The Rector’s sermon for December 17, 2017                                                                                                                             


Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28


     Back in the ‘50s and ’60s, there was a television show called What’s My Line?  I think most of us here would remember it.  (Those of you don’t, don’t say anything!)  This popular show, which was on the air for more than 15 years, featured a panel of celebrities who were introduced to an unknown guest and then challenged to guess that person’s occupation or “line” of work.   The host directed the show, which sounded like a kid’s game of “Twenty Questions,” except they were only allowed to ask a total of 10 questions, which might include such things as “Do you work indoors?” or “Did your occupation require a lot of schooling?” Each “no” answer earned the mystery guest $5 toward the grand prize.  When all 10 questions had been asked, the panelists had the opportunity to guess how the mystery guest made a living.  If the guest managed to stump the panel, that person won the prize and took home a whopping $50!


     John the Baptist would have been a perfect guest on What’s My Line? because no one seemed able to figure out who he was and what he was doing.  He stumped people who came to him with questions.  It was not only the priests and Levites who wanted to know who he was, but everyone who encountered John wondered about him.

And it even began with his parents.  They had many questions about this unexpected child who came into their lives so late in life.  The Gospels provide us with more information about John than about almost any other figure they mention.  And when we piece these clues together, we can begin to answer this interesting question directed to John: “Who are you?”


     The Gospel of Luke provides great insight into John’s unusual backstory.  Before he was even born, Luke tells us, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah the priest as he served in the temple.  Alone in the Holy of Holies, offering sacrifice to God, Zechariah encounters the angel Gabriel, who says that he is going to be a father and informs Zechariah that the child would “be great in the sight of the Lord”.  Not surprisingly, this is where the questions about John begin, when Zechariah questions the prophecy.  To the angel he says, “Who are you and how will I know that this is true?”  Zechariah gets his answer pretty quickly!   The angel tells him that his lack of faith will cause Zechariah to lose his ability to speak...for his wife Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy…nine whole months!    Zechariah and Elizabeth had all those months to ponder the importance of God’s vision for their much-anticipated, totally unexpected son.   Sometimes we need the opportunity to simply be still to realize that God is at work in our lives in ways we cannot even imagine.


     In God’s timing, their son was born and the questions began again.  With everyone asking, what is his name and are you going to name him after his father, Zechariah asks for something to write on, and he writes, “his name is John,” and at that moment his speech is restored.  Who on earth is this child who brings with him so many questions?  John grew up a normal boy, but the people of the village and the surrounding area who knew all that was behind his birth, continued to wonder: “What then will this child become?”


     Like Jesus, we have no information about John’s childhood. The next time we encounter John, he is in the Judean desert as an adult.  And it’s no wonder there were so many questions about him—John was an odd character.  He lived outside of acceptable society in every sense of the word.  He didn’t chase after any followers; he expected them to go deep into the wilderness to find him camped out in the desert by the Jordan River.  And what happened once they found him?  Let’s just say John’s mannerisms wouldn’t get him an interview with Southern Living magazine!  He sees the hoards of people coming toward him and he shouts: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you of what is coming?  Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Now why all of a sudden people were seeking John out could only be because they were searching for a Messiah, someone who would overthrow their oppressor, someone who would save them.  And when they hear those accusing words from John, they say:  “We’ve been waiting for the Messiah of God.  Could it be you?” they say with more questions than they can even verbalize.


     But in truth, this John couldn’t be farther away from what they were seeking.  He looked awful, certainly not dressed in the fashion of what they perceived a Messiah should look like.  He seemed loud and out of control.  He didn’t even humble himself to those in power; he challenged Herod’s immoral lifestyle, which eventually cost John his life.  Who was this John really?   For the past two weeks we’ve heard these descriptions of John from the Gospel of Mark, and today, from the Gospel of the apostle John, we get some answers.  Is he Elijah?  No. Is he the one they’ve waited for?   No.  So who is this John the Baptist?  How would he identify himself to a panel of three persons wanting to know who he is and what is his line of work?


     Somehow, sometime in John’s early life, God must have informed him of his purpose in life, his mission in life, and now John not only gets to fulfill the mission he was born for, but it’s time to tell the world exactly who he is, albeit in clouded language.   He says very simply:  “I’m alone in the desert with a message that comes from the prophet Isaiah: Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Then he says, “I baptize with water, but there is one standing right here among you who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.  And he is so much greater than I, that I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  That might not sound like a big deal to us, but in that culture only the lowest of the lowly were tasked to remove shoes from the feet of another person.  To those listening, this was a shocking admission from a man whom they expected might be the one they were waiting for.


     Perhaps some of us know what it was like growing up and always being compared to a smarter sibling, or a prettier sister, or a more capable cousin.   That low end of the totem pole isn’t a great place to be.  And when John pretty much says, “I’m nobody compared to who is coming,” his followers must have wondered, “why then are we listening to John at all?”  It would be easy to dismiss this eccentric, wilderness preacher, and surely some people did.  Sometimes we even dismiss our own value and gifts because there are many things we’re not.  We may not have the gifts or abilities that many others possess.  Our path may not be filled with success and notoriety.  We are often our own worst enemies sometimes and we end up sabotaging what gifts and talent we have.  There are many people we could stand against and fall miserably short.


     But we should take a lesson from John the Baptist.  Somehow, someway, he knew his calling.  He knew he would fall short in the eyes of the world, but he also knew he was “a man sent by God.”  Therein lies the key to John’s identity.  He was a man sent by God.  John trusted that God could use him and the gifts that he had, in spite of his short comings.  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  What was John’s calling?   John was a path-straightener.  John was an announcer of good news.  John was one who taught others about the Messiah to come.   John’s calling was to point others to Jesus.  John did what we are all called to do.     


     So, like John, we have a calling from God.  Like John, we are to make people aware of God’s love.  Like John, we are called to live a life that points to God’s amazing grace.  Who we are or what we lack isn’t important.  When God calls, we follow. 


     If John appeared on What’s My Line, the panel would probably have asked him the wrong questions because of the way he looked, and whatever questions they asked, they would have fallen short of his line of work, which—by the way—is the same as ours:  people who are called to a life that reveals God’s forgiving love, given for all of God’s people!  And the grand prize is much more than $50!


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