A Sermon By The Rev. Elsa A. Peters
John 1:5-9, 19-28
Who are you? the priests and Levites ask. It doesn’t matter what John says — as they aren’t really listening anyway. They’re too caught up in their expectations. They don’t hear how John repeats himself. They just assume he’s refusing to answer. Then who are you? The priests and the Levites angrily demand, but they won’t hear the answer. They won’t hear what they want to hear. No matter what questions they ask, John can only reply no. No, I’m not that. No, I’m not. Over and over again. No, I’m not.
I know this defensive position. I know what it’s like to repeat the same answer. No, I’m not that. No, I’m not. Over and over again. No, I’m not that. It happens every time I meet someone new. After “hello” and an exchange of names, the pleasantries quickly subside because of that next question — and you can’t avoid it. You can’t dodge the question. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Who are you? They want to know, but that’s not the question we ask. That’s not the question that appears in our introductions. We don’t ask about your hometown. We don’t ask about your dreams. We don’t ask who you love. No, we ask what you do. We want to know how you occupy your days. We want to know where you work, because for some reason (like it or not), we believe that this one fact will explain everything there is to know about you. It’s true. Think about it for a second.
Like the priests and Levites, we want others to fit into our expectations. Whether you punch a clock at Walmart or practice law at Pierce Atwood or serve as the Republican Senator for the state of Maine, it doesn’t matter. We want to know where you work — for we will determine all that we need to know about you by who gives you a paycheck. So, then who are you?
When I am asked this question, I already know the expectations. I know that in answering this simple, seemingly innocent question, I have to combat everything that this person thinks they know about Christianity. So, I try to go gently. Well, I’m a pastor. I say as if it’s totally normal. I say as if it’s something that everyone else does, but I know what’s coming next. I can already see it on his face.
Who are you? He tenses. His nostrils flare. Because you must epitomize all that I detest about organized religion. You must be power hungry. You must have some unhealthy issues with your sexuality. You must reflect all of the theology that I’ve heard on Fox News. I need to know, he snarls. What do you say about yourself?
Of course, there’s no right answer to this question. There’s nothing that I can say that will convince this person that I am who I say I am. Instead, I have to endure the barrage of questions that force me to quietly reply — like John: No, I’m not. No, I’m not that. No, I’m not.
To me, it feels like high school where the other kid (who must be cooler than I am for whatever reason) insists that I must fit into his expectations. But of course, I don’t. And most of the time, I don’t really want to but I still (for some reason) feel like I should. But he doesn’t find what he wanted to find. So, when he’s done with his list of questions, he throws up his hands in complete and total exasperation: Fine! What do you say about yourself?
But, then, I’m not sure what to say. With every “no” I’ve repeated, it seems harder and harder to say “yes.” This is who I am. This is where I am from. This is what I dream about. This is who I love. No, instead, those things have completely disappeared from my head. I can’t pull them to mind. They’re totally gone because this guy has decided that what I do determines all that I am.
First, last and foremost, I wish that I could answer as confidently Ling Tan does. Marjorie Kemper begins Ling Tan’s story by this introduction: “First, last and foremost, Ling Tan thought of herself as a Christian.” In this short story, it’s the very first thing that we learn about Ling. She’s sitting with a career counselor who has just asked Ling about herself. “I am a good Christian,” Ling responds. This isn’t what the career counselor wanted to know. Instead, she determines that this fact is completely unrelated to the job Ling seeks, but it’s not. It never is.
It shouldn’t be — whether you’re a lawyer, a senator, a pastor or a Walmart employee — it’s this fact that should determine everything that we do. Because we are Christian, it should be clear what we dream about and who we love. But it’s hard to remember that at this time of year when it gets dark so early and every spare moment seems to be spent at the mall.
But, wait, it’s only the third week of Advent. We are still out there in the wilderness with John. We are still trying to figure out what it all means because we need something to happen. We want something to happen. But we have no idea what to do about it. We have no idea what to say about ourselves. We can answer the questions. We can repeat over and over again that we’re not that. We don’t want that. But, when do we say where we are from? When do we say what we dream about? When do we claim who we love? What do we say about ourselves?
What is all of this about anyway?
Maybe it’s enough to know that we believe something is going to happen. Maybe it’s enough to want to go to Bethlehem. Maybe it’s enough to want to see what God is doing. Maybe you don’t have to feel the way that all of those advertisements say you should. Maybe you don’t need to be surrounded by all of your distant cousins to believe that God is born again.
This story about John’s testimony is about that time before — that time before we knew what it meant to be a Christian, that time before we knew what we’d dream about or who we would love. This is a story about before there were Christians. Instead, there are just a bunch of people that needed to see God in a new way. This is a story about John who stands outside of every expectation. This is a story about a man that doesn’t want to be defined by what he does. This is a story about his testimony. This is a story about how he insisted that there must be a light that shines in the darkness. There must be true light that shines on all people and that light coming into the world. This is a story about a man that wanted things to be different. The gospel tells us that he testified to the light, but he himself is not the light. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He doesn’t have all of the answers. There’s something that he’s still trying to understand. There’s some possibility he hasn’t yet realized. There’s something about God he still wants to know.
First, last and foremost, you may define yourself as a Christian. You may be certain in what you dream about and who you love, but if you’re not sure, if you feel like you’re out in the wilderness all alone, if you’re not sure what exactly happened in Bethlehem, if you don’t know how to answer every question, then this is a story for you. John stands outside with you. John calls to the light with you. John shines in the darkness with you. Hear the good news, no matter what you feel this Advent season: the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. The darkness cannot extinguish the light. It shines in you.