Sermon for 12/13/20: “Who are you? The Plus and Minus of Self-evaluation

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3 Advent

Psalm 126;  Isaiah 61:1 – 4, 8 – 11;  I Thessalonians 5:16 – 24;  John 1:6 – 8, 19 – 28

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John 1:19


Against what constant (or variable) do we measure our intrinsic value for ourselves, as well as among peers, and is that constant (or variable) immutable or flexible, reliant on the whims of the culture or era?  “Who are you?” is, in the vernacular, a loaded question.  Should we respond and, if so, how?

In an era when travelling by airplane is the norm [outside of a pandemic] and we are able in a matter of hours to cross multiple time zones and land in another country, it is difficult to describe to individuals not of my generation what it was like to stand at night on the deck of an ocean liner in the North Atlantic; [to] look out into the vast expanse of the dark waters surrounding that humongous floating hotel, or to look up into the vast expanse of the sky and see more stars than can normally be seen with the naked eye in our cities. [At least, that is,] in the City of St. Louis where I first came to know the world.

As a student, and later as a professor, on many a crossing en route to Europe, I would stand in awe on deck and plagiarize the psalmist: ‘How wonderful and great are your works, O God.’  And then I would ponder: “And who am I, a boy from the landlocked Midwest, that I should witness your mighty acts?”  No matter the number of crossing that I made—and they were many—I never ceased to be overwhelmed!

Travel by ship is a thing of the past and gone especially is the luxury that allowed moments of introspection on the question “who are you?” i.e. “Who am I?”  So, allow me to give you another scenario (again, from my life) that places the question “who are you/who am I” again on the table for contemplation.  Given our geographical latitude in the Northeast, it may not be difficult to imagine gale-like winds and blinding snowstorms.  Such storms were not usual when I lived in New Hampshire.  I remember one wintry night in New Hampshire when a 95-mile-an-hour wind roared like a freight train outside our house, adjacent to the Dartmouth Country Club grounds on Rte. 10 North, also known as Lyme Rd.

Wisely, my wife had gone to bed.  Being of more youthful years, now many decades ago, I was less constrained, and so I put on my hooded down parka and Timberline boots and went to stand outside under the sky, just off our rear deck.  And weighing then only about 115 pounds, I got pummeled about a bit.  The snow was being blown into drifts of 6 feet.  I could literally not see to the end of my driveway.  I shouted out into the wind, across the road toward my friendly neighbor’s house.  He was chief of the Hanover, New Hampshire, Police Department. But he did not respond.  In fact, no one and no thing responded.  All I could hear was the incredible, deafening roar of the howling wind.

Surrounded by such power, I realized how small I was, and how powerless against such wind and cold.  It was frightening to think how quickly I could be overcome if I, for some reason, in the folly of my youthful years, ventured out to my freestanding garage, but could not return to the safety of my house, just feet away.  I would survive only minutes at best.  But it wasn’t just frightening, it was also exhilarating.  It was awe-inspiring.  Outside of the warmth and security of my home, I was forced to acknowledge a greater truth: The world was big, so much more than my own belongings, my own plans, my own struggles, and my own joys.  It was good to step outside and be reminded in what a magnificent and powerful universe I lived and shared with others.  In a sobering way, the question was put to me: “Who are you?”  And I made an assessment.

You must most assuredly have had such a moment, a similar experience like that.  I have heard of people speak of singing in a huge Messiah chorus as an awesome and humbling experience.  In such a chorus, one lone voice becomes a part of a grand swell of voices that take on a power and life of exciting, musical splendor.  Try to recall when you have felt such things: the awesome size and power of creation, the humility of being only one small part of something so vast, and yet become moved by the joy of knowing that, like the proverbial butterfly in the Amazon Forest, what you do matters—and significantly.

John the Baptist’s words speak of such things.  Remember the question: Who are you?  John, placed on the spot, had to make a self-assessment.  John saw himself as just one voice, a lone voice.  He shunned the [spot] lights. But, in his humility, he is part of a ferocious wind of good news.  “Make straight the way of the Lord” (v.23) is the good news that roars out of the wilderness.  It is such powerful good news that it blows everything else out of its way.  It is a threatening wind, so threatening that the powers-that-be kill first John the Baptist, the messenger, and eventually—hoping to silence the Storm of Good News—crucify the Anointed One.

In his season of Advent, we remember and celebrate the Messiah’s first coming as a baby among us and we anticipate his return, though not as a child.  John’s words begin to prepare us for that uncertain time.  His self-evaluation causes us to engage in our own self-evaluation.  This is no ordinary business.  We are dealing here with a powerful God whose activity reaches into the depths of past, present, and future, and is not limited by space or time.  We are caught in such a wind that we cannot stand by our own strength, even if in our day-to-day activities and concerns, we come to recognize that wind.

As people of faith, we Christians are not naysayers.  On the contrary!  We are purveyors of God’s Good News.  We are a people whose collective voice is capable of making a difference.  We are a people who realize what the covenant of the Ten Commandments (and every variation since then), what Noah’s rainbow in the sky, what Eziekel’s wheel in the middle of the wheel, what all reassure us about the mighty wind of God.  God’s wind, descending onto the plains is a wind strong and ferocious as to make us shudder in awe, but also so exhilarating, as to recognize that God has placed us in this very wind, so that we may make a difference.

Admittedly, winter storms can be frightening.  Uncertainty of what lies ahead, like a strong wind, can be frightening.  Not being in control can be frightening.  The ferocious wind of God’s word is frightening.  To be frightened, to be reminded of our own humble place, is not totally bad, but to be frightened without hope is to despair.  It is precisely here that we Christians, if we take our limited knowledge of God to heart, can be the positive influence in the world.

Now, daily, as Advent people, as believers in the goodness of God as seen in and lived by God’s Messiah, we put on our parkas and step out into the storm.  Stand for a moment and contempt the power of this ferocious good news that John the Baptist announced so long ago.  Jesus has come.  As Lord of your past, present, and future (and of mine), he holds your and my life in the security of his hand.  Receive this news with awe and humility, for God’s plan of salvation, God’s rule of this universe, is so much more than we can imagine.

We do well to remember that as winds and storms, in whatever iteration, blow around us, Jesus did not come to lead us to despair, but instead to faith and life.  To be sure, we are individuals in God’s plan of salvation for the entire creation.  And Jesus reminds us that our uniqueness, with all its quirks, flaws, and positive assets, matters to God.

Mary n JesusAs God calls us to humility and repentance, God also speaks to us in the Baby, a totally defenseless, a totally helpless, a totally dependent being that is protected and cared for.  The message is clear.  No matter how insignificant we may ourselves feel, we are loved and will never be lost to God.

My prayer for us, during these shortened and dark and threatening days of Advent 2020, is that we will renew our prayers and petitions to God, so that we might receive with humility the challenge to prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  May God’s Spirit invade you and your life, calling you to humility, awe, and faith!  And, as you are blown about, may God’s Spirit also keep you ever focused on the event of the manger, for it is perhaps there that we find the answer to the question “Who are you?”  Amen