My sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, Year B, at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa, given on December 14, 2014. This week’s texts are Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, and John 1:6-8, 19-28.
To get the full effect of this sermon, you need to know that after reading the Gospel lesson, I put a paper bag over my head, much to the congregation’s amusement.
What would you do if I were to preach this whole sermon with a bag over my head? Would you hear the sermon better if you weren’t distracted by me? Would the message be clearer if the messenger didn’t get in the way?
[Removing bag] Obviously, I’m not going to keep this bag on, but if I did, I think John might approve. He’d be the first to say it’s not about him. It’s all about Jesus. John’s just a witness, pointing to Jesus, testifying about what God’s doing.
I’m here as an intern, so now is a good time to try gimmicks like having a bag on my head, right? After all, I’m here to learn how to preach. A big part of what I’m trying to learn is how to talk about Jesus without me getting in the way.
I think John’s the perfect role model for that, because his entire role in this story is to point to Jesus. John’s the most humble person we talk about 2,000 years after he died.
In last week’s Gospel from Mark, we heard about John the Baptizer in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This week, we hear about John again, but this time from the Gospel of John. Each of the Gospel writers chooses to emphasize different things.
I didn’t know it until this week, but the Gospel of John never uses the phrase “John the Baptist” or “John the Baptizer.” There is some mention of John baptizing, but that’s not what’s important about him in this Gospel.
We don’t hear about him calling people to repent, or dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey.
In John’s Gospel, he’s really John the Witness.
So here, in the first chapter of the book, we have John out in the wilderness baptizing, and, as we know from the other Gospel writers, he’s drawing large crowds. The religious leaders in the city aren’t sure what to make of him, so they send some delegates, some investigators, these priests and Levites from Jerusalem, to ask him, “Who are you?” But John doesn’t give them the answer they want. He knows what they’re asking, but he answers in negatives.
Picture how this conversation would go. “Who are you?” “I’m not the Messiah.” We read that and think, well, obviously he’s not the Messiah, Jesus is the Messiah.
But the idea that John was the Messiah must have been a legitimate possibility, because he wants to be really, really clear that he’s not the Messiah. He’s not anyone particularly important, just a witness.
“Who are you?” “I’m not the Messiah.” “What then? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” “No.”
Well, now the investigators are getting frustrated. They’ve been sent to get answers, and all they’re getting is who he’s not. This isn’t helpful. They ask, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
And he finally responds…sort of. Like we heard last week, he quotes from Isaiah, about how he’s the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ When they hear that, they sort of change tactics, and ask, “Ok, if you’re not the Messiah, and you’re not Elijah, and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?” Basically, what’s your authority? How come you’re doing this?
We know the answer, because we read it a few verses ago. The first thing we heard about this character was that “there was a man sent from God.” But they don’t know that, or they don’t get it.
Again, he changes the subject. All he’ll say is that there’s one coming after him, and he’s not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. He’s only here to prepare.
John knows who he is, and he’s not the important one. He’s the opening act.
Maybe some of you have had the experience of getting introduced as a speaker, or been to a lecture or seminar where the MC lists the presenter’s credentials.
Like if someone introduced the preacher before the sermon. Maybe we should try that next week. Something like: Our preacher today is Daniel Flucke, an intern from the office down the hall. Daniel comes to us from Wartburg Seminary, and Luther College, and has interests in pastoral work, technology, and preaching. Without further ado, please give a warm St. Peter welcome to Daniel. No? Ok.
Of course we don’t have someone introduce the speaker for the sermon, because it’s not about the person preaching. It’s about the message, pointing to Christ.
I’ve seen a t-shirt that says, “Be the moon, reflect the son.” S-O-N, son. Maybe you’ve seen it too. If you wanted to take it overly literally, it would look something like this:
That’s a great summary of the calling not just of a pastor, but of every Christian. Our mission is for our words and our actions to reflect Christ at work in and through us. It’s about the message of the gospel, not the person saying it.
Actually, in the traditional liturgy, we do have a kind of opening act. Before we hear the Gospel, we stand and sing the Gospel acclamation, welcoming Christ, the living Word who comes to us as we hear the proclamation of the Gospel. But it’s about the Word, not the speaker.
Or maybe you’ve gone to a concert with a big-name band and an opening act. The people in the opening act know (or they ought to know) that the crowds aren’t there to see them. Their job is to get people fired up, ready for the main event.
When an opening act gets carried away and thinks they’re the main event, they’re not doing their job. John is the perfect opening act, God’s choice to introduce Jesus, God’s Son. He knows who he is, what his place is.
When he answers the people wondering about his identity, the wording is quite deliberate. Think back for a minute to the call story of Moses at the burning bush. When God talks to Moses out of the bush and tells him to go speak to Pharaoh and rescue God’s people from Israel, Moses asks for God’s name, so he can say who sent him. God answers, “Say to the people I AM has sent you.”
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus will say things about himself, like, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the good shepherd.” It’s a not particularly subtle way of claiming to be God, without just saying, “I am God.”
But John says the opposite. Instead of “I am,” his answer is consistently, “I am not.” “I am not the messiah, I am not Elijah, etc.” I think that’s deliberate.
That’s consistent with John’s character. Later in his ministry, John’s disciples come to him. His followers like hanging around with him, being part of the in crowd surrounding a celebrity, but they get concerned that the crowds that had been coming to John are now going to Jesus.
When they come to him with their concerns, John responds, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Throughout his life, John’s consistently clear: He’s called to point to the Messiah, not to be the Messiah.
And that’s our call too. As Christians, we know there is one savior of the world, and we also know it’s not us. Our mission is to point to Jesus, not to ourselves. We’re witnesses of what God has done, and what God is doing.
But there’s a paradox here. It can sound like we should be anonymous witnesses, completely removing ourselves from the picture in order to focus completely on God, like we should hide ourselves. Like we should put bags over our heads.
And yet, we are the church. We are the body of Christ. God acts in the world through us, through what we do. We can’t hide, because the world needs the message God’s trusted to us. We talked last week about how the church is about the business of good news. The world needs to hear that good news of God’s love, the good news that God is coming. The good news that we have!
The interesting thing about a witness is that being a witness is personal. If a witness tells a lie, it’s perjury, a major crime. In some sense, possibly a literal sense in some cultures, a witness puts his or her own life on the line, staking their life on the truth of what they’re saying.
We can’t separate ourselves from our witness, nor should we. The Greek word translated witness makes that even more clear. The word is martyria. It’s where we get the English word, “Martyr,” one who dies for what they believe. When we witness to something, when we testify what we believe, we’re revealing what’s important to us, what we’re choosing to stake our lives on.
We share the good news of the Gospel by what we do, and what we say. It’s not just an individual thing, either. It’s a matter of personal witness, yes, but also of our corporate witness together as the church, as the gathered body of Christ.
When we choose to come to worship, we’re making a public statement. We’re saying that faith matters. When we put money in the offering, when we volunteer our time to serve others, we’re testifying that we believe God is working through our gifts, through us.
What is our witness? Going back to the Isaiah reading for just a minute, in our witness, how are we comforting all who mourn?
In our witness, how are we binding up the broken-hearted?
What is our witness to prisoners? Are we proclaiming freedom and forgiveness?
What is our witness to our physical neighbors? When people in town look at our church, do they see Christ?
Would the message of the church be clearer if it weren’t for all the hypocritical, messed up, broken, sinful Christians like you and me getting in the way?
No, no it wouldn’t.
Because the fact that God works through broken people is part of the message. God sends us as witnesses just as we are.
It doesn’t mean putting a paper bag over heads and hiding, but rather embracing who we are, children of God, whom God has chosen and forgiven.
As you prepare for Christmas, may those who look at you see Christ at work in and through you.