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?+