Identity Eclipsing

John_the_Baptist_by_Prokopiy_Chirin_(1620s,_GTG)

So, what does it look like in our day to be John the Baptist to the culture? Delivered on December 17, Advent 3.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1.

Are there any Mark Twain fans in the house?

In 1889 Twain published the book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It tells the story of a certain Hank Morgan, who wakes up after a blow to the head to find himself transported from present-day New England, where he was an engineer, to sixth-century England.

Of course, Hank doesn’t know right away that he’s been transported through time and space. But after a knight calling himself Sir Kay finds and captures him, Hank puts two and two together.

Good thing too! For, because of his industrialized appearance and funny accent, he is out of place in Camelot. The people are frightened of him, even threatened by him, especially a certain man named Merlin, who fashions himself as some kind of wizard. In an effort led by Merlin, Hank is thrown into a dungeon to await his execution.

There, in his prison cell, educated as he has been, in the east-coast liberal arts system of his day; and as a well-established engineer with some 2,000 subordinates, Hank concludes that he is by far the smartest person in this world of chivalry. And thus, he reasons, he ought to figure out a way not only to get out of jail but also to rise to the top of the political system, becoming second in command only to King Arthur himself.

Really a political satire on the USA, Hank gets out of his scrape in a very comical way. He deduces the present date: June 21st, 528. And, by coincidence, from his New England, liberal arts education, he remembers that on this date in history there was a total solar eclipse.

So, sitting in jail awaiting his appointed execution, he sends a message to the king that he is a greater wizard than even the mighty and revered Merlin; and that if the plans for his execution continue, he will in fact blot out the sun.

Merlin, wanting to maintain his reputation as the only true wizard (who we find out later is really more a scam artist than anything else), calls Hank’s bluff, giving him 24 hours to make good on his by now highly publicized threat.

Of course, the eclipse comes. Everyone is frightened. The world is thrown into disarray. And Hank is released from jail.

He then, taking more advantage of his situation, bestows feigned mercy and forgiveness on the fearful people. Just before the sunlight begins to return he commands the sun to come back, which it does; and, yes, he is suddenly promoted to the second-most powerful political position in the land, just below King Arthur; and, most deliciously for him, above Merlin; and given a new title, “The Boss.”

* * * * *

Throughout the history of humanity, solar eclipses have thrown the world into disarray. People fear them—and other astronomical phenomena—as portents or omens of coming disaster.

And Twain, a modern man with eyes opened by science, pokes fun at this.

Somewhat surprisingly, in our more-modern world than Twain’s, we are still thrown into mild disarray at eclipses. Do you remember all the hullabaloo around August 21st of this year? Indeed, some evangelical leaders went so far as to pronounce divine judgment!

2.

Now, last week’s message led us to the conclusion that—like it or not; and whether we realize it or not—we are John the Baptist to our world today. Advent is a time of preparation. Two millennia ago, John prepared the world for Jesus. Likewise, we are called to prepare our world for Jesus.

Today’s Gospel tells us more about John the Baptist (JB); and thus, since we are JB to our world today, more about us.

“There was a man sent from God,” it declares, “whose name was John.”

So, for one thing, today’s Gospel tells us that John stood on the threshold between the cosmic and the concrete. We stand there too. We have been sent from God, who dwells outside of time and space, into our unique time and place. The church is at once both a divine and a human institution.

The Gospel continues, “He came as a witness.”

So, for another thing, like JB, we offer testimony. We are witnesses, like it or not. Evangelism is a dangerous word today. But—like it or not—evangelism is part and parcel of who we are.

It’s a funny thing about evangelism: it works in both active and passive ways. We can get out there and share the good news of Jesus Christ to the culture like Mormon missionaries; we can go out and share the love of Christ through service projects and social outreach; we can retreat into our sanctuaries of Bible study and prayer. Whatever the case—whether we pro-actively bear witness or not—the culture is watching. What is the message we convey?

Again, the Gospel continues, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

So, a third observation from the text, like JB, we testify to the light; and yet we are not the light. We reflect the light of Christ—whether we want to or not—much as the moon reflects the sun. The light we shine is always secondary to and dependent on the light of Christ.

But this leads to a fourth observation—or a kind of anti-observation, for the text doesn’t say so directly, it only implies: Today’s Gospel brings to light (pun intended!) a way in which we are not like JB: he never eclipsed Jesus; but, as JB to our world today, we do end up eclipsing Jesus. All the time! Without even realizing it!

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

3.

How do we eclipse Jesus? The ways are manifold and many, no doubt! But today’s passage focuses on one way in particular: identity.

When delegates of the religious establishment asked him, “Who are you?” John replied with who he was not: “I am not the Messiah,” he said.

Again, asked if he was Elijah or a prophet, he said, “No.”

Finally, when asked, “Well, who are you then? We need an answer for those who sent us”; he quoted the scriptures—“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”—thus saying nothing about his own identity but nevertheless identifying himself with Christ and God.

John’s identity was in Christ, not in himself.

Likewise, since we are JB to our world today; and since we bear witness (whether we realize it or not), our identity is in Christ.

Yet, unlike JB, our identity is also very much wrapped up in self.

Now, I know, everywhere I look, I’m told it is all about me. The clothes I choose to wear, the car I decide to buy and drive, how I choose to spend my free time, the foods I like (or don’t), the music I listen to (or won’t), the art that decorates my walls—good, bad, ugly, tacky, kitschy, it doesn’t matter!—it’s me. It all defines who I am, my unique, individual identity.

And that’s a good thing: to be an individual. Or, at least, that’s what my culture wants me to think.

But there’s a sort of irony here. For JB was more of an individual probably than any of us in this room. I mean, he walked around the region, unkempt, wearing a simple patchwork robe and eating whatever protein he could find.

I’m sure he had health issues related to his eccentricities—bad breath, probably malnourished, undoubtedly barefoot.

(You know what John’s unique identity was? I’ve got it! He was a super calloused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis!)

Anyway, here’s the irony. We value individuality as a culture; yet if you or I were to walk around Temecula like JB—as an eccentric, unique individual—we’d be stigmatized precisely because of our failure to conform to societal norms; or, in other words, precisely because of our unique individuality!

That’s because there’s a key difference between John’s individuality and ours: he was an individual by coincidence; whereas we are individuals by intention.

In all his camel-hair wearing and insect eating, John wasn’t focused on, preoccupied, or absorbed with himself.

Yet with us present-day Christians, it’s all self-focus, self-preoccupation, and self-absorption.

We want to convey an image of confidence and togetherness to everyone around us; and for us, our identity is all about this image: how we come across to our world in our own, unique, individual way—which is why none of us wants to walk around town looking and smelling like JB.

By the way, I’ve been discussing identity largely in terms of us as individual persons. Everything I’ve said applies to us as a corporate church body too. Our identity as a church body is partly in Christ; but it is also defined by our human preferences—our brand (STC/EDSD/TEC), our theology, our politics, our liturgy, our defining focuses of outreach, our shield. . . .

It’s something to think about.

John didn’t care a lick about his image; his identity was defined only in and through the image of Christ.

We, on the other hand, define our identity mostly in self—in the cars we drive or in the clothes we wear or in how much we pay for a haircut or in how we decorate our walls or in a political party or even in what church we attend—and only very little in Christ.

We should be reflecting Christ’s light. But in our attempts to establish and maintain our own unique identity—in our attempts to be seen—instead we end up blocking the light of Christ.

And that’s called an eclipse.

And eclipses, as Mark Twain reminds us, tend to throw the world into disarray.

We are JB today. We must decrease in order that Christ may increase.

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