“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify tothe light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
We learn very little about John from this gospel, and perhaps that is (literarily) the point. John is a forerunner to One who is greater than he. God sent him both to witness the revealing of the Christ in Jesus and to testify to that revelation. He preaches to the people, telling them they must prepare for the coming of this Great One. He invites them to repent and to be baptized with water so that they might be ready to recognize and receive the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Now, in John’s day, there was wide-spread belief in the immanent fulfillment of God’s promise to send a liberator to God’s people.. Though no single consensus existed across the various sects and parties of Judaism, the expectation that God would intervene in the life of Israel by sending someone to lead them into restoration was a common theme among the theories. So when John came preaching repentance and baptizing people, he caught the attention of the religious leaders. Could he be the Messiah? What if he is Elijah, who some believe to still be alive and was supposed to appear before the Messiah? Or what about the prophet like Moses promised at the end of Deuteronomy?
The religious leaders sent a delegation to John, “Who are you?” they asked. He refuted each of the options he was given – “No,” he said, “I am not the Messiah; I am not Elijah; I am not the prophet.” If John was not any of these things, then why, they wondered, was he preaching repentance and baptizing? So, they pressed him again and asked, “Who are you?”
We don’t often reflect on this question during Advent. And yet, in a season that we are encouraged to slow down, to seek Christ in the quiet darkness, to refocus our lives in the mystery of the Incarnate God, it is a question worth asking. This Advent, the question of identity is especially pertinent for us, the people who are St Paul’s Episcopal Parish. We are nine months into our interim period and soon we will be calling together a parish profile committee who will be tasked with conducting interviews and facilitating forums so that we can discern together the answer to that question.
Who will we say that we are? Who will we imagine that we are becoming? What informs our self-understanding and guides our dreams of what’s possible? As we begin to think about these questions, we may find John to be a worthy guide.
John’s self-understanding was rooted in his relationship with God. He recognized that just as Israel’s identity was contingent on God’s word that formed them, so too was his identity contingent on the God who called him. He was who he was not because he worked hard, not because of the way he dressed or the food he ate, not because he was trying to live up to external expectations. He was who he was because he was called by God.
John’s self-understanding was also inseparable from the task for which he was called. When he finally gave a positive answer to the delegation sent to question him, he did not identify himself in categorical terms, but instead identified himself in terms of his vocation. God not only called him but sent him as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord.” John understood that his ministry was not the end goal of his vocation, that his message of repentance and baptism was about pointing away from himself and to the One that God would reveal to him as the Messiah. In this sense, his vocation as witness meant two things: he was tasked with being a witness to God’s revelation that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and he was tasked with giving testimony to this revelation.
As we begin to discern together the questions of our identity, John reminds us that we are, first and foremost, a community that God has called into being and that God sustains through the life-giving Spirit who attests to us that we are children of God. Who we are cannot be discerned or understood apart from the God who calls us into being. The God who forms us is a God who calls us to live lives of holiness and righteousness, who loves justice and despises wrongdoing, who desires for all of creation to be liberated from the grip of sin and be made new.
We are also reminded that our identity is inseparable from our vocation. The work of answering the question, “Who are you?” will require that we also discern what it is that God is calling us to in this moment of the life of our parish. Just our identity is founded on our relationship with God, so too is our vocation wrapped up in the question of God’s mission. In other words, if our identity is to be found in God, then our vocation is formed and informed by the work that God is already doing in our world. We must look with fresh eyes at the particularities of our present moment in this time and place. Who is God calling us to serve? What news of good tidings do we have to bring to a hurting world? This requires that we look not only to the needs of our congregation but to the needs of the world into which we are sent to love and serve the Lord.
Finally, like John, we are called to bear witness, to point away from ourselves to the One who reconciles us to God and offers to all the abundance of divine life. Our task is to bear witness to the signs of God’s presence and activity and to proclaim the nearness of our God to a world that struggles to recognize God. Our claim of identity must not be confined to a pretty statement on our website; rather, it should function as a rule of life that keeps our common life focused and united in fulfilling our call to bear witness to the God we serve.
Friends, God is up to something in our little corner of Seattle and is inviting us into the holy work of discernment to discover what it is we are being sent to do. This process will require each of us to take this task seriously, to pray and reflect with one another, to listen to one another’s hopes, to discover the gifts that God has equipped us with, to lament with one another the hurts and struggles of the past. We must stretch our collective imaginations and create space to dream with one another about what it is we are meant to become.
And remember, dear People of St Paul’s, that we will not be alone in this process. The God who calls us, who sends us, is also the God who faithfully remains with us and sanctifies us to do the work we have been given to do. The Incarnate God for whom John was sent to prepare the way, now prepares our way, guiding us, convicting us, leading us into the joyful abundance of divine life. Let us enter into this next season of our common life united in prayer that God would indeed stir up divine power within us and come among us with great might. Let us use that power to declare from the rooftops that the bountiful grace and mercy that God offers to us is also offered to the world.