Who Are You? – Third Sunday of Advent

Here’s the sermon  video for the sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent (Joy) on December 14, 2014, at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. You can watch the video below.  A podcast can be downloaded at the church website:  Patterson Avenue Baptist Church The sermon is titled:  “Who Are You?”  In addition to the video, the manuscript is also below.

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“Who Are You”  – Advent 3

ISAIAH 61:1-4; 8-11; JOHN 1:6-8; 19-28


It might just be the most important question anyone has ever asked me.  It took place during a job interview.  I had made application to work as the Head Resident of my college dormitory.  The person asking the question was the Dean of Student Life at Stetson University, a person I had known well for almost three years.  The question was simply this:  “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” he asked.

“You know me!”  I replied.  “I’m Bill Nieporte!”

“No, that’s your name,” he said.  “I did not ask for your name.  I asked, ‘Who are you?’  Tell me about who you are as a person.  Tell me about the person behind the name.”

“Who are you?”

It is 20-something years later, but some ways my whole life has been an exercise in answering that question.  The question goes far beyond my name and my titles.  It goes to the very bedrock of my being.  It is the question of my identity.

“Who are you?”

It had been centuries since the people of Judea had seen a prophet.  Then, out of nowhere, John the Baptizer hurtled onto the scene with a prophetic consciousness and a readiness to baptize the masses.  He received an incredible response.  People came from all over Judea to hear John.  They came hear his sermons and to be baptized in the Jordon River.

In life, nearly everyone will face two great obstacles.  The first obstacle is failure.  At some point in our lives – probably at many points in our lives – we are each going to fail.  It might be in a relationship.  It might be in a marriage.  It might be in a career.  It might be in some sort of business investment.  It might be in a classroom.  It might be on an athletic field.  The reality of life is this – at some point we are each going to experience failure.  We need to know how to handle those failures.  We need to learn ho to allow each failure to become our teacher.

The second obstacle we must face is the reality of success.  At some point in our lives, we are going to succeed at something.  We are going to have a successful marriage or a successful career.  We are going to win some type of competition or experience a positive return on some investment.  At some point in our lives, we are going to receive notoriety for something – even if it is for only fifteen minutes of fame – and when our time comes we need to know the lessons of humility so that we do not think more highly of ourselves then we should.

John the Baptizer was experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame.  He was enjoying tremendous success in his ministry.  Each time he grabbed his soapbox, a multitude gathered to hear him preach.  Each time he offered the invitation to baptism, the waters filled with penitent people.  What an ego boost this must have been!  Could he handle it?  Could he handle the fame and popularity?  Did he know who he was?

In every field of human endeavor – politics, athletics, entertainment, academia, and even the clergy – you will find a littering of people along the wayside who did not know how to handle their success.  They did not know who they were.  They did not know how they fit into the scheme of life.  They did not know how they fit into the plans and purposes of God.

“Who are you?”

John the Baptizer faced that question.  Back in Jerusalem there was a great deal of concern over the identity of this popular yet unorthodox individual.  The bigwigs in the political and religious establishment dispatched their chief lieutenants to investigate.  They wanted to pigeonhole John.  They wanted to paint him into a corner.  If you do not know who you are there will always be somebody somewhere who will be willing to label you.

“Who are you?” they asked.  “Tell us about your credentials.”  “Tell us about your pedigree.”  “Who was your teacher?”  “Who told you that were qualified to preach?”

“Elijah had a way of stirring things up when he was with us!” they said.  “You must be from the school of Elijah.  Maybe you are even Elijah himself, returned from the grave!”

“Nope, I am not Elijah!”  John replied.

“You must be a prophet!  Prophets have a nasty habit of breaking all the rules of social interaction.  Prophets tend to show very little regard for people in power and the personal possession of others.  Prophets engage in fiery rhetoric and call people to become zealous about their religion.  You certainly seem to fit into this type of category.  If a person looks like a prophet, walks like a prophet, and talks like a prophet, then he must be a prophet.  You are a prophet, aren’t you, John?”

“No, I am not a prophet either!”

You can almost feel their frustration, can’t you?  They have done everything they could to try to pin a label on John.  They had done everything they could to try put a finger on who John was and what he was all about, but he refused to be domesticated.  Alex Haley, the author of the novel Roots that explored the plight of African slaves brought to the United States once said, “It is impossible to hold in captivity a man who knows who he really is!”  Haley was not talking about chains on the ankles – he’s talking about the bondage of the heart and mind.  “It is impossible to hold in captivity a man who knows who he really is!”  John knew who he was.

They were not finished, however.  There was one more suggestion.  There was one more thought that had crossed their minds.  John’s preaching had challenged people toward repentance.  John spoke to ordinary folks about extraordinary things and his words captured their imagination.  He preached repentance and he told them exactly what repentance involved.  He spoke about hope, light, life, and the possibilities of the future.  He talked about the coming rule of God.  He talked about the fulfillment of all God’s promises.  Maybe John was something more.

“We know who you are!  You are the Messiah, aren’t you?”

John flatly denied it.  “I am not the Messiah!”

“Okay, John, you tell us who you are?  You tell us what you have to say about yourself!  If you are not Elijah, or a prophet, or the Messiah, then what in the world are you doing out here in the wilderness baptizing the people and preaching about repentance?  Who are you?  The thought police, the keepers of law and order, and the mass media type downtown need to know.”

“Who are you?

John replied, “I am a voice.  I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare a way for the arrival of the Messiah.  I am here to prepare a straight path for the Lord.  My words are important, but only because they refer to the living Word of God.  I have no light of my own, but I do testify about the Messiah’s light and life.  When I baptize, it is with water.  The one who follows me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.  You ask who I am, so I’ll tell you:  I am the one whom God has sent to tell you people to take a bath and put on some clean cloths because the Messiah’s arrival is near at hand.”

Notice that John did not say that he was a “nobody”!  John did not say that he did not matter.  He never suggested that his role in God’s Kingdom was insignificant.  What he said was that he was subservient to the Messiah.  “I am not the Messiah!”  John said.  But that did not mean that he was a nobody.  John knew his place.  John knew his purpose.  John knew his identity.

Christian Herter was running hard for reelection as Governor of Massachusetts, and one day he arrived late at a barbecue given in his honor.  He had had no breakfast or lunch, and he was famished.  As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate and received one piece of chicken.  The Governor said to the serving woman, “Excuse me, do you mind if I get another piece of chicken.  I’m very hungry.”

“Sorry, I’m supposed to give one piece to each person,” the woman replied.  “But I’m starved,” he repeated.  Again, she said, “Only one to a customer.”

Herter, who was normally a modest man, decided that it was time to use the weight of his office to get another piece of chicken.  “Madam, do you know who I am?  I am the governor of this state.”

“Do you know who I am?” she answered.  “I am the lady in charge of chicken.  Now move along.”

That woman knew her position.  She was not going to be intimidated.  She might not be the Governor, but she was the woman in charge of the chicken.

“Who are you?”

One of the common themes throughout the scripture is that God has seen fit to entrust the significance of the Kingdom into everyday people – people like you and me.  Each of us has a place in God’s kingdom.  Nobody is worthless, insignificant, or unimportant to God.  Each of us has a place and a purpose.  Each of us has the joy of embodying and proclaiming the Advent of God.  Each of us has the joy of pointing people to the Messiah.

“Who are you?”

“I am a voice!”  John replied.  “I am a voice in the wilderness.  I am a voice that says what God tells me to say.  I am a voice preparing the path.  I am a voice announcing the good news that God is on the way.”  John found his identity as God’s servant and spokesperson.

“Who are you?”

Clarence Jordon once painted a picture of the church using farming language.  He said that the church was a demonstration plot for God’s kingdom.  A demonstration plot is stretch of land that the farmer devotes to a new crop.  It is a place where the farmer does something new, something different.  We are a demonstration plot for the world to see what it means to live in God’s Kingdom.  We are a community of faith that invites the world to join us in the joyful adventure of living under God’s grace.  We are a people whose identity is determined by the call of God.  We are peacemakers in a world of war and violence.  We are a people who reject greed and share generously.  We are the people who shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, comfort the bereaved, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, and proclaim the good news of God’s continued work of grace in the world.  We are people who incarnate (flesh out) the presence of Christ in the world, just as Jesus was the incarnation of God.  We are the “body of Christ.”

“Who are you?”

The prophetic poem from Isaiah that we read this morning comes from a collection commonly referred to in clergy circles as the “Servant Songs.”  What does the servant say in these poems?  The servant says, “God’s spirit is on me.  God is working in my life.  I am one who responds to God’s call by preaches good news to the poor.  I am one who binds up the broken hearted while proclaiming release to the captives.  I am one who comforts those who mourn.”

Who is this servant?  According to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth, he set the stage for the Kingdom by quoting these same verses.  When he finished the reading, he rolled up the scroll, looked out at the people and said, “This day in your hearing this passage of scripture has been fulfilled!”

Who is this servant?  Is it Jesus?  Well, yes and no.  Jesus certainly fulfilled this scripture in his life and ministry.  That said I am not sure it would be right to dismiss these words by saying that the prophet just writing about the Messiah.  He was also been writing about those who follow the Messiah.  He was writing about people like John the Baptizer.  He was writing about people like Paul.  He was writing about people like Mary and Martha.  He was writing about the Apostles and other followers of Jesus mentioned in the Bible.  He was writing about people like you and me.

“Who are you?”

“The Spirit of God’s is on you.  God is working in your life.  You are one called by God to preach good news to the poor.  You are one called by God to bind up the broken hearted.  You are one called to proclaim release to the captives.  You are one called by God to comfort those who mourn.”

“Who are you?”

One day a group of reporters was interviewing Mother Teresa.  One of the reporters asked her what motivated her to give her life away in such a noble work.  She said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of God.  God does the writing.”

Two thousand years ago, a man named John had an active preaching ministry in Judea.

“Who are you?” the people asked.

“I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way for the Lord.”

Two thousand years ago a man named Jesus read from a scroll the word of the Prophet Isaiah.  Then he said, “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing!”  Was he talking about himself?  Yes!  But he was also talking about those who would follow him,

“Who are you?”

Allow that question echo in your mind.  Do not dismiss it without thought.  Do not answer it prematurely.  It is the most important question you will ever be asked.  It is the most important question you will ever answer.

“Who are you?”

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