A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 11, 2011.
Third Sunday in Advent
Psalm 126:1-6; John 1:19-28
Suppose our church announced that we were going to have a Christmas pageant. If you chose to attend, you would no doubt expect to see our church’s little ones all dressed up in their bathrobes. Little girls would wear angels’ wings and the boys would carry shepherds’ staffs and have towels on their heads. There would be a manger in the middle of the stage, probably with a doll playing the part of the baby Jesus. We’ve all seen such programs over the years, have we not?
But on this particular occasion, as the curtain unfolds and the pageant begins, the spotlight falls on just one child who steps out to the front part of the stage as the curtain closes behind her and she recites the following words: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The curtain opens, the child walks backstage, the curtain closes once again and the pageant is over. That’s all there is.
And everyone who has bothered to attend would wonder at such a pitiful thing and no doubt feel shortchanged.
There is so much more to the story, more that could be told. Where are Mary and Joseph and the newborn child? Where are the shepherds and wise men? Why isn’t there a stable scene? Yet, on this particular night, this is all there is. We have come just for that?
If the Gospel of John were the only gospel we had, that would pretty much be our Christmas story, if we found ourselves having a Christmas at all. When it comes to introducing Jesus, that’s all we would be left with. If you look closely at the beginning of the fourth gospel, more ink is given to introducing John the Baptist than to telling how Jesus came into the world.
To make matters even worse, or at least make them more strange, the introduction of the Baptist is odd – very odd – filled with the Baptizer’s consistent witness as to who and what he is not rather than who and what he is. In fact, his testimony is replete with nots, with neithers, and with noes.
Did you notice that? Truth be told, if this gospel were the only one we had, the story of Jesus’ coming would not be nearly as compelling as it is to us. And Christmas – again, if we had Christmas at all – would not be nearly as much fun, if for no other reason than there stands John the Baptist hogging the Christmas spotlight. Bah humbug!
“Who are you?” the priests and Levites who have come out to the wilderness from Jerusalem want to know. No hello, howdy, how ya doing, nice day, isn’t it? They just immediately cut to the chase and ask him the pointed question: “Who are you?” There’s a lot of questioning and accusation, and possibly anger, in that simple question. “Who are you?” pretending to be somebody when we know you’re a nobody, acting as if you have authority when we all know that real authority rests in our hands and ours alone, behaving as if what you are doing has some true religious validity to it. “Who are you?”
And how does John respond? Not by telling them who he is but by informing them of who he is not. He is not the Messiah. Well, duh, they knew that already. Okay then, is he Elijah? They were always hoping that Elijah would somehow magically reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. But neither is he Elijah. Are you a prophet? No… no to that one too. Did you notice? Old John is just filled with nots, with neithers, and with noes.
Some Christmas pageant that would make.1
When he does get around to telling them who or what he is, he simply tells them he’s a voice, a voice crying out in the wilderness. Some voice. When he speaks, he doesn’t even use his own words. Instead, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” It’s not much to go on, is it?
“I am not the Messiah,” is the first thing John tells them. The interesting thing is that this is the one thing they don’t ask him. They aren’t interested in knowing if he is the Messiah. You want to know why? Because they know he isn’t. He doesn’t fit the job description. He doesn’t dress the part, eat the part, or act the part. Jesus didn’t either, of course, but at this point that isn’t the point. All they know is that this noisy messenger named John has come from out of nowhere into the wilderness to preach and baptize. From their perspective, you need a license to do that… permission, if you will. Any would-be messenger or proclaimer has to have a license to preach, and guess where he gets that license… from the very ones who have come out from Jerusalem to interrogate the Baptist. To a very real extent, at least in their own minds, they are the keepers of the keys to the kingdom.
So in essence he says to them in response to their question, “Now before you get your britches all in a wad, let me tell you who I am not. First off, I’m not the Messiah.” And you can see them standing there thinking that he’s got a lot of nerve to even think that they might have been considering such a thing. I mean, look at the rags he’s wearing. He smells to high heaven and has bugs on his teeth. The Messiah, the Coming One, will be a king who will dress royally, act royally and be royal. They never even considered that John might be the Messiah. They didn’t come out to the Jordan River in the wilderness to bow before the Messiah, they came out to interrogate a lunatic. Boy, he’s got a lot of nerve.
Actually, what he’s got is an unwillingness to place himself in one of their little theological boxes. They had definite ideas of how things ought to be. Like anyone else, they were waiting for what was called “the hope of Israel.” That meant they thought that one day a Christ would come who would bring ultimate freedom to his people and make all things right once again in the land of Israel. The Romans would be sent packing and the true and right people of God would finally, finally be restored to the good fortunes that God had promised them since the early days of Moses. They believed this as much as anyone.
But that assumed something. First of all, it assumed that things had once been right in the land of Israel. However, if you read the Old Testament account of things, you will find that rarely if ever were things truly right with God’s people. It also meant that this belief in the coming Messiah had to fit within the rather narrow framework of their theological system. Before the Messiah would come, the reincarnation of Elijah would have to appear. That was one of their boxes. Or at least a prophet, someone who they could clearly identify as the one who would prepare the way for the Christ. That was another box. And John wasn’t any of those. He wasn’t Elijah, he wasn’t a prophet, he definitely wasn’t the Christ. He didn’t fit in their box. So then, who are you, they want to know?
And that is when John launches into all his denials, all his nots, his neithers, and his noes. Given all the attention the New Testament gospels provide the Baptist – there’s a lot of ink devoted to him, if you look for it – he must have been very important in telling the story of Jesus. But, you can’t tell it by what is said about him here, or even by what he says about himself. After all, how would you like to be known for what you are not rather than for what you are?
Dick Hardie died last week. My understanding is they will be having his memorial service today at 1:00. Dick was the longtime pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church over in the Heights. When people ask me about our church, I often toss them a tag line and tell them we’re the only church on Kavanaugh. That is only true because a few years back Westover Hills petitioned the city to rename that portion of Kavanaugh that runs by their church in Dick’s honor.
I met Dick shortly after coming to Little Rock and gradually learned his story… not from Dick, but from others. He was one of the few white ministers in Little Rock to take up the standard of desegregation in the 50’s and 60’s. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. He placed his life in jeopardy – yes, he received threats – because he chose to respond courageously to the freedom needs of those he felt were being slighted. Perhaps you read the feature on Dick that was printed in the state newspaper and you already know these things.
Dick lived at Pleasant Valley Living Center for the last few years of his life. That is where my mother resides. One day, about the time his former congregation named their chapel after him, I was visiting my mother. Dick was in the hallway being given attention by a couple of the African-American nursing assistants. I asked them, “Do you know who he is?” Yes, they informed me, he is Mr. Hardie, but they were calling him by his first name. I told them, “He is Reverend Hardie, and he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.” You could see the respect mirrored in their eyes, and I would like to think they looked at him from a fresh and different perspective after that, certainly with a bit more esteem.
Dick Hardie, the last few years of his life, was an invalid because of his illness, but back in the day he was known for who he was, not for who he was not.
The Baptist, then, has a strange way of explaining himself, doesn’t he? There’s a whole lot of denying going on here. Sounds like John’s going to a lot of trouble to tell these folk who he is not, and John the gospel writer is going to at least an equal amount of effort to back up the Baptizer’s story. John the gospel writer is confirming what John the Baptizer is saying. He is not who he says he is not. Got it? Nots, neithers, and noes.
This is not simply modesty on John’s part. Both Johns – the John known as the Baptizer and the John who is the gospel writer… don’t confuse them as being the same person; they are definitely not – seem to go to so much trouble to tell us who John the Baptist is not. So let me ask you: does that strike you as odd? You may be thinking, “Well no. You see, I’ve been reading the Gospel of John all my life and that’s what it’s always said.” Yes, and that may just be the problem. We’re too familiar with it. Let’s look at it as if it were the very first time, shall we? If we do that, we might see it in a wholly different light.
There has to be something special about John the Baptist. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much gospel space given to his story, and the religious authorities would not have been so obviously bothered by him and by what he is doing out in the wilderness.
I think I can tell you why the Baptist is so important. It is not because of who he is or is not, but because of who he has come to announce. Someone is coming, Someone special, Someone with the authority that he, John, has not been given. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal,” John says modestly. This Coming One is so important that John, simply because of his association with the Messiah, has that importance thrust upon him as well. The king is coming, the One who will be the Messiah, the Christ. He will be coming soon, and John is the one who has been commissioned to bear that message.
It’s an important message, and the world needs to hear it.
Christmas was originally a pagan winter celebration, and Jesus followers appropriated it as an opportunity to celebrate their Savior’s birth. Now, in our day and in our culture, we are returning this season to, once again, a winter celebration devoid of spiritual purpose. Don’t you think it is time for those of us who affirm the faith to do what we can to return Christmas to its original meaning? We do that, not by ranting against those who would secularize the season, but by bringing the light of Christ into our darkened world.
Are you willing to share this good news with others? You don’t have to look far to see those who could use a little light in this dark, dark world. It could very well be that God wants you to be like the Baptist. You don’t have to deny who you are, just be willing to share your light when the darkness comes. The Baptist would understand and be grateful, and Christ would no doubt say to you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Lord, may we, like John, point to you in everything we say and do. And may that be our gift to you this season in response to the greatest gift of all. Amen.
1The pageant idea is from Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 69.