I have not before on this blog published any of my sermons; however, the sermon I preached at Wartburg Seminary Chapel this past Thursday says what I would like to say to you at this particular time in Advent about the church's vocation in the public world. So, here it is:
John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, I am not the Messiah.
“I am not.”
I counsel people not to begin their introductions with “I am not” (“I am not an expert.” “I am not a pastor.” “I am not widely known.”), or even with “I am only...” (“I am only a housewife.” “I am only a layperson.” “I am only a student.”) Role clarity is important. In classes students often hear me say that. Who I am and who I am not. However, I encourage people to begin with “I am...” for the sake of clarity and ministry, “This is who I am and can be and will be for you in the name and service of Jesus the Christ.” “I am a student of God's Word.” “I am a caretaker of the family.” “I am a steward of the earth.”
Apology is not necessary; role clarity is imperative. John was clear, “I am not the Messiah.”
Earlier in verse 6, this fourth Gospel begins straightforwardly as well, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” Yes! And vs. 7: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
Even in those early verses of introduction we read, “He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
And come it did, the Light, the Word which became flesh, the Messiah. And John had testified to him and cried out: This is the one. I told you. No one has ever seen God. The only Son has made God known.
Then, who are you?
I mean, we're not even John.
and John said, “I'm not Jesus”
Who are you, John?
I'm not the Messiah
What then? Are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the prophet? No.
They persisted. Who do you think you are? What do you say about yourself?
The priests and Levites needed an answer for the Pharisees who had sent them to ask.
Stop there just a minute.
We may be clear enough who we are. But others may not be, and other people, and people behind those other people, may doubt what we are up to, why we are saying we are serving in the name of Jesus the Christ.
When I came to Wartburg Seminary to teach many years ago, I had had years of experience in public ministry and thought I knew who I was as a professor of theology and ministry. But there had not been a woman professor here at Wartburg before. I had this inner image that I would walk into classroom 113 and people would see me as an imposter, a fraud. Not only not belonging, but with dismissible credentials. I was concerned that they wouldn't be able to even imagine I as a woman could preach and teach in the name of Jesus.
Even when we are clear, the questions of what we are doing and what we are doing in this place continue. We need not only be clear; we need to dare to be! “I am here as your professor.” “I am here as your diaconal minister.” What's that? “I am not a pastor” (“You don't even need to say that,” I tell diaconal ministry students.) It's not what you are not; Its' what you are! “I am a diaconal minister of the ELCA.” “I am an associate in ministry.” “I am a deaconess.” “I am the new pastor in town, here to serve in the name of Jesus Christ”. “I am a husband of your pastor.” “I am the wife of your pastor, not your assistant pastor.”
We worry about our credentials, how people will see us and our role. It is important to remember that our identity is not in our role; our identity is in Christ. But, and therefore, the deeper doubt is who we are making these claims about the Messiah. Who are you, claiming Jesus to be the light of the world, the one in whom people can believe?
In all four Gospel accounts we see John the Baptizer, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Luke's words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Or,the translation I find full of ministry challenge: “Make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Make ready for the Lord. We prepared and preparing ones are commissioned to many ministries to and with and among people. Our teaching the faith, our proclaiming the Word, our serving, our leading in worship in the world, our talking about Jesus in words a stranger can understand, all make ready for Christ a people prepared to receive him, to worship him, to tell about him, to heal and hope and do outrageous things in the name of the Messiah.
But the questions continue for John (You're not Elijah; you're not a prophet.) and they will for us.
In my first call to serve in a congregation early on I went into a meeting and was asked, “What are you doing here?” (It was a large church.)
Challenges will come when you are on the streets, poking your head into prophetic witness. At just such a community meeting, Burton, my husband was told by the official city redevelopers, “Keep you preaching for Sunday.” But the people from the neighborhood said, “Don't you talk to Pastor Everist like that! He's speaking up for us.”
How and when have you, will you, be questioned? You will get into trouble! (John did, you recall) When you do get into trouble, make sure it's for the sake of the Gospel.
And why do we baptize?
Why do we continue to invite people into the church? Why do we pour passion into creating community in Christ's name, and working for a just society? “It's not going to help.” “It's not going to matter.” “ We're going to have to close the doors anyway.” “People will always be fighting.” Because the true light which enlightens everyone is coming into the world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. We are commissioned for baptizing ministries so that the world may trust God's promises.
And then at core there is the issue of authority: The Pharisees had sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask these questions not because they were curious, nor interested in becoming followers, but because they questioned, doubted, his authority to be baptizing. In fact they were publicly challenging not only his credentials, but the very heart and core of this ministry of preparing for the Lord a people prepared to meet him. And so John said boldly, not “Well, I guess I really shouldn't,” or, “I'll be going now,” or to himself, “I'll just slip away quietly....” John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John did not defend his own place or position or calling; he stood firm, said clearly, acted decisively in the name of the one whom he was not worthy to serve, but did serve.
I am not the Messiah: In the midst of your ministry, your ministries right now, in the kitchen, places where you work in the evenings, to your sick friend hundreds of miles away, when feeling helpless,the bad news is “I am not the saving Messiah.” And the good news is, “I am not the Messiah.” “The Messiah comes after me,” John said and we can add, the Messiah goes before me, is already with the one whose hand I cannot hold right now, healing, saving. I am not the Messiah; I am called to make people ready to receive the Messiah.
People will ask questions, wanting us to be less than we are, and more than we are. John and Peter, (remember?) already in chapter 3 of Acts: the man lame from birth lying at the gate of the temple gate asking for alms. “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” There are many stories like that, including Jesus. Remember (Mark 10) when James and John came forward and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus said, “What is it you want me to do for you?” James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” and to all the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
People will want you to be for them what you dare not be. At such a time it is imperative you be clear about who you are and who you are not. “I want you to put in a good word for me.” “You go straighten them out.” “You take care of that for me.” Or, I need you to be my best friend, my lover, my excuse, my redeemer, my cover, my savior.
“I am not.” “I cannot be that for you” “I cannot play that role for you.” “I cannot give that to you.” “But, in the name of the God of unconditional love, you are loved beyond measure.” “In the name of Jesus the Christ, you are forgiven and freed from needing excuses.” “In community with all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, you will always be...” Pray for the words to say and service to give.
John was baptizing and we as a church are baptizing in the name of the one who himself was baptized, not because of his sin, but because of ours, baptized into his life of ministry, baptized into his death and resurrection, for us. We are being prepared once again. Make way. Make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
None of us is worthy, but we need not be insecure, nor lack boldness, nor persistence, nor courage to prepare for the Lord a people prepared
And all this took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Who are you then?
In whose name and in what places of encounter do you minister?