are gone. And although churchgoers were surely as faithful then as now, it's just as well joining a church is no longer the default option. We're not a civic organization.
We're not an arm of the state, or a political party. We can understand why people might think that. Christians of all political persuasions - rightly - speak out and organize on issues of justice, peace and morality. So far no one's been president who doesn't at least claim to be a practicing Christian. Presidential candidates campaign on the promise that schools and government offices will become places to celebrate Christmas and pray to Jesus, presumably for the benefit of both. But Jesus was executed by the state for crimes against it. We're not an arm of the state or a mouthpiece for any political party.
We are also not - here at Summit - a community center. We can understand why people might think that. Our building is busy day and night with childcare and afterschool programs, dance classes, Weaver's Way meetings, Girl Scouts and Martial Arts. Worthy organizations have offices here. Our building functions as a community center. And leasing our space is good stewardship, helpful to the community and appreciated by the many who use it. But our center is not the community. Our center is Christ.
b2 3So who are we? What do we say to those who come to us, seeking an answer? The answer is both simple and hard to explain: we're disciples of Christ who witness to his light. The light of Christ which brings hope, peace, joy and love to a hurting and broken world -- as we remind ourselves when we light the Advent candles each week. The light of Christ, who in his very first sermon, preached those words from Isaiah that we read this morning: the spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has annointed 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. We're witnesses to the light of the Christ who came to us in the manger, healed the sick, taught the faithful, explained the scriptures, fed the hungry, spoke truth to power and forgave (and forgives) sins. Who died for us and who was raised from the dead to be with us in his Spirit. Now as witnesses to that light we may be called to rent offices, pray for the government, address neighborhood issues and even buy Christmas presents -- and I'm glad to see that the tags on our angel tree are almost gone. But none of those things define who we are, none of them are the reason we're called into the church. We are followers of Christ who point others to him. Disciples seeking to make his path straight. As Christmas approaches, may we remember and reflect and be true to who we are. Please join me in prayer: