The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Children’s sermons can be hazardous affairs. There’s a story about one Pastor who says: “Well, boys and girls, what has a busy tail and runs around in trees?” Nobody says anything. The Pastor waits a bit, then says: “You know, it gathers nuts and puts them in holes in the tree and makes chirping noises….doesn’t anybody know?” Again, a long silence ensues. Finally, the Pastor sighs and says, “Help me out, kids: surely somebody knows what animal I’m talking about.” After yet another awkward silence one little boy slowly raises his hand. The Pastor smiles and says, “Yes, Tommy.” Tommy swallows hard and says, “Well, Pastor, we all know it sounds like a squirrel; but since this is church, we all know it’ll turn out to be Jesus.”
Folks were confused about the person of John the Baptist. Who was this man, dressed in camel’s hair and standing on the banks of the Jordan River, waving his arms and speaking of sin? He was a magnetic figure, to be certain. People thronged to hear him preach. And they wondered, can this man be the Messiah? Certainly, John walked like a Messiah, talked like a Messiah—could it be he was the Messiah? Bearing this in mind, could anyone be blamed for assuming he was?
Surely, John, with his authenticity and message of repentance was as fine a candidate as any—and certainly better than most. This is why the first Chapter of the Gospel of John, goes to such pains to point out that John the Baptist is not the long-awaited Messiah as foretold in the scriptures. Here we read: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” And we learn that even the Jewish priests were confused—going so far as to send a delegation from Jerusalem to the banks of the Jordan River in order to make inquiries.
Imagine their arrival—commission members decked out in impressive robes, waving official papers and confronting the wild man standing among the reeds. They ask: “Who are you?” He replies: “I am not the Messiah.” And they inquire: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says: “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answers, “No.” Clearly, the official delegation from Jerusalem seems to be getting nowhere fast…and we begin to get the impression that something of an argument is bubbling up when they inquire: “So…Why are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” And John responds: “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.” In other words, what John is saying is this: “The true Messiah, the one for whom you have all been waiting, is standing right among you and you (with all your official pomp, important titles, fancy robes and paper flapping) still can figure him out.”
John the Baptizer (and John, the author of the Gospel), they are both fans of apophatic theology—or, if you prefer the simpler route—negative theology. They are proclaiming who the Messiah is by stating who he is not. In other words. John the Baptist is not the long-awaited Messiah. He is not the light. He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet. Note, if you will, that John the Baptist seems to be proclaiming all of this with certain amount of glee.
Adrian Nocent has this to say: “The greatness of John the Baptist is due to his humility and self-forgetfulness. He is bathed in the radiant light of the Messiah, whom he is so anxious not to hide from others.”
This Third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday” or rejoice Sunday. Now, I’ll grant you that it might seem that with John the Baptist as the central figure in the Gospel for today, that this Sunday seems mis-named. Perhaps it should be “repentance Sunday.”; and maybe that pink candle should be replaced with a more somber hue. But stay with me here, because there is indeed reason for us to rejoice.
You see, the splendid example of John the Baptist (and his delight in apophatic theology) has something to say to us as well—and not all of it is negative. What does it mean for us (you and me) to declare, “We are not the Christ?” “We are not God!” Well, one implication is that we, as individuals and even as a congregation, cannot save people. We might help them (and we should)—but let’s be clear, we cannot save them. Instead, we are called to be the voices (as well as the ears, arms and legs) that point others to Christ. That’s our job—just as it was the job of John the Baptist. We are here to point people to Jesus. We are here to introduce them to the Messiah, the one who truly saves. Think of it this way. Like John the Baptist, we too are “sent from God.” And like John the Baptist, we are not the Light. Instead, our job is to bear witness to the Light—the true Light, sent from God. Jesus, the Christ.
And this is good news! It is indeed a reason to rejoice. Because, if you really think about it, once you are clear about what you are not able to accomplish, you can be ready to receive the true Savior when he comes One of the challenges of contemporary society is that it is so easy for us to delude ourselves into thinking we are capable of solving all of the problems of the world: COVID-19, Climate Change, Cancer—you name it, so much so that we fool ourselves into believing we have no need of a Savior. In short, we become the gods of our own salvation. Or, maybe not….Perhaps this year of 2020 has given us a wake up call to the fact that the problems we and our world face are much larger than anything we can fix ourselves. Perhaps this year, more than others, we might be awakened to the fact that there are some problems such as sin and death, which we cannot fix ourselves.
Here’s the truth—the hard truth. As capable as we are, we are not that capable. You are not, and neither am I. John the Baptist would be proud—giving us a “thumbs up” in defense of apophatic theology saying: “Nor am I.” John was clear about that—and his clarity is an example for us all. We are in need of the Messiah, the true Light promised to the world. A Light which shines in the darkness and brings us the hope and promise of Life. That Light is Jesus, and it is for him whom we wait. And on this Third Sunday of Advent, holding that promise in our hearts, it is the reason for us to rejoice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.