Sermon ~ Sunday, December 17, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
I Am Not . . . But He Is!
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Going to church can be a risky thing!
I’m not thinking about the danger of persecution like some Christians face even today.
Nor am I thinking about bad preaching, which is a very real concern (especially for those of us who may be the purveyors of such poison!)
No, I’m thinking about the danger of religion itself. By this I mean any of the systems invented and defended by human beings in our efforts to pigeonhole God.
Would you believe that “religion” is not spoken of very often in the Bible? In fact if you take a concordance and look up how many times the word religion occurs in the Bible you find it is only 3 times! Once in the book of Acts when Paul is talking about his past as a Pharisee, and twice in the letter of James, where the author defines religion as caring for the orphans and widows in their distress.
That’s all the religion there is in the Bible! Jesus never uses the word, perhaps because he found organized religion of his day so unfriendly. The first time he preached in his home synagogue, the entire congregation rose up in wrath and tried to throw him off a cliff. The clergy in Jerusalem had a similar reaction. Every time he showed up in the temple, they stood around in tight little circles trying to figure out how to rid themselves of him, and at least once he got so angry at what was happening in God’s house that he overturned the furniture!
As near as I can tell, Jesus was not big on religion. He seemed to think it was something that people did instead of actually worshiping God. Perhaps it kept them at a safe distance from the all-consuming love that was unwavering, undefinable, and ultimately unknowable. They invented religion as a way to manage all those things for them and they worshiped that instead. Then they spend their prayer time making up rules and definitions. They used time that should have been devoted to orphans and widows making sure their records were up to date!
All this seem to frustrate Jesus because they didn’t seem to know when to stop. It might have been okay if they had limited their organizational skills to themselves but they didn’t. They tried to organize God. But rather than making God more accessible it seems that their religion became blindfolds that kept them from seeing the God who came to them often time sideways, unexpected, a voice calling you and your family to a far-off land, a burning bush, a babe in a manger to a working-class couple.
John draws a crowd in the wilderness, which is how he draws the attention of the leadership in Jerusalem, only they do not know what to make of him. He certainly did not dress, act and sound like any of them, so they send a delegation of clergy (Call it an oversight committee!) down to the camp by the Jordan River. Their job, according to their by-laws, is to find out where John has gotten his authority to do the things he is doing and say the things he is saying.
“Who are you?” they ask. Can you see them with their tablets and smart phones doing their “fact checking”? Is he Orthodox or reform, a fundamentalist, a charismatic, a liberal, a traditionalist, a Pentecostal?
Is he high church or low church?
Does he believe in predestination, transubstantiation, dispensationalism?
Where does he stand on believer’s baptism, the ordination of women, the use of incense, and same-sex unions?
They want details, only John does not cooperate.
“I am not the Messiah” he says, which is interesting answer because it wasn’t what they asked! But John seems to be up to something here, which gets lost on the committee for oversight.
“I am not,” John starts out with them, and that is how the whole conversation goes, with one denial after another.
“What then? Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?”
“No.” It is becoming a bit frustrating for the committee! The have a religious box with a square hole, a round hole, and a triangular hole, but John does fit in any of them. They have their religious check sheet with various categories and John isn’t fitting into any of them. He matter-of-factly dismisses all their attempts to categorize and pigeon hole him. And it doesn’t take them long to catch on to his trick. Whatever they suggest John will say “no,” so they ask him to categorize himself.
“Who are you?” they try again, “Give us an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
But John does not say anything about himself. He is Mr. Not Not No, the man with no face, no name, no identity at all, except for the sound that he makes.
“I am the voice,” he says at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.” This is the only claim he will make for himself. John is the crowing rooster, the ringing alarm clock, the announcing trumpet. He is not the main attraction. He is the wake-up call of the event they should be preparing for. And as uncooperative as he may seem, he is saying something crucial about the one coming after him. If they think John is hard to peg, just wait until they meet the Light! The Light will not match any of their descriptions or fit into any of their boxes either. The Light will not obey their rules or honor their systems, because if the Light did that then he would not be the Light. He would be something smaller perhaps a little mini mag-lite, something people could turn off and on at will but not the Light that was coming into the world.
And thus, by refusing every religious title the authorities tried to pin on him John becomes a very good witness to the Light. Neither John nor the One coming after him will fit into anyone’s pocket to carry around and pull out at will. John is the unclassifiable witness to the undefinable Lord, who will be as elusive as a moonbeam and as hot to handle as the sun. No system will be big enough to contain him, John warns his visitors so they might as well give up trying.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know” John tells those who are supposed to know everything there is to know about God, and it is a wonder they do not have him arrested on the spot! They can’t excommunicate him though, because he doesn’t belong to any group they can throw him out of! He lives in the wilderness, far from the temple. He operates outside their boundaries. He is Mr. Not Not No, who has already emptied himself in order to make straight the way of the Lord.
What John does not tell his visitors is that he does not know whom he is waiting for either, but this is the point. If John thinks he knows whom he is looking for, he might miss the one who comes to him from way outside the limits of expectations. The point is to know that he does not know, and to do what he can to help others know that they do not know either. It is enough to trust God to open their eyes when the time comes. It is enough to trust the Light to be light enough to see.
We are given this passage on the third Sunday of Advent because we still need John’s testimony to the Light. While we are waiting for the baby to show up in the manger, waiting for perhaps the chance that this time, this season have a better handle on the infinite nature of the Incarnation, we can use John’s reminder that none of us ever knows exactly whom we are waiting for either, and that we need not be ashamed of this.
It is a good thing, not a bad thing, to surrender ourselves to a love that we cannot predict or control, especially during this season when we look forward to peering into the manger, and perhaps even for just a moment holding him in our arms. He will allow us to do that, but only on the condition that we understand we can never possess him, not entirely.
In the end, it is He who puts his arms around us.
No religion can contain Him.
No church can box Him in.
But oh, can we worship Him! We can worship Him until the light dawns upon all nations and we all see him in his full glory!
Listen to the original audio of the Sermon by Pastor Neil Wilson by clicking download and opening the downloaded link. God Bless!