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Who Am I?  Who Are You?
a sermon based on John 1:6-8, 19-28
by Rev. Randy Quinn

One of the "ice-breaker" games I've played in youth settings is called "Two Truths and a Lie."  In this game, you say three things about yourself – two of which are true and one of which is not true.  Then everyone has to guess which one is not true.

I almost always win because my "truths" are so unbelievable that my "lies" sound truthful.  My "truths" include things like, "my grandson is older than my son" and "I spent 120 days under the water once"; my "lies" include things like "when I was in the Navy I visited four foreign countries" and "I was born ten miles from where my parents now live."

Until you ask a few more questions, you may not know what to think.  And it's hard to figure it all out with yes-or-no questions because there is so much gray area in the "truths" as well as the "lies."  Our daughter – my grandson's mother – is older than my son, too.  And I spent those 120 days in a submarine under the water – but our submarine never stopped in a foreign port.

I've heard that lawyers never ask a question unless they already know the answer.  I don't know if that's entirely true, but I do know that lawyers in television courtrooms have a reputation for asking questions in a way that makes an honest answer seem to say something that isn't true.  When you know the whole story, you want to explain it a little so that the answer doesn't sound so dishonest.

That's the problem with yes-or-no questions, especially in complicated circumstances.  Simple answers don't necessarily shed light on difficult problems.

John seems to be playing "twenty questions" with the Levites and priests and Pharisees.  Of course, some of it has to do with the way the questions are asked.  "Are you the Christ?  Are you Elijah?  Are you the prophet?" (Jn 1:21).

None of those questions really allow him to say who he is.

I am not a police officer.  I am not a school teacher.  I am not a sanitation engineer.  I am not a car salesman.  I am not a lawyer.  I am not a lot of things.  But those facts don't help you figure out that I am a pastor or I am a parent or I am an American citizen.

But even those labels don't really convey who I am.  No one label can ever describe any of us.  We are too complex; we fill too many roles; who any of us is cannot be captured in one sentence, let alone one word!

And that is no less true of John the Baptist.

All four of the gospel writers knew of John the Baptist.  All four gospels devote some space to describe John's ministry.  And all four gospel writers give the clear impression that the story of John the Baptist serves as an introduction to the story of Jesus; the real story of their gospels is about Jesus, not John the Baptist.

Of course each Gospel writer has his own way of the telling the story, not only the story of Jesus but also the story of John the Baptist.  And each Gospel writer's style places the reader in a different position – whether that is as a member of the crowd as is often the case in Luke or as the observer who is told the truth about Jesus while most of the characters in the story don't recognize that truth as seems to be the case in Mark.

As I read the Gospel of John, I am struck by the possibility that he tells the story of John the Baptist in a way that suggests you and I are now in the role of John the Baptist.  We are the ones who now give testimony to the light of the world so that others might believe in him (Jn 1:6).  We are the ones who are to prepare the way of the Lord (Jn 1:23).  We are the ones who can look around and see that Christ is among us even though others may not recognize him in our midst (Jn 1:26).

John, the Evangelist, often reminds the readers of why he has written his Gospel (implied in many cases; specific at Jn 20:31).  Throughout his narrative, the readers are reminded to point to Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Light of the World (1 Jn 1:2-5).

As we approach Christmas, that role is even more important to fulfill.  But it is both more difficult to share and more easily told.  It is made more difficult by a world that has buried the story of Christmas in the economic impact of shopping and shoppers.  It is made more difficult in a society that tries to remember not only the Christian holiday of Christmas but the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Buddhist celebration of Buddha's birth and the celebration of Kwanza and the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

At the same time, this is a time of year when people are looking for meaning in their lives as they rush from one party to another and from one store to another – so they may be more open to hearing the story of Jesus.  It's a time of year when people begin to wonder why they spend the time and energy going from home to home and both why they need to and what they will do with the children who will soon be home from school – so they may be more willing to listen to our testimony.

I know it's easy to become cynical at this time of the year.  It's easy to point out the ways people around us have missed the point of the story.  It's easy to point out that most people's understanding of Christmas comes from Christmas carols and Christmas cards rather than from reading the story in their Bibles.

I know it's easy because I've found myself cynically pointing out the errors I see all over the place.  Whether we are talking about including donkeys and sheep and three kings with the crθche or overemphasizing the role of Saint Nicholas, I often find it almost offensive the way people celebrate Christmas since none of those are truly Biblical images.

But when we become that cynical we are more like the interrogators who came to see John the Baptist and less like the Baptist himself.  Rather than asking questions of John, our role is to look at how we might be able to tell the story to our world today – to our friends and neighbors, to our family and strangers.  John did not come to tell his story or to straighten out the theology of the priests and the Levites.  He came to point toward Jesus as the answer to their questions, the one who could offer them eternal life.

In order to do that effectively in our world today, we might find ourselves using the tools of storytellers and poets and songwriters – the same ones who use donkeys and sheep and camels and Santa as a way to invite us into the story.  Or we may find ourselves joining other story tellers and artists who include other local and native animals and plants – like Zebras from Africa or poinsettias from Mexico or Holly from northern Europe.

When we realize that John the Baptist is merely a witness to Christ, it becomes clear that his role is our role.  We have a duty and an obligation to bear witness to the same Christ who lives among us.

If the story of Jesus is to be told this year, it is up to us.  We are the new "voice[s] in the wilderness" who are preparing the way for Christ.  How receptive our world is to that message depends in large part upon the way we open doors and hearts and minds.

For the good news is that Jesus was born.  Christ is here now.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.