mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus
of you know that I’m somewhat of a baseball fan. Well, it seems that the folks
who put together the lectionary for this cycle of the Church Year have thrown us
a curve ball, or maybe at least a change-up. You may have noticed that the
first couple of Sundays in Advent this year used St. Mark’s gospel as the texts
for the Gospel lessons. That will often be the case throughout what is known
as cycle B in the three-year lectionary plan, as Mark is the primary gospel
though, we find ourselves looking at a text from the gospel of St. John. Don’t worry; St. Mark will be back plenty of times in the next eleven and half
months. It’s just that during certain portions of the church year, other
gospels cover specific events more clearly than does Mark’s gospel. And that’s
OK; after all, we base our Christian faith on the totality of Holy Scripture,
not little snippets of it. We stand firm on the entirety of God’s Law and
Gospel, not on some isolated passages plucked out of context.
knows, there are plenty of expressions of religion out there that have taken a
few loose fibers from some catchy or interesting phrases in the Bible or other
supposedly holy writings and from these, tried to weave an entire tapestry of a
theological system. Maybe even an entire tent. On such a collection of loose
threads, rather than on the completeness of God’s Holy Word, they’ve based
their religion and their identity as believers within that religion.
want to talk to you today about identity. Who a person is—or is not—is an
important aspect of just how they fit into the scheme of things. It
determines, in part, how they relate to other people, and to the world around
them. Significantly, your identity in relation to God your creator determines
just how you will live your life and—more importantly—how you will live your
death, and beyond. I suggest to you today that
Knowing our place in God’s
kingdom gives us both our identity and a great deal of comfort.
Gospel lesson is all about identity. In fact, if we’re not paying attention or
haven’t informed ourselves properly, the very Gospel lesson itself which was
read today could lead to mistaken identities.
we have a somewhat confusing situation:
- One John (the apostle and
evangelist) is writing about another John (the Baptist and prophet).
- The son of Zebedee writes about
the son of Zechariah.
- The brother of James writes about
the cousin of Jesus.
- The author who prophesied in the
Revelation about Christ’s second coming tells us about the messenger who
prophesied in the desert of Christ’s first coming.
them both straight? Don’t worry; God has it all sorted out, and they’re with
Him in heaven even now.
gist of today’s Gospel text is the identity of John the Baptist. We learn
something of his identity by what John the evangelist tells us, and something
from what John the Baptist tells us about himself. And from these, we find out
just what this latter John is, and what he is not.
met this prophet last week, you may recall. We heard a little about where John
the Baptist lived, what he ate, and what he wore. More importantly, we heard
about what he did, and what he said. These are important components in developing
a sense of John’s identity, certainly.
this information alone, though, it might be easy to drawn inferences that would
lead to a case of mistaken identity. Preaching a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins could lead many hopeful believers to conclude that John was
the Christ; the Messiah; the Anointed One of God. And, in some cases, it did
lead to that or other mistaken conclusions.
in spite of that—or more likely, because of it—John’s reputation had
spread throughout the region. It had reached Jerusalem, the seat of religious
power for Judea, and generated quite a bit of interest and curiosity. A large
number of people had come to the far side of the Jordan River, by no means a
simple walk down the block but an arduous hike of 20 miles or more over rough,
spite of the inconvenience of the journey, all this hubbub made it essential
that the religious authorities find out just what was going on out there in
that seemingly God-forsaken wilderness, where this son-of-a-priest gone bad had
been causing all sorts of commotion, and stirring up the people into a buzz
about the possible coming of the Christ. So, they dispatched a delegation to
determine the identity of this apparent lunatic, who needed a bath, a comb, and
a change of clothes.
they began questioning John about his identity, he tried to downplay his own
place, we see. Rather than identifying who he was, John told them in no
uncertain terms who he was not. His answers become terser and testier
with each question. He was not the Christ, the one whom Jews knew would save
His people. He was not Elijah, who had not died but been bodily taken to
heaven in a fiery chariot, and whom the Jews expected to return at the end of
time. He was not the Prophet, who was to usher in the age of the Messiah.
of hearing who John was not, the priests and Levites press him to tell
them just who he was, in his own words. “Give us an answer to take back
to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
even then, John does not really point to himself. The answer he gives them to
take back to those who sent the delegation comes directly from Him who sent
John: “I am but a messenger, a voice,” John essentially tells them. “I am not
the Message itself, but I come simply to prepare you for that Message.”
would think that these learned men, who knew the scriptures well, would have
recognized the words John quoted from the prophet Isaiah, and realized that the
Savior’s advent was imminent. But they were blind then, and remained blind
throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, to their eternal damnation.
than inquiring further about this message of hope and salvation, the legalists
among them instead want John to justify his actions in baptizing. They’re very
concerned about who has authority and who gets to exercise it. But John does
not try to defend his actions. He freely admits that he baptizes, and only
he also reveals a secret to these religious leaders: Among you stands Him
whose identity you do not know. The one whose way I came to prepare. The Lord
Himself, whose way is to be made straight. It is His identity that is
important, John indicates, not mine. I am not the Christ, not Elijah, and not
the Prophet, John says. I am not worthy. I am not the light.
spite of the fact that he downplays his own identity, though, John the Baptist’s
identity remains worthy of our attention, if only because it focuses our
attention beyond him, to Jesus Christ Himself. John was the voice, the
messenger. He was sent from God. He did come as a witness to
testify to the light, so that through him and his testimony all men might
believe in that light of the world. That’s John’s identity.
your identity? What are you, and what are you not? Most
of us, it seems, tend to identify ourselves vocationally or socially. I’m an
analyst, an accountant, a teacher, a student, or a homemaker, you might say.
I’m a hunter, a golfer, or a coin collector. A husband or a wife; a son or
in our conversations with those we meet in the comings and goings of daily life
do we reveal our true identities, telling others what we are and are not. Have
you used any of these lately, when someone has asked you about your identity?
I am a sinner. I am miserable and unclean, deserving of eternal punishment. I
am unworthy of the blessings my God and Creator has so bountifully showered
upon me. I try to be my own God, the master of my destiny. I try to decide what
I should rightly want and do, but I cannot. I am flawed. I am corrupted. I
am mortal. I am doomed. I need a new identity, a better identity.
that’s where we need to read between the lines, literally. For while today’s
Gospel lesson is excerpted from the beginning of the gospel of John, it’s not
the whole thing. It’s not the continuous text. Remember how I said earlier
that we don’t base our faith on snippets of Scripture, but on the totality of
God’s Word? In reading the several verses today which give us a glimpse into
the identity of John the Baptist, the messenger of God and preparer of the way
for Jesus Christ, we run a risk of missing part of the picture.
as John is in God’s plan of salvation, we ought not to forget those precious
words that give identity to the One of whom both Johns speak. Because it is His
identity that is so vitally important. Listen now and hear of that identity.
From chapter 1 of St. John, listen for a moment to those verses we didn’t
have in our lesson today:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through
him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The
light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…
9 The true light that gives light to every man was
coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world
was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came
to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet
to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right
to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent,
nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the
Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testifies concerning him.
He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has
surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of
his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For
the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18
No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the
Father’s side, has made him known…
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and
said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This
is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me
because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the
reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come
down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have
known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The
man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with
the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son
quite an identity, isn’t it? His identity is this: He is the Word, the very
mind and will of God. Eternal, with God in the beginning. The Creator of all
things. Life amidst death; Light amidst darkness. His identity not
recognized; His advent not received. His glory, His grace, His truth, rejected
by the world He had made and to which He came in the flesh to dwell among us.
in that flesh, He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. John testified that
the Holy Spirit descended to Jesus from heaven itself, and it remained on Him.
John himself admitted that he would not have recognized the Christ unless it
had been revealed to him by the One who had sent him.
further testifies that the identity of this One who came to us—advented to us—is
the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
it is that identity, above all others, which is important to you and to me.
For in that identity—the Son of God made flesh to become the Lamb of God—He
changes your identity. God’s plan of salvation by grace alone, through
faith alone, in Christ alone, is the ultimate Witness Protection Program.
we receive the gift of faith through water and Word, when we are granted
immunity from our own crimes, when we can point to Christ Jesus who took the
rap and received the infinite sentence for the punishment we deserved, the
eternal judge gives us a new identity. Our record is wiped clean, and we are
moved from being a citizen of a doomed, evil world to a fresh start in a new
jurisdiction: the kingdom of heaven. Formerly recognized as evil,
treacherous, condemned sinners, strangers to God and totally without
righteousness of our own, our new identity puts us on a path to a new life in
wandering, anxious wolves become satisfied, secure, and confident sheep of the
shepherd. Enemies of God are made His adopted children, and while our outward
appearance may not change much, the inward person is unrecognizable even to ourselves.
witnesses to the light, though, we are continually subject to being called to
testify through many trials, and will face much cross-examination. The accuser
will point to us and say, “You’ve done these evil things; you deserve the
punishment, the pain, the despair, the death!” And we would be easily
convicted if we try to defend ourselves, if we try to explain our way out of
the accusation. Our testimony about ourselves, our standing on our own
identities, can only lead to our condemnation. But we are called to testify
not about ourselves, but about Another. We are called to witness to the truth
and the grace that He alone provides.
we are about to hear that cell door of despair clang shut on ourselves or on
those around us, we need to identify and give testimony to Him who has taken
our crimes and heaped them upon Himself. In spite of our guilt, in spite of
the injustice and unfairness of it all, trust the judge’s mercy.
evil one accuses you and others around you. The world wants you to perjure
yourself with falsehoods. Your own sinful flesh would make you forget your
testimony, abandon your new life, and lose that precious new identity which
came at so costly a price.
the Spirit helps you remember your identity: You are beloved children of the
heavenly Father. You are dear brothers and sisters of Christ. You are forgiven
sons and daughters of light.
temptation might be to trumpet your new identity, to advertise your immunity
from the prosecution and punishment you so narrowly escaped. And while it does
bring joy and peace to know those things are true, we are to remember that we
did nothing ourselves to bring it about.
instead to Him who was arrested and tortured. Point to Him who was pierced for
you. Point to Him, hanging there, bleeding and dying, and give your testimony
as a witness to the light: “He did it! He did it all! He did it for you and
for me and for everyone!”
came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to
testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He
himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
In the Holy Name of Jesus (+), Amen.