This sermon was preached on December 13, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
How many of you hear the words “we’re going to start with an icebreaker” at a meeting or gathering and have a slight shudder go down your back? Yeah, most of us don’t find those contrived “get to know you” activities very enjoyable. Often because they entail doing or saying something that isn’t authentic to us or puts us on the spot with the feeling that we need to perform, to be who others think we are or an image we want to project. It’s just plain awkward. Yet, I confess to continuing to do them in some fashion with children, youth and adults, because despite the awkwardness and pitfalls, as it is important that somehow, we learn who the other people are. Done well, ice breakers can reveal connections, give insights to people’s gifts and worldviews, foster communication skills, and build closer relationships. If we don’t know who people are, we run the risk of false assumptions, judgments, and missteps occurring. Getting to know who people are is vital in any community. And while ice breakers don’t probe the inner lives of people, but they do build trust and confidence that people can be heard, understood and seen for who they really are and not who other’s assume they are. It can free people to be themselves.
Identity, who we are, is a question that has reverberated through the millennia from philosophers such as Socrates and Plato to Descartes, to the self-help industry that exploded in the late 20th century to the present. We link our identity to a myriad of facets: appearance, vocation, education, family, friends, religious organizations, etc. We try and create or recreate our identity at certain junctures in our lives. We like to think that we can reinvent ourselves, recreate who we are, and to a certain extent perhaps we can. Yet, who we truly are, at our core, buried under the layers of appearance and actions, is often a mystery even to ourselves. It’s like we need the ultimate ice breaker to get to know who we are for us, apart from the labels and compartments that other people put us in and we sometimes even agree to. When we chip away at those pieces-what’s left?
I think that the priests and the Levites could have used a good ice breaker or two in their initial conversations with John the baptizer in our gospel passage this week. I have the image in my mind’s eye of this group of men, looking slightly puzzled and agitated, simply walking up to John and blurting out “who are you?” Maybe it was smoother than that, but the gospel writer doesn’t offer any insights that it went differently. And really, it’s the epitome of brazenness and entitlement to waltz up to someone and demand an accounting of who they are. I’m amazed at John the baptizer’s nonplussed response “I am not the Messiah.” John doesn’t answer with a litany of his own accomplishments or pedigrees, but with who he is not. In clarifying his own identity, he starts with who he isn’t and won’t be. Twice more the priests and the Levites press him for who he is, or really, who does he think he is? Are you the Messiah, Elijah or a prophet? The priests and the Levites use up all of their guesses in an attempt to make John fit into their paradigm of how God works and through whom God will work. This weird guy from a nowhere town, living in the middle of the desert, baptizing people with some sort of authority, isn’t it.
John’s humility is extraordinary here. Many of us would get triggered by the constant questioning of our relative value and would defend ourselves. John is clear that he is who he is called to be, the one who will witness, testify and point to the one who God is sending as the Messiah. John won’t be put in the box of who others might want him to be, or even think they need him to be. John stays centered in knowing that his identity, his value, who he is, all rests on one thing: his relationship to God who gives life, breath, and meaning. He doesn’t need to pad his resume to be taken seriously, John is comfortable, naming the truth, that he is simply the voice, the one to announce who is coming and then get out of the way. John is who he is in relationship to the power of God loose in the world. John is the ice breaker if you will, the one who says that the way of God for all the earth is coming, who’s voice prepares us for the One, Jesus, who calls us God’s own, who comes to tell us who we are in the life of God: God’s great joy.
This simple statement is indeed good news and reveals the complexity of who we are. This statement of humanity as God’s great joy, takes an ice pick to the other identities that people claim for us or we claim for ourselves. It chips away the falsehoods of hierarchy, labels, and segregation. It melts the arbitrary divisions of race, gender and economic statuses. It also cracks open the reality that we are not God, we are not the ones with the answers, and our way is not God’s way. John shows us that it’s important to know who we are and who we are not.
Who we are, is who’s we are. We belong to God, we are people for whom God risks being with us in a frail human body, and we are people invited into Jesus’ work of restoration and jubilee: proclaim liberty to the captives, of binding up the broken hearted, release of prisoners, comfort mourners, and bring good news to the oppressed. For these are the people for whom Jesus also proclaims are God’s great joy. Yes, God’s great joy are people who are unhoused, on death row, who are addicts, who are sex workers, who value money over people, who silence voices they disagree with, and people who struggle with mental health. You see, the is the scandal of God dwelling among us, Jesus in our midst, is that the ice is broken between ourselves, each other and God, our frozen hearts are melted, and we are freed from our own misconceptions about others and ourselves, to gaze upon each other with Christ’s vision of who you are and who we all are: God’s great joy forever. Amen.