I supplied at a congregation in Maryland this morning. Here's my sermon, based on the gospel reading from John 1.
Good morning. I am so glad to be with you all this morning. I pray for God’s grace and peace among us in our worship.
Last week, you may remember that the gospel reading was from Mark. And Mark talked about a familiar figure: John the Baptist. John is one of those characters you learn about as a kid in Sunday School, right? You remember him. He lived in the desert, ate locusts and honey, dressed in camel hair. Told people to repent of their sins and baptized them in the River Jordan. Eventually, he baptized Jesus, too, which was the kick-off for Jesus’ ministry. That’s John the Baptist.
Or rather, that’s the John the Baptist we heard about in Mark’s Gospel last week. Today, we’re reading from the Gospel of John, and this version of John the Baptist might seem like a totally different guy. For one thing, he’s never called “John the Baptist” in this Gospel. And although he does baptize people, that’s not really the essential thing here. What’s important for this Gospel is what we hear in the first verses of our reading: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.” A witness. He came as a witness. The whole purpose of what John did was to be a witness to the light which was coming into the world.
In our Gospel reading for today, I think it would be better to talk about “John the Witness” than “John the Baptist.” In this Gospel, John’s primary role is to witness to Jesus Christ. And that’s exactly what he does. He tells the priests and Levites who question him, “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.” John is acting as a witness to the one who is coming, the light, Jesus.
I want us to take a closer look at how John the Witness fulfills his role, how he testifies to Jesus’ coming into the world. The priests and Levites question John about his identity. They ask him if he is the Messiah, the hoped-for king of the Jews. John says, “I am not the Messiah.” They ask him if he is Elijah, the prophet who was expected to return before the Messiah came. John says, “I am not.” They ask him if he is the prophet, referring to a “prophet like Moses” whose appearance was also predicted. John says, “No.” Again and again, John defines himself in the negative, by saying who he is not. Finally, John admits that his identity is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. But his identity, his role in this story about Jesus Christ, is primarily defined as the “I Am Not.”
Why does this matter? I think we are supposed to pay attention to John the “I Am Not,” because Jesus in John’s Gospel is the “I AM.” All those beautiful statements of Jesus: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the true vine,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the resurrection and the life”—all of these I AM statements come from the Gospel of John. Jesus is the “I AM,” and John the Witness is the “I Am Not.”
At the heart of it, John is telling the priests, “I am not God.” John is telling all of us, “I am not God.” And that’s a message we all need to hear. John is not God. I am not God. None of you is God. You know what I have to say to that? Thank God! My pastor once told me that every morning, when you look in the mirror, feeling anxious about the day ahead and all of your responsibilities, you should say to yourself, “There is only one savior of this world. And it’s not me.” Thank God. Thank God that we’re not God. The weight of the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders, or mine, or John’s. We don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to carry that burden. And thank God for that, because we can’t carry that burden. The savior, the resurrection and the life, the good shepherd, the light of the world—Jesus is all of those things. Jesus is the “I AM.” We are the “I Am Not.”
But if we’re not God, then who are we?
John freely admitted that he was not God. But John still had an important calling: he was a witness, a witness to the light of Christ that was coming into the world. We’re called to be witnesses, too. God doesn’t ask us to save the world. God doesn’t ask us to be in charge. God doesn’t ask us to be God. God asks us, calls us, to be witnesses like John. Why are we supposed to witness? To testify that Jesus is the light of the world, and we’re not. To testify that Jesus is the Messiah, and we’re not. To testify that Jesus is the one the whole world has been hoping for, aching for, longing for. Just like John, we are called to share that good news. We are called to be witnesses.
We’re in the season of Advent this month. We’re getting ready for Christmas and all that entails. As soon as we finished cooking those turkeys and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, we set out to buy Christmas gifts. We have to make sure we have something for everyone on our list, wrap all those gifts, put them in the mail. We have to decorate our houses, put up our Christmas trees, climb around on our roofs with lights and reindeer and Santa Claus. We have to make sure everything is clean for family visiting, stock the refrigerator, plan the holiday menu. We have to do so much to get ready for Christmas. But I think there’s one more thing we have to do. Each of us has to stop, and sit still, and say, “I am not God.”
Getting ready for Christmas is wonderful, but it’s not essential. The fate of the world is not at stake in our Christmas planning. In the season of Advent, we need to remember what’s really essential: that the light of the world came into the world, that Jesus is Christ, that God has come down to live with us because God loves us so much. We are not God. But we are called to be witnesses to the amazing love and grace God has given us. Amen.