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Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2013

Last week I went to Target to get a medication that they keep behind the prescription desk. The first thing they wanted was my ID. So I pulled out my driver’s license and swiped it in their machine. They wanted to make sure I was who I said I was and that I was eligible to purchase the product. This past Thursday I stood waiting for a friend in a gas station food store, and I saw the signs about selling alcohol and cigarettes that stated that the store carded anyone they suspected of being under 30 to make sure they were old enough to buy the product.

Our identities are very important. They not only tell objective facts about us, they tell what we or other people think about us. In school, we might be the brain, or the jock, the nerd or one of the popular elite. At work we might be known as a dedicated employee, a detail oriented person or someone whose gift is big picture thinking.

Today’s gospel tells us about two identities, those of John the Baptist and Jesus. The two are inextricably bound together. First John is the one who points to Jesus and the kingdom of God that is coming. He is the last prophet of the old age pointing to the new age. John identifies Jesus before seeing him, and then his prophecy is confirmed when Jesus comes to him for baptism and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. Jesus is the beginning of the new age of the kingdom of heaven. Wherever Jesus goes, miracles burst forth. Wherever the old age of illness, demon possession and death meets the new age of life and hope, Jesus is the stronger force, as John proclaimed he would be. 

Now John is in prison for being an enemy of the state. He has told Herod that it is unlawful for him to marry his brother’s wife. He is no longer the messenger. Now Jesus is the messenger, the presenter of the new age in all its wonder.

But John has some doubts about Jesus after a time. He sends his disciples to inquire if Jesus is the one who is coming or should they wait for another. What has happened to the John who pointed so strongly to Jesus being the powerful one God has sent into the world. Two things have happened. First, John is in prison. He knows he will probably be executed. He is depressed and afraid. He wonders why Jesus has not fixed this situation and questions his power in a very personal way.

If John, who was so strong in his faith, has doubts, it is surely alright for us to have doubts, especially when times are bad. When we are squeezed by the economy, have a loved one who is terminally ill, lose a job or feel like the world is collapsing in on us, we sometimes wonder if Jesus is for real. When my mother died, I wondered if Jesus could really help me. After all, he didn’t save my mother from breast cancer. John wants to know from Jesus what he should do – keep believing or continue to wait.

The other thing that happened to John was that his expectations were not met. He, who had preached a Messiah coming in judgment wielding a winnowing fork, was hearing about a man who healed and exorcised demons and raised the dead. He was hearing not about a person who judged, but about a person who made things whole. NT Wright, in his new book on Paul, says that we see through glasses, but we very seldom look at our glasses. Our expectations, our worldview, shape who we are in ways that we are unaware of. We have to take off our glasses and look at them to see the way we perceive things and to change them. John subscribed to a particular world view about the Messiah, and it was holding him back.

Jesus does not answer John directly, but quotes partially from a prophecy in Isaiah to let John know that Scripture is being fulfilled as he heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and raises the dead to life. John has to make his own decision.

The crowd has overheard this exchange. Maybe their faith has been shaken and maybe it has not, but whatever the reaction, John’s doubts do not put him in a good light. He who was so sure is now unsure. The steadfast prophet has become the uncertain prisoner. Is John telling the truth, they ask, or is he a false prophet, something Israel takes very seriously. The identification as a false prophet brings dire consequences.

Now is the time for Jesus to stand up for John. He who was first identified by John now does the identification. He asks the people what they flocked to the desert for. Did they want to see a reed shaken by the wind? John was not a such a reed, but a steadfast sure herald for Jesus. He was consistent in his testimony and faithful in his actions. Did they want to see someone in soft robes? Those were for people who lived in palaces and John most certainly did not. John was a robust figure who lived on the margins of society, so he would not be trapped by the ruling power structure. He lived on the margins of society so he could proclaim the new age of the kingdom coming to the old age of power and oppression and get away with it (at least for a while). He was as different from a religious or political ruler as he could be so his prophecy could be believed. He spoke the truth to power.

John was a powerful prophet, Jesus says, but he was more than a prophet. The prophets had pointed to the coming of the Messiah as John did, but John actually saw Jesus in his lifetime. He was the final messenger, the one who ultimately prepared the way for the living God to come on earth. He was the harbinger, preaching baptism for the forgiveness of sins, so people would be ready to enter the new age of the kingdom. John was the greatest person who had been born of woman.

Jesus’ identification of John as true prophet is something the crowd needs to make their decisions about who John is and who Jesus is. But Jesus goes further and says something that surely confuses the crowd. Even though John is so great, he is less than the least in the kingdom of heaven. So who is in the kingdom of heaven that is greater than John? Any disciple of Jesus is already in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus considers his followers as greater than John because they are already working with him to bring in the new age.

Jesus points to discipleship twice, both times indirectly. First, he does not tell John exactly who he is but gives evidence of his deeds. John must make his own decision about whether to become a disciple or not. So must we. No amount of talking or threatening hell-fire will win us over if our worldviews do not let us know that we need saving and that we need to look for a savior. We must take this man who does not do the judgment thing John expects of him but instead heals and makes whole and decide if we are his disciples. We must take this man crucified for speaking truth to power and decide if it is worth the risk. We must decide, as Jesus says, if we want to be in the kingdom of heaven or not.

If we decide we are disciples, we have John’s work to do. We must point to Jesus in our lives. We need to remember the John the Baptists in our lives who told us their stories and tell our own stories to others. We need to encourage others over whom we have some influence to bear good fruit in their lives, fruit that will feed the world. If we decide we are disciples, we also have Jesus’ work to do. We are called to love everyone, especially the poor and the marginalized, and to give them what they need to be whole, whether it is food, clothing and shelter or a listening ear or a loving heart that shines in us. Our identity as disciples becomes our primary identity. We are known by our gratitude, our commitment and our behavior.

Jesus’ identification of himself and of John gives us the stuff we need to make our own decisions about discipleship, not just once, but every day. Work through your doubts and your expectations to see clearly what is there -- the Lord and Savior of our lives.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker