The Power of What You Are Not

John 1:6-8, 19-28                                                                                

I know many of you ready to get to the main event of Christmas 12 days from now.  Some people put up Christmas lights the day after Halloween.  We went to get our tree on the first Saturday of December because we noticed several Jewish families in the neighborhood were decorating ahead of us. Our supplier was running out of good trees because everyone was early. This year we don’t know how a pandemic Christmas will be.  We might be masked up, Zoomed in, or quarantined at the last minute.  I hear some people relieved of the big holiday gathering burdens, and others are deeply saddened and grieving.  

I’m OK with Christmas, but Advent is a sacred season that fits me.  I like quietly lighting candles. I prefer purple over red.  I enjoy watching and waiting and listening to the crowds, shopping, and rushing around.  We have tried to program our Pandora to give us lighter Christmas music till December 20, and then switching to the unrestrained Christmas arias.  If I hear “Joy to the World” for four weeks, it loses that punch on Christmas Eve.  I want to wait for it.  

I want to hold the space for the main character of the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist.  I feel a kindred spirit in John, who preferred the wilderness to the crowded streets and noisy Temple in Jerusalem.  John is known for his thunderous prophetic voice, but he must have spent a great deal of time in silence.  I sense this in John’s Gospel with all the reflection comparing John to Jesus. John’s sense of personal clarity strikes me.  It is more than knowing who he is; John also is very clear about who he is not.  

The opening of John’s Gospel is a poetic vision of Jesus as the light of the world.  A new dawn is rising for humanity, a light shining in the midnight hours that will not be extinguished.  John the Baptist is so essential; the author introduces him as a character in verse six as a man sent from God.  But in the next breath, the author reveals John is not the light.  He is only a testimony to the light.  Was John ever tempted to blur that line and step over into being the movement’s leader?  Who could blame him?  He stood up to Herod and had a large number of followers.  His preaching resonated so profoundly that people were coming out to the wilderness near the Jordan River.  That is 21 miles to the east of Jerusalem, about a seven-hour hike one way. 

His fame is enough that the Temple Priests send a delegation to check him out.  They have a strange conversation.  I want to retell the passage with a focus on how many times John says who he is not.  The priests show up and say, “Who are you?” John answers, “I am not the Messiah.” They respond, “Well, what then?  Are you Elijah?” John replies, “I am not.” They fire the third question at John. “Are you the prophet?”  “No.” John has answered three questions with nine words.  He may be more laconic than Clint Eastwood.  The priests just can’t wrap their minds around John because he doesn’t fit any traditional roles or categories.  So, they say again, “Who are you?  We need an answer for our bosses back in Jerusalem.  What do you have to say about yourself?”

John tries to give them something they can grasp by quoting scripture from Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.  Make straight the way of the Lord.” 

Not that this clears things up.  So, you are a metaphor from the past?  I wonder if John put that on his ministerial profile for his next pastoral search? “Dear search committee. I’m hoping to be a voice in the wilderness.” The Jerusalem delegation is not clear at all who John is and asks, “Why are you baptizing then if you aren’t the messiah, Elijah, or the prophets?” Now John deflects the question from himself and says, “One is coming whom I am not worthy to untie his sandals.” Hear the power of John’s words.  He is not falsely humble, as in, “I’m humbled to receive this award.” He isn’t suffering from a lack of confidence.  John isn’t self-loathing.  He is saying, “I’m not the one, not the great Jewish hope, not the light.  But I know who is.  I know where you can find what you really want.”  

I think the author is very intentional with John’s words, “I am not.” It is opening space for the one who is. Remember the voice that spoke to Moses at the burning bush?  When Moses said, “Who are you?” the voice says, “I am.”  John’s Gospel builds on this pronouncement by telling us Jesus is the one to say, “I am.” Seven times Jesus says, “I am the light, I am the bread of heaven, I am the living water, I am the vine, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life.”  

I appreciate the clarity John had to say who he is not.  Take note of this.  I am not the light, not the one with all the answers. Seminary did not equip me with everything you need.  I just invite you to take a long, loving look into the reality of God.  There is spiritual freedom in this self-definition.  If there is a ground of being, the one who is the light, then I don’t have to pretend I’m the be-all and end-all of my reality.  I don’t have to have a huge ego to muscle my way through the world.  I don’t have to be a control freak.  I am free to be no more nor no less than who God created me to be.  Even that is just a voice in the wilderness.  

I asked our Monday Bible study group when is it appropriate to define yourself by who you are not?  The consensus was that there are times when people put unrealistic expectations upon us.  Then you need to say; I’m not that.  I found countless examples in a google search of “I am not…” and found lots of song lyrics.

If you have watched the Queen’s Gambit, you may have been re-introduced to the Monkeys classic song, “I’m not your stepping-stone.”  

  • Kelly Musgrave sang I would move mountains for you, but, baby, I’m not your wonder woman.
  •  Jennifer Lopez sang to her man, “I ain’t goin’ be cooking all day, I ain’t yo momma.”
  • A recent documentary on the life of James Baldwin was titled, “I am not your negro.”
  • Think of Gloria Gaynor singing; I will survive. “I’m not that chained-up little person still in love with you.  So go on now go, walk out that door…”

Sometimes you have to say who you are not, so others don’t violate your boundaries, so you can more fully be yourself.  The phrase of 2020 should be, I’m not OK with this.  That has even been a show on Netflix.

Knowing who we are not is just as important as knowing who we are.  If you are a round peg, you owe to square-holed people to let them know; you are just not a 90-degree angle kind of person.   Then trust there will be rounded spaces where you will find a fit.  

A big part of our spiritual journey is discerning when to say Yes and when to say No.  I learned an essential question in coaching training.  When someone begins a new and creative direction, it helps to ask, “What do you have to say “No” to claim your “Yes” to this?” Life is too short to do and be all the possibilities our minds can dream.  Too many of us are exhausted, especially now, trying too many things at once.  We seem to think we can be excellent parents, irreplaceable at work while doing our part to save democracy, and maybe learn Spanish or write poetry in our spare time.  No wonder we feel inadequate at everything.  We have to say “NO” to be who we need to be at this moment.  (Sometimes we have to say, Hell No!). 

This kind of “no” is an act of faith.  It takes faith and trust to say, this is me, and this, not me.  I can’t and won’t do it all.  It requires trusting in something larger than ourselves who will make things work where we can’t.  For me, this means I trust that God is already at work in the world, doing far better things for which I can imagine or pray.  As John’s Gospel says, “There is a light coming into the world-always.  It is not all on my shoulders.  

When we traveled to Assisi, there was a picture above our headboard with St. Francis on one knee, holding his hands up in prayer.  A light beam from heaven struck his hands, and he was shooting light into the world.  At first, I thought he looked like a wizard.  But I remember that Francis wrote a Canticle to the Sun, and Christ is brother sun, and we are sister moon, reflecting divine light into the world.  Our brightest moments come when we know who we are not, so we can reflect the God who is.  Amen.

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