Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11+Psalm 126+1 Thessalonians 5:16-24+John 1:6-8, 19-28

“Who are you?”

In the gospel for this morning, this is the question asked of John by the religious authorities who were sent out into the desert to question him.

“Who are you?”

This is long after shepherds and Mary and Joseph and angels and wise men.

But it is before Jesus has come onto the scene to be baptized by this same John. And the priests want to know who he is.

Who are you?”

It is a question that reminds me of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who asked it of a miniature Alice who had no good answer, saying, “I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’”[1]

Our friend John has no such difficulty. He not only knows who he is; he knows who he is not.

Not the messiah.

Not Elijah.

Not the prophet, perhaps a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). Nope, not that one.

Then who are you?

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’(John 1:23)

I am not the One. I only point to the One.

Just as when he leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, John witnesses to the One who is to come.

In this gospel, John’s role is not as the baptizer. John is the one who bears witness to Jesus, who points the way, who deflects attention from himself and testifies to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Son of God.

But why now? Why here? Why are our Christmas preparations being interrupted yet again by John?

Because, my friends, it’s still Advent, and Jesus isn’t yet here – not in a manger, not in the river Jordan, not on clouds of glory.

This in-between time of Advent, as we have said many times from this pulpit, is our time to get ready. And today’s getting ready includes a question:

“Who are you?”

While there may be prophets amongst us, I don’t think I’ve run into Elijah or Moses or the messiah in these parts lately. So we can be pretty confident in answering who we are not, at least if we are following John’s lead.

But can we answer in the affirmative who we actually are?

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’(John 1:23)

Maybe we don’t live in a physical desert, but the world around us certainly seems parched for living water sometimes, doesn’t it? Especially in these unsettled days, it is easy to miss the love and compassion and the joy of the knowledge that we are beloved of God.

Are we the voice crying out into that wilderness?

Are we making straight the way of the Lord, or are we situating ourselves where God ought to be, blocking the way?

Now, before you get all upset about that suggestion, we are all in our fallen humanity prone to trying to fix what’s wrong, to taking responsibility for doing things that aren’t ours to do, to making pronouncements about the way the world ought to be or people ought to behave or who God loves and who God doesn’t and pronouncing judgements that aren’t ours to make. In short, we are not pointing the way to Jesus; we are sucking up all that space all for ourselves. We put ourselves in place of God. Until we need something. And then we plead and beg for help.

As Anne Lamott wrote, the only prayers we really need are “help, thanks, and wow.” Other than that, we’re pretty self-sufficient. Or so we think.

We have one more week remaining in Advent. I wonder how it might be if we each spent some time considering the question, “Who are you?”

Does your life point toward yourself?

Or does your life point toward Jesus?

It is a brilliant juxtaposition to have Isaiah 61 accompanying John pointing to the “one whom you do not know” (1:26), as he says to the Pharisees. That one quotes this same Isaiah to proclaim who he is:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me; 

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, 

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus knows who he is, that he is the anointed one. He knows what is his work to do.

John knows who he is, too, the “one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” (1:23).

As every heart prepares room for God’s in-breaking into this world in the very human body of Jesus, now seems a good time to answer the question:

Who are you?


ASEPSermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas