Who do you think you are?

Who do you think you are?

It’s a pretty crucial question: who do you think you are? The leaders in Jerusalem dispatch messengers to ask John, the prophet covered in camel fur, eating locusts and wild honey. John has attracted quite the following. Even some of the elite have caught religion, that dangerous itch. The man can preach.

“Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us?”

There’s a subtle disbelief to their question, it’s there in the tone, in the background. They’re really asking: “who do you THINK you are?”

Of course John’s answer would be charged. Remember, Jerusalem is occupied by the Roman army. Prophesy told of one who would come, who would restore power to the Jewish people. Prophesy told of a child to be born in the line of David. Prophesy pointed to the anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah.

Is that who you THINK you are John?

As we burn the pink candle, this third Sunday of Advent, let’s talk for a moment about prophets, about prophesy.

I’ve said before, it’s cm important we understand what prophecy is, and what it is not in the Bible. Often, I think, we associate “prophecy” with “fortune telling.” We imagine prophets were folks who could tell the future.

But a true Biblical prophet is not a fortune teller. That’s not what the Bible means by prophecy. The prophetic gift isn’t the power to see the future: it is about the power to see the present. A prophetic leader can take an honest look at the times at hand.

Prophecy is not about prognostication. Prophecy isn’t about guessing the future correctly. A prophetic word is a word about today. A prophetic word tells a truth about today in a way that can make a difference tomorrow.

Or, if you’re John the Baptist, a prophet might be someone who turns the question around on the messengers. John says essentially, “Me, I’m nobody. There’s still another to come.”

The messengers are left stuck. If they go back to the leaders in Jerusalem without an answer, they’re in trouble. We don’t hear their voices. We get the sense they know they’ve been beat. Because John has said, essentially, “I’m not the one that matters. Who do you think YOU are?”

This late in December, the inevitable articles start coming out, the “Year in Review.” This year those articles are full of adjectives. This is a “difficult,” a “strange,” a “tragic,” even, and I’d dispute this one, but I’ve seen it, an “unprecedented” year in review. Then they go on to show pictures of political moments, or movie stills, or fashion trends.

I’d like to see an article titled: “the year of questions.”

  • Will we ever go back into the office full-time? Or was investing in commercial real estate a bad idea?
  • How will we help our kids, all our kids, catch up to grade level after all this Zoom school?
  • When we can someday do it safety, how many folks will be back in church for worship? (I’m hoping more than you’d guess. Yeah, Sunday morning in your pajamas is nice, about twice as many people are worshiping with us this way than used to come on an average Sunday. But online worship isn’t a real substitute for standing together, gathering around this table). I’m holding questions:

There are deadly serious questions as well this year:

  • How will we reshape our broken healthcare system?
  • How will we mark 300,000+ lives lost?

This has been a year of questions, difficult questions. I wonder what questions you are wrestling with, what questions are running over in your mind even as I’m talking.

Don’t worry, by the way. If you’ve gone off on your own train of thought. Enjoy the ride. I once heard our presiding bishop say, the most important sermon isn’t whatever the preacher has to say. The most important sermon is the sermon the hearers are preaching to themselves. So I wonder what questions you are wrestling with. I’d be happy to hear them. You can put questions in the comments as you watch, or email me later.

I can’t promise I know any answers. I can promise I’ll pray with you.

See, I think a lot of the big questions we are facing this year are spiritual questions, they are even, dare I say, religious questions. Because they are rooted in the big big question: who do we THINK we are?

I want to offer that this question is critically important to people of faith. It’s a question we need to ask at this point in Advent. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself these days.

In case you need these words, like I need these words, ask yourself. Who do you think you are?

Christmas does not rely on you. No matter how much work you put into perfect presents, to arranging Zoom meetups that will work for all your family members and their children’s sleep schedules, no matter how many cookies you bake, meals you prepare, hours of work you cram in before the end of the fiscal year, Christmas does not rely on you.

John knew what his job was, and what is job wasn’t.

Christmas belongs to God. The story belongs to God. The work is God’s not ours.

False narratives are for sale all over the place. But Christmas wasn’t ever ours to win. You can’t win Christmas.

Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah: Good news to the poor. Bind up the brokenhearted. Release to the captives. Liberation for prisoners. Comfort those who morn. I, the Lord, love justice.

Christmas isn’t about presents or some ideal of family. Christmas doesn’t need to be defended.

Maybe this Christmas, when so little of what we depend on is possible, we can make room to ask the question. Who do we think we are?

Maybe, if we find ourselves working a little too hard to make the ABSOLUTE BEST, of this awful year we can rely a little bit less on ourselves, and a little bit more on God.

God knows we need to let go a bit. You can only push your way through for so long. So many of us are tired. And this virus is getting worse. We’ve got more folks with family members in the hospital than I’ve ever known in my ministry. And I can’t go visit. All I can do is pray. I’m reminded daily that I am not in charge. I don’t like the reminders.

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying: “you can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Small things with great love: wear your mask. Send the text or the card to the friend, co-worker or cousin who might need it. Pray. Small things with great love may be a healthier distillation of Advent than the narrative our world offers, asking us to muscle the best holiday we can. Small things with great love could certainly be a tag line for John the Baptizer.

“Who do you think you are?” I can imagine John with his big beard and wild hair smiling in response: “great question, but you’re asking the wrong person.”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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