The text for this week’s sermon is John 1:6-8, 19-28. Substantial portions of this sermon (including the idea of using a paper bag) are the same as I preached three years ago on internship in this sermon.
Here’s my sermon for the third Sunday of Advent in RCL Year B, preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa, on December 16 & 17, 2017.
Before I get into our readings for today, I want to make something clear. I am not Jesus. I know there are some in this congregation who have been thinking I’m Jesus, and I’m not. I am not the messiah, I am not the savior. I’m a child of God, and so are you, but I am not the Jesus Christ, the only son of God the Father.
I hope no one’s too disappointed to learn that. I’m pretty sure no one over the age of 5 thought I was Jesus, but I just want to be clear. I’m not Jesus; I’m a pastor, and as a pastor, my job is to point to Jesus, to be a representative of God, sort of like an ambassador.
Of course, that’s not just a pastor’s job; it’s also your job. All of you as Christians are called as God’s ambassadors. You are called to be a witness pointing to Jesus. I just get paid to do it. Really, I get paid to help you be witnesses, to teach you how to do a better job pointing to Jesus.
So, since I got paid this week, I have a lesson for you in how to be a better witness. I have a helpful tool for you to use, a new technique for witnessing.
[Put paper bag on my head]
If you’re like me, maybe you’re sometimes intimidated to talk about Jesus. Maybe you’re worried about getting in the way and distracting people from the message you’re trying to share about Jesus. It’s a pretty good tool, isn’t it?
[Take off bag]
I’m considering wearing a bag on my head every week when I preach. 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?
John might say so. He’d be the first to say it’s not about him; the message is all about Jesus. John is simply a witness pointing to Jesus, testifying about what God is doing. He’s a fantastic role model for us, because his entire role in this story is to point to Jesus.
I know many of you came to the Christmas program last Saturday, but if you were here on Sunday, we heard from Mark’s gospel about John the Baptizer in the wilderness preaching the good news of repentance.
The version in John’s gospel has a different emphasis. In this gospel’s telling of the story, the important part is not John’s business of baptizing. 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 people, and, as we know from the other Gospel writers, crowds of people are coming to see him. The religious leaders in the city aren’t sure what to make of him. Maybe he’s God’s messiah, the savior they’ve been waiting for for centuries. Or maybe he’s just some nut living down by the river.
They need to know, so they send some delegates, these priests and Levites from Jerusalem, to ask him, “Who are you?” I love the way their conversation goes, because it must have been so frustrating. Picture it: “Who are you?” “I am 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.” You can hear their frustration, can’t you? 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 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, John 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 only the opening act.
Have you ever been to a concert with a big-name band and an opening act? The best opening acts know the crowds are not 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, and it’s consistent with who John is. Later in the story, John’s followers worry that the crowds that had been coming to see him 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.
That’s our call too. As Christians, we know there is one savior of the world and it’s not us. Our mission is to point to Jesus, not to ourselves. We are 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 good news, the message God has trusted to us.
The interesting thing about a witness is that being a witness is personal. If a witness tells a lie, it’s perjury, it’s a crime.
In some sense, literally in some places, a witness puts his or her own life on the line, staking their life on the truth of what they’re saying. It should be safe to tell your own story, but so often it isn’t. As we’ve seen recently in our own society, telling your story, sharing your experiences can dangerous. Being a witness takes courage.
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 by 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. We’re admitting that we need a savior. 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. We say something by how we spend our money and our time, by the choices we make.
What is our witness pointing to?
Of course, we don’t always live up to our calling. How often do we fail to reflect God? How often do we miss opportunities to point to Jesus? Do you ever wonder if the church’s message would 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. Our lives are testimonies to God’s grace. 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, chosen and forgiven. As you prepare for Christmas, may those who look at you see Christ at work in and through you.