“Paths & the Wilderness” Colchester Federated Church, December 13, 2020, (John 1:6-8, 19-28) Third Sunday of Advent

Today’s Gospel lesson feels like a game of 20 Questions as John the Baptist is in the wilderness being grilled by priests and Levites from Jerusalem.  Yes, on this Third Sunday of Advent in this Lectionary cycle we remain with John the Baptist out in the wilderness on Joy Sunday.  So those in power ask John in rapid fire succession: “Then who are you?”  “Are you Elijah?”  “Are you the prophet?”  “What do you say about yourself?”[1]  We just need a conference room in a police station with a cold cup of coffee on the table and a creepy light shining on poor John to make this feel like an episode of Law and Order or something.  It’s intense, these questions demanding to know John’s identity. 

In Martin Copenhaver’s book Jesus is the Question, he speaks about identity.   About a time when Jesus asked a troubled man, “What is your name?” before he healed him.  Copenhaver says that we identify with our names and that in a sense, we are our names.  For instance, he can’t stand when people call him Marty and will say politely, “My friends call me Martin.”[2]  He’s learned over the years that relationships truly develop when we know one another’s names.    

I recall that when I was a teenager once shopping with my mom at the mall (and wandering off on my own a bit) that I heard a sharp, “Lauren Ashley!”  Of course, hearing my name said in that way caused me to rush back to my mother’s side, asking, “What, I was just over there?”  Her response was a puzzled, “I know.  I didn’t say anything.”  It seems that another mother was calling for her daughter—Lauren Ashley—and was not too pleased with her.  But I sure came over quickly at the sound of my name said in a you are in trouble young lady kind of way.

What’s in a name?  A lot, apparently.  We respond to people knowing us and calling us by name since it’s part of our identity.  Today’s Gospel text gets into who John the Baptist was and who John wasn’t.  It’s a story about how John lives out his identity.  And it’s a story that still has some lessons to teach us on this Third Sunday of Advent.

This whole conversation with those in power and John the Baptist revolves around John’s identity and the names that people assumed he was taking on.  We contemplate what John says about himself.  He’s not the Christ.  He’s not Elijah.  He’s not the prophet.  John says, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.”[3]  John is successful in witnessing to Jesus because he knows himself.  He knows who he is and who he isn’t.  He doesn’t take on a name that doesn’t fit just because it might have been easier for people to grasp what he was up to.  John clarifies, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize.  He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”[4]

We know that John the Baptist is referring to Jesus.  That’s not a new or surprising revelation for Christians to hear these days.  And we know that John’s role as a voice crying out in the wilderness was to prepare the way for the one who is to come after him.  It was to prepare the way for the Word as is so eloquently stated in the beginning of the Gospel according to John.  Because “what came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.”[5]  John is preparing the way for Jesus the Christ, the light of the world. 

Even though John the Baptist faced opposition in the wilderness and people questioning his identity, his authority, his mission—the joy must have come for John in preparing the way for the one to come.  He was secure in himself.  John knew that his role was to be the voice crying out in the wilderness and to baptize with water so that Jesus the Christ would come to baptize with the Holy Spirit. 

Now in these days of losses and complexity, of suffering and pain—where do we possibly find joy?  Perhaps we experience moments of joy when we too are secure in our own identities.  We experience joy when we know that we are doing our best to walk in the Way of Jesus Christ.  When we do the best that we can with what we have.  When we know that though we are in the midst of the wilderness, we can walk on the path of love laid before our feet.

What strikes me about the joy of this Advent season (maybe especially this year during a global pandemic) is that joy can sometimes feel all the more powerful in the face of adversity.  Writer Regina Brett wrote this great book called God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours.  It’s a book that was profoundly shaped by adversity that the author faced—becoming a single parent, looking for love in all the wrong places, working on her relationship with God, battling cancer, and making peace with a difficult childhood.  Regina Brett shared her lessons for life’s detours when she was a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and it became one of her most popular ever published, eventually becoming a book.[6]  Because the truth is that life isn’t always sunshine and roses.  Sometimes people go through terribly difficult circumstances and a seed of bitterness seems to be planted in their hearts.  That seed grows and we may wonder what happened to that person to make them be this way.  Other times people go through terribly difficult circumstances and a seed of joy somehow seems to be planted in their hearts.  And we may wonder how that person came to be that way too! 

The point is that life doesn’t need to be perfect in order to find joy.  John the Baptist got interrogated in the wilderness and still somehow joyfully pointed to Christ who was to come.  Soon we will hear the story yet again about how Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem to be enrolled on the Roman tax lists.  Mary was close to giving birth and must have been so uncomfortable.  Joseph must have been so worried.  In reality, Mary and Joseph were simple, law-abiding people.  They were poor, as were the shepherds who came to share their company and the miracle of Jesus’ birth.  Once Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, there wasn’t even anywhere for them to stay. 

The events we will celebrate on Christmas Eve aren’t perfect.  But they are holy and beautiful and full of joy perhaps because God somehow breaks forth in the midst of an imperfect world.  Right now, when we look around, everything is complicated.  There are so many losses and things can feel downright scary.  Yet, can we somehow, someway, find glimpses of joy?  Is there some way that we can experience moments of joy even as we contend with so much adversity?  Joy that can be an oasis in the desert, joy that can set us on the path of love even in the wilderness?  May it be so.  That is my prayer on this Joy Sunday for each and every one of you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 1:21-22, Common English Bible.
[2] Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered, 27.
[3] John 1:23.
[4] John 1:26-27.
[5] John 1:4-5.
[6] Regina Brett, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours, front cover.