Who Are You?

Do you know who you are? and what God has made of you?

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias S Haller BSG

The priests and Levites asked John, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” +

“Who are you?” That’s a question that confronts us all from time to time, probably more often than we are aware. Sometimes we proclaim our identity without our even noticing we are doing so, as when we wear an I.D. card at work, clipped to a lapel or a pocket or a belt-loop, or on a cord or a ribbon or a chain around our necks. Most of us have probably been to meetings or conferences and been presented with one of those big sticky name tags saying, “Hello, My Name Is…” with a blank. Making sure everyone knows who’s who is important — at least everyone who is supposed to know. By wearing such a name tag you broadcast your identity to whomever wishes to take the time to look.

I was once at a conference out west where the delegates were warned to remove their name tags if they ventured outside of the complex, outside of the hotel conference center— a thief could see your name, would know your room was empty, and might break in during your absence! Even something as seemingly innocent and harmless as a name tag
could get you into trouble.

Other forms of the question, “Who are you?” are even more obviously threatening. A sentry challenges you as you approach the border: “Who goes there?” Or the question can be phrased in such a way as to make you feel quite uncomfortable or useless or less than worthy, as in, “Who do you think you are?” or, even worse, “Who do you think you are?”

John the Baptist was on the receiving end of just this kind of harsh question in today’s Gospel. “Who are you?” the authorities demanded. John first established who he was not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. “Then who are you?” they demanded with impatience. John replied, “Just a voice crying out in the wilderness, Straighten things up! Get your act together.”

Not content with that answer, they continued to press him. “Then why are you baptizing, if your aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet?” (This is where the“Who do you think you are” tone of voice comes in!) And John had the last word as he says, in effect, “If you think the Messiah will simply baptize with water, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

John knew who he was and who he wasn’t. And he knew that his call from God to prepare the way took precedence over other people’s demands that he behave himself, that he not get above his place — which is to say, they really wanted him to behave not as himself — not doing what he knew God wanted him to do — but to behave the way they wanted him to behave, to be what they thought he ought to be,

and do what they thought ought to be done; and more importantly for him not do the things they didn’t want him to do.

But John knew who he was and who he wasn’t, that he was not the light, but a witness called by God to testify to that light, and he would behave himself accordingly, whether the authorities liked it or not. He was a messenger, and he would deliver his message even if they killed him for it; which indeed they did. He knew what God wanted of him, and he did it.

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John is not the only one in our readings today who — at God’s call — finds himself behaving differently than his original identity might indicate, differently than people might expect. That is the wonderful thing about God’s call, God’s empowering call, God’s transforming call. It leads to behavior out of all keeping with human expectations, human limitations, some times even our own limitations, our own low expectations of ourselves.

Isaiah understands this personally: He knows that the Spirit of God is upon him, from the time of his first call, his first anointing, when he said, Lord, who am I? I am not worthy!

God sent an angel to take a live coal from the altar and touch it to his lips, to transform him to give him the strength and confidence to say, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah understands the transforming power of God, and he assures us in our reading today that at God’s call a great transformation will take place. The people will be given a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness in place of mourning. They will be inspired to raise up the ruins, to restore the desolations; they will be clothed like brides and bridegrooms with the garments of righteousness.

At God’s call things get turned completely around; as we heard last week: even the mountains get leveled, the valleys get filled in. And this week Isaiah continues his vision of this new world, where the behavior of God’s people is governed not by who they think they are, or what others expect of them, but by God’s penetrating and energizing and transforming call to them to be what God intends them to be.

In the fallen world, people are expected to act in accordance with their perceived identity, to behave themselves in accordance with the world’s demands and the limitations of their standing in society. Everybody in the fallen world had best know his or her place and position in the pecking order. But in God’s topsey-turvey world the reality is different: when we become conscious of God’s call, we are not limited to act only as people expect. It is our call from God, not other people’s expectations, that governs our behavior. We are not limited by our apparent identity.

We are called by God, who shatters expectations, who creates new heavens and a new earth, in which the former things are not even called to mind. We behave ourselves in accordance with God’s call, not the world’s limits. We behave ourselves in accordance with our deepest, truest identity, as children of God, made in God’s image, redeemed by God’s love, clothed with God’s righteousness, and sanctified entirely by the God of Peace. And that’s when we can do more than we ever could imagine possible.

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I would like to conclude my reflection this morning with a word or two about one of the great saints of the church — what better way to honor the examples of people God has called than to raise up our awareness of them!

For God calls some of the strangest people to his service: I mean, look around! Look at this crew today; we are all called, my brothers and sisters, strange as we may be God calls us and wants to make use of us.

Well, one of the strangest people God ever called was named — get ready — Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. (He’s got the whole alphabet in there somewhere...) He was an unlikely figure to become a Christian saint. He started his life asa Lithuanian Jew, but he became an Episcopal priest here in New York— he even studied at the same seminary that I attended down in Manhattan — and he was elected the Anglican Bishop of Shanghai, China, in 1877, but then, he suffered a stroke in 1883, resigned and settled in Tokyo, Japan, where he died in 1906. Now that’s some unexpected journey; from a childhood in Lithuania, to death in Tokyo, with New York and China in between! And some might think his journey ended in China with the stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed. But the fact is, he kept working on a project he started before the stroke: he set out translating the Bible into Classical Chinese. In spite of the stroke, Schereschewsky continued working on this project, typing about two thousand pages of text, poking at his typewriter with the one finger of one hand — the only part of his body he could still move. In 1902, a few years before he died, he was recorded as saying, “I have sat in this chair for 20 years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

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God calls us to be what God wants us to be, God calls us to the work for which we are best fitted, for which he created us to be and re-creates us to be — clothed in his power — and God can make use of us strange creatures, even when we might say, How useless is an old man who can only sit in a chair and type with one finger! God knows all the possibilities that are before us, and within us, and inspires our hearts to do what we can with what we have,

with the strength God provides. Isaiah knew that God would transform the world. John the Baptist knew that the light towards which he bore testimony would one day shine brightly through the dark world’s midwinter night. God calls us to be what God wants us to be, what God created us to be, and re-creates us to be, what God inspires us to be, and lifts us up to be, and sometimes, as in the case of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, what he sets us down to be. God does know best — and God calls us, us strange creatures, to do the work for which he knows we are best suited, for which he equips us with the skills to work in just such a way as to work God’s will, even in our infirmity and weakness, but all to God’s glory.

So when you are asked, “Who are you?”; when the border-guards of this fallen world challenge you with “Who goes there?”; when the proud and impatient try to put you down with a “who do you think you are?” you can say to them with all confidence, I am a child of God and I will follow God’s call, and I am going where God sends me, or staying put where God puts me! But whatever I do, God is the one who has called — and who are you to deny that call?+

Not Our Doing

Only one person deserves the title, 'self-made man...' -- a sermon for Christmas 1

Christmas 1 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

One occasionally hears stories of a person referred to as a “self-made” man. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together enough money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while in no way wanting to diminish the rightful admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — I challenge the notion that such a person is truly self-made.

Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers, without whom success and wealth would have been elusive or impossible. Even the inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer actually to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — the inventor and investors firmly hope — customers to buy it. You’ve probably seen the ads on TV offering help to inventors — and help is surely what even the brightest inventor needs in order to succeed.

So it is that few if any of us become who we are on our own. I’m bold enough to say this absolutely: no one becomes who they are on their own. For whatever else we may make of our lives, there is at least one unavoidable point at which we cannot and do not do it for ourselves: at our birth itself. We come into being because of something our parents did nine months before we were born. We simply did not exist at the point at which we came into existence. In this earthly birth we are born of blood, of flesh, and of the will of a man and a woman. We do not make ourselves. We become ourselves — become selves at all — only because of others.

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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we most certainly do not redeem ourselves. Just as we had no say in our first birth, so it is that we have little say in our second birth — though that second birth is something in which we may very well cooperate and be aware of as it happens. For in our second birth, through receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts and believing in his name, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man — or of woman, for that matter— but of God.

Saint Paul uses the image of adoption for this wonderful transformation — and just as a child does not conceive or bear him or herself neither does an adopted child achieve adoption on his or her own — both birth and adoption are something that happen to us. We become ourselves through others. No one is self-made.

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In this, as in so much else, Jesus Christ is utterly different. Even his beginning is different from ours. We are not aware of our own beginnings, conceived by actions of our mother and father, when we yet were not — but Jesus had no beginning: when the beginning was, he was — he was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself. There never was a time when he wasn’t.

And as God, and as Son of God, unlike any of us — who do not even exist at the moment of our conception, since that is when we come into existence — unlike any of us, Christ knew what was to happen, and what was happening when, as Saint Paul says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” If there ever was any such thing as a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him.

What is truly wonderful, however, is that Christ, although self-made in every important sense of the word, also makes use of others to cooperate with him in this grand invention of salvation. God sent the prophets to prepare the way for his coming. God sent his angel to Mary of Nazareth, and her obedient consent to the angel’s greeting, her choice to do as God asked and become the mother of the holy Child, realized the Incarnation itself. In this, and in this alone, Jesus in his human nature, is not a self-made man — he is made of the substance of his mother Mary.

And then God sent that man named John, the last and greatest of the prophets, as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And so it is that Jesus Christ, the self-made man, as God the Word made flesh, came to live among us and cooperate with us in our salvation. And he further commissioned the Apostles and disciples to spread that word of grace and truth, down through the ages.

This was not out of any need or lack on his part; it is all a gift, it is the Christmas gift, the greatest gift ever given — for he gave us himself in order that we might give ourselves to him and become his brothers and sisters by adoption. He sent his Spirit into our hearts crying out “Abba, Abba, Father,” to God our Father — our Creator by our birth, our master through his Lordship, but “our Father” by adoption through his Son. This is no more our doing than any adoption of a child is the child’s doing; this is no more our doing than the liberation of a prisoner is the prisoner’s doing; this new birth in the Spirit is no more our doing than our first birth in the flesh — we do not make ourselves, and we do not redeem ourselves; thanks be to God.

But we cooperate in this work of salvation when we give praise and thanks to the one who saved us, who adopted us as his own children, and sent his Spirit — the Spirit of his Son — into our hearts, leading us by his light, and from whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. We cooperate with God by our celebration of praise and thanksgiving, for the greatest gift ever given, the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so may this grace of God the Father, the love of God the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now this Christmastide and abide with us — Emmanuel — for ever more.


We are not called to vest ourselves in the camouflage of this world — a sermon for Proper 16a

SJF • Proper 16a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Who goes there? That is the challenge put by the sentry to anyone who comes to the border-crossing or gate. The sentry of course wants primarily to know if the one approaching is friend or foe, and will then react accordingly. Any of you who travel, especially internationally, know the importance of having a passport at the ready in order to show your identity, which in this case boils down to your birthplace, citizenship and reason for travel.

Who you are, it seems, depends a good bit on who is asking the question, and what it is about you that they are interested in, rather than in who and what you really are deep down at the depths of your being.

In many cultures the primary factor that identifies a person is ancestry. The first question you might be asked is, “What is your name?” Or “Who are your people?” The prophet Isaiah comes from such a tradition; that Jewish culture in which ancestry is extremely important — in case you ever wondered why the Old Testament has all those lists of who begat whom! Isaiah challenged his hearers to recall that ancestry — to remember that they are descendants of Abraham the righteous and Sarah the faithful. He wants them to recall that they are God’s chosen people, God’s nation, by virtue of their inheritance and family connection: as with grace itself, it is not something they have done, but solely due to God’s ancient choice of Abraham a thousand years and more before their time, that identifies them as who they are.

In many cultures it is your job or occupation that determines who or what you are in that society. In medieval Japan, many people didn’t even have personal names, but were simply known by the name of their occupation. And let's be fair: we don’t have to go quite so far as medieval Asia to find that in our own heritage — especially if your name is Sawyer or Smith, or Cook or Cooper, or Brewer or Baker — your name may well tell you something about one of your ancestors or even your family business in former times!

More importantly, people can form an opinion of you or make a judgment about you on the basis of the most casual and superficial things about you. They can judge you by how you dress — and be impressed if you are well-dressed or write you off if you are too casual, with no real account taken of the person under the fabric. “Clothes make the man” as the old saying goes, and it probably goes double for women. This is a serious matter, because how you appear in the eyes of others will be a major determining factor in what you are able to do in life — and to tie two of these identity factors together: how you dress for a job interview may be more important than what you put on your resumé or what work-skills you possess! How you dress may determine or limit what you end up doing for a living.

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The fact is, however, that what your passport says or who your ancestors were or what you do for a living or how you dress do not really say who you are deep down. But if the powers that be, whether the border guards, or the customs officials, or the job interviewers, give more weight to these external signs and symbols — which to be fair to them is all they have to go on — you may never get the opportunity to reveal more of your true self. You will have been formed by these aspects of your past or your outfit, identified not as who you are but as who you appear to be by those to whom you appear.

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In today’s gospel Jesus is entangled in much this same situation. Rather than proclaiming his own identity he asks the disciples what the word on the street is about him — who do people say that he is? The disciples report the usual list of prophets old and new — the word is out and about that Jesus is somehow either the reincarnation of, or is acting in the spirit of, one of the prophets of old, or even of John the Baptist. John, as we know from the Gospels, is only six months older than Jesus. He knew the value of how to dress the part — dressed in the costume of Elijah the prophet. But he had already fallen victim to Herod the Tetrarch and his dancing daughter-in-law. Yet even Herod himself saw something of John in Jesus.

But Jesus knows that he is none of these things — although he is acting in the prophetic spirit that John revived, Jesus is much, much more than a mere prophet — and he will not be formed by that opinion or conformed by the expectations of the crowd. He will not become what they want him to be. He will be who he is, which is, as the old Greek Fathers said, “He Who Is.” And so he presents the disciples with a second question, a more personal question for their opinion, the opinion of those who know him best — asking, But who do you say that I am? — to see if they are more perceptive than those crowds. And Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.

Jesus accepts Peter’s proclamation as a divinely inspired revelation — and there is a sense of relief in his words: finally, it seems, someone has understood who he is, in all of his transforming, transfiguring power. The feast of the Transfiguration was on the calendar just a few weeks ago on the first Saturday in August, but to give due credit to Peter and his inspiration, that miraculous revelation of Christ in glory on the mountaintop comes later in Matthew’s gospel — shortly after the incident portrayed today — coming as if to confirm Peter’s perceptive proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. That follow-up revelation is a kind of certification, a kind of setting the seal of the power of God present and active in the person of Jesus Christ, God in man made manifest: Not just someone dressed for the part of a prophet, but deep down through and through, true God and true Man, He Who Is.

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As Christians we are called to be transformed from our merely ancestral identities, our biological and familial heritage; we are called to transcend society’s expectations and limitations; we are challenged to resist the temptation to dress ourselves in the camouflage of this world, and instead to be clothed from above with the likeness of Christ and the armor of God — not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This is how we will find our true identity. And there is in the long run a job description that goes with it. If we are to be known by the occupations of our lives — let them be the occupations that Paul describes as the signs of God’s presence and our true identity as God’s children: in prophecy in proportion to our faith, in ministry and teaching and exhortation, in generosity and leadership and diligence and compassion and cheerfulness. When the challenge comes, “Who goes there?” this is the kind of answer a Christian should be prepared to give. I don’t know about you, but if people are going to judge me on the basis of what I do, that’s how I would like to be known! Cheerful, truthful, generous, diligent, and compassionate. Sounds good to me. How about you?+

Be What You Are

SJF • Epiphany 5a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Today our Gospel reading continues with a section of the Sermon on the Mount, and the theme with which this portion picks up relates to the theme from last week. As you recall, I spoke about the meaning of meekness as knowing how and where one stands both with God and with other people, neither blown up with pride nor groveling in false humility.

Today we continue with this idea of “being what you are.” Jesus gives two telling examples to make this point. He speaks of salt that has lost its saltiness, and a lamp hidden under a bushel basket. Neither the salt or the lamp is good for very much in these situations, for it is the saltiness of salt that gives it its purpose, and the light of a lamp that gives it its usefulness.

Here is a more modern example. This little pocket flashlight was a promotional giveaway that I picked up at some conference or other a few years ago. It no longer works, the battery is dead. But it doesn’t open — it is self-sealed in plastic — so there is no way to replace or to charge the battery. It is, as Jesus would say, good for nothing but to be thrown out — and now that I’ve dug it out of the bottom of the desk drawer to which it had found its way, that is exactly what I plan to do! I suppose I should in all charity towards the flashlight acknowledge that it has served one final purpose — as a sermon illustration! But I fear that is a bit like saying that a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

The real point is that a thing that can no longer fulfill the function for which it was designed — while it just might have some other use — is more likely taking up space and serving no purpose — it is good for nothing. This is why the image with which Jesus begins is so telling: salt that isn’t salty really isn’t good for anything — and a lamp — or a flashlight — that doesn’t shine a light is a waste of space.

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Now, of course, Jesus is using these images to provoke the people to whom he speaks — and that includes us! It is we who are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world: and if we lose our saltiness or hide our light, we are not being what we are meant to be, and equipped to be, designed to be, by God.

It is a funny thing about people — as I observed last week talking about meekness — that people often want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and they often treat others or themselves as less than they are. The hardest thing, it seems, is for us to simply be what we are!

If I can quote one of my favorite preachers, an old friend who died a few years ago, Canon Richard Norris: He observed that people will often say to themselves or others such things as, “Act your age!” or “Be a man!” He said, “No one would think of saying to a penguin, ‘Be a penguin,’ or to a cat, ‘Be a cat.’” The penguin would likely give you a strange look and just go on being a penguin; and the cat... well no one can really tell a cat anything. “And yet,” Norris continued, “Wewill say to a man, “‘Be a man!’” It appears we recognize that we human beings, unlike penguins or cats, often act as if we were not what we are.

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And of course, that comes about because we so often act as if we were less than we are. We deny our gifts, fail to share what we have, perhaps because we fear it will not be enough, or that people will think less of us if they see us as we do ourselves — not as we are, but low in our own estimation in spite of God’s powerful promise and charge. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!” Jesus assures us of both. Perhaps salt is not such a telling image in our time, when salt is easily available and our diets actually contain too much of it! But in the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity with many uses, in some places worth its weight in gold. And it is good to remember that the amount rationed out to every Roman soldier gave rise to a modern word with which we are all familiar: salary.

So imagine Jesus is saying, “You are worth your weight in gold!” and perhaps you will get some sense of how valuable each of us is in his service. The point is that, like the gold talent buried in the ground instead of being invested in trade, we dare not hide our gifts or let them rest idle, but put them to use: to be what we are. You know the slogan, no doubt, “Be all that you can be!” That starts with being what you already are, accepting your gifts and putting them to work through practice. Practice: That is, as the old joke has it, how to get to Carnegie Hall!

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You all know that the verse, “Let your light so shine before others,” has long standing as anoffertory sentence, used just before the collection of the people’s offerings. That is taking the relation of salt with salary literally! And far be it from me to limit the reality that our offerings play in keeping the church functioning,
from the prosaic matters of heat and light on up to all the work of prayer and praise. We all know too well that these lights won’t shine if we don’t pay Con Ed!

But being a shining light or the salt of the earth means so much more. We are, as Jesus assures us, gifted with many capacities to be salt and light — to be what we are and rejoice in all that we can be. We each of us have many gifts that we may not be using for the service of God, the praise of God, to the glory of God. Let us not adopt a false modesty that says, “Who am I?” God knows who you are, who each of us is, and knows we are worth our weight in gold, salt of the earth and the light of the world. Let us not, as the Lord challenged us through Isaiah, engage in the wrong kind of fast, a groveling in sackcloth and ashes, and bowing our heads like a bulrush, acting as if we were less than we are. Let us rather rise up to break the yoke of injustice, to feed the hungry and set free the captive, using all we have to those ends. What a shame it would be if we did not make use of who we are to help make this world a better place, a more loving place, a more just and peaceful place.

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A wise old man, Rabbi Zusya, used to say, “When I come before the throne of the Holy One, Blessed be He, He will not say to me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ or ‘Why were you not Elijah?’ He will say to me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” We are the salt of the earth, the seasoning that preserves it and gives it flavor. We are the light of the world, called to be lights to each other and to those who live in the darkness of fear and ignorance. Let us be who we are, sisters and brothers, and put our gifts to work for God and God’s kingdom, making the most of all the skills and talents with which we are equipped by the grace of God, through the Spirit of God and to the glory of God. In whose name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves in service.+

That is My Name

SJF • 1 Epiphany 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove; and a voice came from heaven....+

Suddenly, it got awfully quiet. Moments before there had been splashes of water, the loud voice of John the Baptist, the clamor of the crowd. People waiting in line had asked those ahead of them how cold the water was, and some complained, even those used to walking barefoot, about how the rocks hurt their feet. Others were too full of emotion to speak, too aware of their past failings, too full of hope for a new beginning to pay much mind to the chatter around them. Then, after the baptisms, when the crowd had settled on the shore, some talked quietly among themselves about what it was like. Just as people who have just seen a movie talk with each other about their favorite parts, the people on Jordan’s bank talked about how it felt when John had held them firmly by the shoulder, then pushed them under the cold, clear water. They recalled how all the normal sounds had disappeared to be replaced by a humming burbling pressure as they held their breath and waited for John to let them back up. They could hardly make out his words through that humming pressure: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” They came up sputtering, blinking, and feeling and knowing that something great had happened to them: they felt new-born, re-born. “That’s what it was like,” they said to each other as they sat on the shore, drying in the warm sunlight, resting a little before the long walk back home.

Then something unexpected happened. A deep voice spoke, just loud enough that everyone could hear it, like distant thunder: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then, silence. Everyone looked around. Who said that? Where did it come from? A little way down the stream a man was sitting by a rock, praying. “What is that on his shoulder?” someone said. “A dove?” “And why is John the Baptist looking at him so intently, so excitedly?” There was a good reason. For in John’s heart a question and a hope began to form: “Is he the one?”

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Is he the one? We might well ask, Who is this “one” about whom John wondered and hoped? For what — or for whom — had he been waiting and watching? It had been a long wait, you see, longer far than John’s own life. Hundreds of years before John was born a promise had been given to the people of Israel. A deliverer would come, one chosen by God, an anointed one, a Christ (for “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “one who is anointed,” which in Hebrew is Moshiach — Messiah.) This chosen one, this anointed one, this Messiah, this Christ, would not only deliver Israel, but establish justice on the earth.

But who was he? Was this prophecy about some individual person, or symbolic of Israel as a whole, personified? Was it Cyrus the Persian king, who would indeed be called God’s chosen and anointed one, to return the people from exile in Babylon? Return them Cyrus did — that prophetic detail came true — but still injustice held sway on the earth... He was not “the one.” Time passed; other prophets spoke, other kings ruled; wars were fought and won and lost. And still, justice was not established on the earth, and Israel was delivered from bondage only to be conquered yet again a few years later by another earthly power.

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But lately in the days of John the Baptist, in the days of the latest occupation, by Rome, a new hope had arisen in Israel, Could John the Baptist himself be the one? Well, John answered them directly: No. He was merely the forerunner, the advance man for the one who was to come. He, too, had been given a personal assurance: “The one upon whom you see the Spirit descending..., is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”John 1:33

John understood he had been given a prophet’s task, the task I’ve spoken of before: Prophets point — and not to themselves! Prophets bubble with holy enthusiasm that cries out, “Look! Behold!” Prophets aren’t interested in starting a cult; true prophets point people to God.

I reminded you a moment ago about what people do when they’ve enjoyed seeing a film together. No doubt you know this from your own experience. What’s the first thing you do when you’ve experienced something wonderful? Whether it’s a book that you think is the best thing you’ve ever read; or a movie that delighted you; or a fascinating exhibit at the museum. What do you do? You tell people about it, of course. And the way you tell them is filled with special kind of enthusiasm. You can’t wait till they’ve seen it, or read it, or been there. And as I mentioned, we all know that special extra delight, the added pleasure in discovering that someone else has already read the book, or seen the movie. That’s when the real fun starts. “What part did you like best? Wasn’t that a great scene? I’m going again next week! Want to go together?”

Prophets and enthusiasts both point at something else, not at themselves. They don’t say, “Follow me!” but “Come with me!” And if for some reason they can’t go along, like John when he was in prison, they say, “Go, follow him. He is the one. I told you I wasn’t the one; I was only preparing the way.”

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God, in this as in all else, is different. God also points things out, directs our attention, shows us the way; but God does it differently. God does say, “Follow me!” Not only that, but God says “Don’t follow anyone else!”

Compare for a moment: listen to John the Baptist’s humility: “One who is more powerful than I... I am not worthy to untie his sandal...” Then hear the emphasis in God’s description of his coming chosen one, the Messiah. Notice how much God uses the first person singular! “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him... I am the Lord, that is my name...” We might say that God is “the first person singular” — for when Moses asked for God’s name, he was told, “I AM.”

Names are the point for naming is perhaps the most important way to point something out, of giving it an identity, and directing our attention to it. When God spoke at Christ’sbaptism, the great “I AM” gave Jesus a name too, “My Son, the beloved.” Names identify both the person, and the person’s relationship to others. We have a “given” name, given to each of us after we are born, and a family name as well, the name we arere born with, the name that was there before we were born. One name belongs to us, the other name says we belong to something else: a family. At his baptism, Jesus (the name he was given when he was born) received a new name, a name that describes his relationship to God: Jesus belongs to God: he is God’s beloved Son. He is Christ — God’s anointed one.

The same is true for us in our baptism. We receive our baptismal name, our “first name” as we say; we receive our family name, officially as it is pronounced over us; but we are also given a name, a hallmark, like the thumbprint a potter presses into the bottom of the pottery he makes, to mark it out as his very own creation. We too are anointed, “Christened” as we say, and given a mark and a name that transcends both our individuality and our family, a mark that doesn’t say so much who we are but whose we are. We are “marked as Christ’s own for ever” and we are given the new name “Christian.” We belong no longer to ourselves alone, but to Christ, who is Lord of all. We are his, because we bear a new name, Christian.

As we come up from those cold Jordan waters, blinking and sputtering, perhaps (I can tell you from experience) gasping and crying and perhaps wriggling around, we are given a new name, we are marked with an owner’s mark, in the shape of a cross — right here. Baptized into Christ’s death, we share in his resurrection.

And we have a job to do. The Baptismal Covenant is our Christian job description — and we’ll have our annual review in just a few moments. Among the accountabilities in that job description is the task to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers,” which is what we do here each Sunday. But we are also assigned the task “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” It shouldn’t be hard to do the latter when we’ve done the former. Isn’t life everlasting better than the best novel you ever read, the most exciting movie you ever saw? Isn’t the Lord’s table the greatest feast? Isn’t the Word of God proclaimed the most important thing you could ever hear? Can you leave this time of worship with a glow of enthusiasm; filled with excitement? Can you tell your friends about it? You are the evangelists and prophets, sent to proclaim the word: you are the messengers of Christ at work in the world.

And when you spread the word of what you have seen and heard, of what God’s saving grace has meant for you, of how you have heard his word, known his forgiveness in your heart and been fed at his table, when you have shared this good news, of God’s presence in and with the church on earth, you can always end by saying, “I’m going back next week! Do you want to go together?”+