Who We’re Not
Based on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, 1Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
Once in a great while, advertising on television touches on a truth that is far deeper and more important than what is being sold. Case-in-point is a commercial for a car company that features a relatively unknown singer-songwriter named Cas Haley. Mr. Haley competed on the show “America’s Got Talent” and took a chance in an online competition to write a winning song for a car company advertisement campaign titled, “Chart Your Course”. The musician took a year off from touring to care for his wife who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer and as a family they focused on the present moment and trying to create a healing environment. He had written the winning song about his family’s journey through cancer and the insights that struggle has yielded. This wisdom is reflected in the commercial as Cas’ voice states, “Knowing who you are is hard, it’s hard! Eliminate who you are not, first, and you’re gonna find yourself where you need to be.”
That last part…coming to know who we’re not and thus clearing the way for who we are becoming is what is reflected in our scriptures for today. In our Gospel reading John the Baptist answers questions about who he is by telling the Temple leaders clearly who he is not. Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonica winds up by reinforcing who followers of the Christ are supposed to be while they wait for Jesus to return. Finally, the reading from the Book of Isaiah speaks of who we are and to whom we belong – and what that belonging is calling us to do. Let us go together to God now in prayer asking for God to remove what we are not and mold us into what God wants us to become…won’t you please join me?
Third Isaiah is speaking hope and empowerment to the exiles in Babylon. The chapter before our reading speaks about how God will bring the Israelites back from diaspora and restore them to their place in the world. Today’s reading speaks directly to what it is that we as God’s anointed are to be doing in the world to share the good news of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within us, it empowers us to bring good news to the oppressed, minister to the brokenhearted, release the captive and the prisoner, provide for and comfort those who mourn and repair the “devastations of many generations”. As blessed children of God we are to love justice and hate wrongdoing and use our whole beings to rejoice and exult in the LORD our God who has clothed us in salvation and righteousness. This is who we are to become in and with God.
The ending of the letter of Paul known as 1Thessalonians reminds the believers that they are to be at peace among themselves, to admonish idlers, encourage the fainthearted and help the weak. They are to seek to do good to one another and to all of God’s creation. They are to rejoice, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances – because this is God’s will for them. They are to test everything that comes before them to see if it is good or evil and they are to hold fast to what is found to be good. If they live in this way, then Jesus will find them sound and blameless when he arrives. In this, Paul’s earliest letter, we have the formula for who we are in God.
John the Baptizer appears again in this week’s reading from the Gospel of John. John came to testify to the light that was coming and that he was not that light. Temple leaders were sent to ascertain just who this John the Baptizer might be – what were his credentials? The leaders asked John to identify just who he thought he was…was he the Messiah, maybe Elijah, the prophet? To each of these questions John answered no. When pressed to answer the question, “What do you say about yourself?”, John answered truly from Isaiah that, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord”. John tells them that One more powerful than he is coming…someone that they do not know. It is clear from this that John knows both who he is and who he is not.
How would you answer those questions, “Who are you and what do you say about yourself?” Will you give answers based on genealogy, work and life accomplishments, academic achievement, athletic prowess, groups to which you belong or leadership positions you hold? Afterall, some combination of these approaches is how most of us introduce ourselves in social situations. We tend to focus on who we are based on what we have achieved; who we know; or how our gifts, experience and expertise might best fit within whatever scenario we find ourselves.
It is much less common for us to publicly state who we are not. The only time that this happens is when someone attempts to pigeon-hole us in a way that is not true to how we understand ourselves. People are constantly labeling others in order to try to make sense out of what they see or hear – ever more common in this era of social media and tribal identification. We defend our sense of self from these attacks and search for ways to belong that feed a healthy self-image and support our understanding of who we believe ourselves to be. Yet sometimes those comments about how we are perceived by others show us that we might have sent the wrong message or perhaps have been suffering from a lack of self-insight while posing as someone who we are not.
Cas Haley speaks truth – discovering who you are at your deepest and most foundational place is hard. It requires that you painstakingly find out who you are not. This is what our development into healthy and functional people is all about. We work through our teen-age and young adult years trying on different personas and descriptions of ourselves, complete with different friends and work lives. Through trial and error, we find our way to an understanding of who or what we are comfortable being by eliminating who or what we are not comfortable being. This process continues over the whole of our lifetimes as each different stage of life requires a somewhat different understanding of who we are and are not.
Discovering who we are and are not spiritually is a similar process. Many of us were raised within a faith tradition and at some point (usually in our teens or early adulthood) we begin to question what we believe. We find that our understanding of the faith we had as a younger person no longer answers the questions or conundrums we encounter as we develop. This can often lead to a time of wandering among different faiths and doctrines or even the conclusion that we have no faith in God or the Church. We find ourselves searching for a faith that leads us to living a life with a sense of meaning and purpose. When we come through this time of discovery of what we do not or cannot believe we often find ourselves back where we started. We return to those hymns and stories that populated our youth, but with a different set of questions and concerns – with a burning need to get to the bottom of who we are to God and to the rest of creation.
John the Baptizer, Jesus and all persons with a deep and abiding faith have had to walk this path of self-discovery. This is not to imply that those farther along this journey have answered every theological question or even are any closer to understanding the deep mysteries of their chosen faith. Rather, they have come to a place where they are comfortable with both knowing and the unknowable. They have arrived at a place where dogmatic answers and literalism have been found wanting and if United Methodists, they apply Wesley’s teaching on use of scripture, reason, church tradition and lived experience to evaluate how they are to live out their faith in the world. They have discovered, like John the Baptizer, that they are voices crying out the good news of Jesus the Christ into a wilderness of unbelief, apostasy, false prophecy and heresy. Telling people about the One whom they are not, but whom they serve as messengers of what is possible through the power of the living God. Advent is all about discovering who we are not, so that we can clear the way to become who we are meant to be in relationship with Emmanuel – God with us! Amen and amen!