I have a group of good friends who live in California. They never tire of reminding me that they live in the land of beaches, palm trees and movie stars, while I love on the frozen tundra. They like to give me a hard time about being from and living in Minnesota.
- They like to pick on our harsh climate and six months of frosty conditions. (I tell them that our weather keeps out the riff-raff…like them.)
- They enjoy giving me a hard time about my Minnesota accent. (Do I have an accent? Noooooo….)
- They like to pick on the Minnesota walk we do in the winter. (You know, how because of icy conditions, we need to keep our weight over our feet when walking, and we kind of shuffle along. They say we all walk like the old man in the Pixar movie “Up.”)
- And they like to pick on how we answer questions. And ok, I have to admit, this part is probably true.
They’ll say that when you ask a typical Minnesotan a question, we’ll answer with the opposite…in the negative. For example:
- We hear the question: “Hey, how are you doing today?” In most parts of the country, people will answer “I’m good, thanks!” But when a Minnesotan hears the question, “how are you doing?” our answer? “Not bad.” (That’s not what I asked.)
- Or, when we’re asked: “What are you up to?” “Not much.”
- “What’s new?” “Nothing really.”
My friends claim that if you ask a Minnesotan how they are, they’ll tell you how they’re not. And yes, it’s probably true. At least I catch myself doing that.
And if that claim about Minnesotans is indeed true, then John the Baptist, the subject of our Gospel text for today, must have been raised on the Iron Range.
The scriptures tell us that there was some general confusion over who this guy was…it didn’t help that he was dressed in animal skins and ate locusts. I’m guessing that there was a natural suspicion about him. So when the priests and Levites confronted him and asked who he was they started with the obvious. They asked John: “Are you the Messiah?” John replied “I am not the Messiah.”
“Are you Elijah?” “No, I’m not.” “Are you a prophet?” “Nope.”
I can visualize the faces of the religious leaders getting red with frustration as the conversation continues.
“Well then, who are you?” They ask. But John’s answer is not really any more helpful: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord…I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
Well, you could’ve just said: “Hi, my name is John.” But ok.
But there is a method to John’s madness. In his elusive, non-answer answers, he is doing two very important things…things that we can learn from:
First, he is drawing a clear distinction…a contrast…between himself, and Jesus. He is saying “let me be clear…I am not him! The Messiah is someone different than me!”
And all of John’s “I am not” statements stand in stark contrast to Jesus’ “I am” statements that we find later throughout this Gospel, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life;” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the gate,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the resurrection…I am the way, the truth and the life…and I am the vine.”
Jesus says who he is and why he’s here. John the Baptist? He simply and clearly says: “I am not him.”
It reminds me of one of my former colleagues who had a small, framed piece of embroidery hanging above his desk. It simply said “Remember, there is only one God, and you aren’t it.”
So, if the first thing that John the Baptist was doing was to draw a contrast between himself and the Messiah, the second, and more important thing he was doing was to point to the actual Messiah.
John says that…” among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” And according to the Gospel, the very next day, Jesus approaches John, and John turns to the crowd and says: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant…” This is the one.
In a nutshell…John is saying “No, don’t be silly, I am not the Messiah. But look…there he is! There!” John points to Jesus. And in that moment, we understand that John’s whole ministry…his whole life…his whole purpose, is simply to point to Jesus. “It’s Him! It’s Him!”
Pointing to Jesus. It sounds so simple…but it is so critical, and so complicated. In fact, I believe that we as people of God, and we, as a church, are limited in our ability to grow deeper in our faith if we aren’t able to share that faith with someone else, to point to Jesus.
In our culture, we’ve been trained to be cautious, and even nervous about pointing to Jesus.
- For many of us, faith is a private, a personal thing
- We want to be careful to not offend people
- We want to be careful to not be pushy
- We want to be respectful of other religious traditions
Now let me be clear. None of these root instincts are wrong. Our faith is personal, and we don’t want to offend, or be pushy, or disrespectful. I remember being confronted at different times by people asking if I have been “saved,” and it has left a bad taste I my mouth. It doesn’t feel respectful. It feels like judgment.
But that’s not what we are talking about here. There is a difference between being personal, and being silent. Are we willing to talk about our faith, in the same way we talk about anything else in our lives that’s important to us? Our families? Our jobs? School? Pointing to Jesus is simply naming him for a world that desperately needs to hear his name.
I don’t know if you saw the Owatonna People’s Press on Tuesday morning. But there was an article on the front page about one of our members. Clay Resler is 5 years old. And he’s awesome.
It seems that one night, as he was being tucked in to bed, he and his Mom, Ashley, were talking about what kind of a service project they might do as a family for the Christmas season. Clay had an idea: He was worried about kids who don’t have a bed of their own. “It wouldn’t be very good to not have a bed,” Clay told his mom after some thinking. “I’m sure there are kids out there without beds.”
And since Clay didn’t know how to build beds himself, he took on a project to raise money for Beds for Kids. He and his Mom created a small, simple bracelet to sell, with a heart on it, that simply says “Joy.” Clay stamps them himself. And Ashley posted a quick mention of this on Facebook. The idea took off. Clay’s goal was $100. To date, this 5-year-old has raised over $1300.
Now this, by itself, is an great story. That Clay has this gentle and compassionate heart for others is amazing, and a gift.
But if you continue to read the newspaper article, you get to the part that I think is really powerful..
Clay’s Mom asked him: “Who is really doing this Clay?”
“God,” he responded.
“Ashley adds. “We’re trying to be lights for Jesus this season.”
And Clay said: “I want to be like Jesus.”.
I want to be like Jesus.
This is a powerful story; and not just because Clay and his family are members of Trinity. Clay’s story makes me both proud, and thankful.
- I’m thankful for Clay because of his heart.
- I’m thankful for Clay because he was willing to do
- But mostly I’m thankful for Clay because he pointed.
What John the Baptist did…and what little Clay did…is to model compassion, and then to point away from themselves. “Jesus did it. It’s Jesus’ work.”
You see, serving other people is powerful. We know that when we serve, we can change lives. But serving others and pointing? Pointing to Jesus as the reason we do what we do? When God’s people do that, well, the world begins to change. Whether you’re 5-years old or 105, there is power in pointing to God’s work in the world.
Whether we know it or not, God works in and through us. In the waters of baptism, God pointed to each of you, called you by name, and gave you a new identity and a mission: beloved child of God; let your light so shine before others that they may see your good work and glorify your Father in heaven.
John the Baptist reminds us today to open ourselves up to this work, and to recognize and then name it; To point! All we have to do is to notice what God is doing, and say, “I think Jesus is up to something.”
So, my friends, here is my challenge for you today: There are 7 days remaining in the season of Advent; the season of preparation. Between now and Christmas, I’d like you to think and to pray about this question: “What do you need to do, so that if a child, or sibling, or friend or relative asks why you go to church…or asks you why your faith is important to you, or asks why you serve, you’d would be able to point, and to answer: “It’s him. It’s because of Jesus.”
Be willing to set aside your shyness. Resist the temptation to answer in the negative. And like John the Baptist, like Clay, and like countless others who have gone before us, boldly point and say, “There he is: It’s him! It’s Jesus, my redeemer and Savior of the World.”
Thanks be to God!