When I was at Wake Divinity, my Spirituality Professor Dr. Chris Copeland and I crossed paths on campus. He asked me a simple question: “How are you doing?, and in the whirlwind that is graduate school I responded with something flippant like “I’m good.” or “I’m okay.” expecting to continue wherever it was that I was headed. But instead, he stopped me and asked again…”how are you really doing? His question surprised me a bit, It surprised me that the addition of one word provided so much more significance and weight to the question I was being asked. It made me think more deeply about the answer to his question: I wasn’t good. I wasn’t even okay, really. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer less than a year earlier and he was aware…because I very publicly fell apart about it on a retreat panel he was leading a few months prior. “Better.” I told him more honestly. “Not great, but I’m seeing a therapist now which is helping.” Chris asked me how I was doing twice for a couple of reasons: first, it turns out, that he wanted to know my genuine answer and we’d had enough conversations over my time at Wake that he knew I trusted him enough to confide the pain in him. However, he being the most perceptive person I know, was also teaching me to actually check-in with myself more deeply and to work to verbalize what it was that I found there, even if it wasn’t pretty. He understood that I was deep in a wilderness journey and he was calling out to check-in on how I was coping. This was the first time, but it would not be the last.
Our gospel reading this morning brings us back to the early ministry of John the Baptizer. In fact, this is John’s very first testimony found in the gospel. The most powerful people in the land send the priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask what initially starts out as another fairly simple question: “Who are you?” Knowing who they had come from, John beats them to their own accusations, confessing who he is not, before they make him deny identities instead. John first confesses that he is not the Messiah, the priests and Levites ask again, “Are you Elijah?” John responds, “I am not.” Then they ask “Are you the prophet?” and John simply responds “no.” in frustration these powerful religious leaders speak plainly: “Who are you?” We have to give the Empire an answer. They needed to understand who this wild, disheveled, young upstart was, whether or not he was going to cause problems for them, It’s interesting how quickly the powerful religious authorities became concerned with the authority that John possessed and where it came from and so they ask “Who are you really?” John then digs in deeper, beyond surface level, and quotes the prophet Isaiah in his response: “ I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make effortless the way of the Lord.”
In order to get to that answer John first had to get past what he was not. John was not the Messiah, Elijah or the prophet. What he was, was a witness, one who was there to point the way to the One who was the Messiah. Someone that the priests and the Levites did not know, but that John did and long before he began his ministry in the wilderness, in fact he knew before he was even born. You see, this young, wild, disheveled, upstart was John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the cousin of Jesus This was John, who when Mary went to Elizabeth after the Angel Gabriel’s visit and Christ’s birth was foretold, lept in the womb of his mother, whereupon she was filled with the Holy Spirit.
In spite of all of that knowledge John begins his ministry with a sense of humility, and that humility only gave his message further reach. It requires us to examine our own answers to the question “who are you really? Who are you when the walls are down, when it’s just you and God?
In a different retreat I attended with my spirituality professor a few months after he checked-in, Chris divided us into pairs and had us sit knee to knee and to look into each other’s eyes without breaking eye contact. The rules for the exercise were that one person would ask a single question, the other would answer, and the first would respond with a neutral “thank you.” The thing was that the first person would ask the same question over and over and over for a full 5 minutes and each time you were asked your answer had to be different. At first answers came easily: “I’m a daughter.” “I’m a sister.” “I’m a theatre lover.” but it didn’t take long before the answers got deeper. “I’m someone who doesn’t have it together all the time no matter how hard I try to hide it.” “I’m someone whose trust in God and in people has been broken.” It was scary to say aloud, but it was also liberating to admit such things to myself. John doesn’t make false claims about who he is or what his purpose is. He makes no grand promises he can’t fulfill, he knows he cannot guarantee a life of ease for his listeners. Instead he tells those who come to him to prepare for the One greater than himself.
Once we begin to answer the question “Who am I really?” we can get a better sense of where we fit. In a world where the spotlight tends to shine on us in praise for our own accomplishments, do we choose instead to be a voice that cries out in the wilderness to help others find their way? Do we admit that we can’t do it all, that we’re vulnerable, fallible, and don’t have it all together, and that as the Church we shouldn’t expect anyone else to either?
The Third Sunday of Advent is referred to as Gaudete Sunday, where we light the candle of joy. In a time where churches in the Synod are closing their buildings again in response to rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, it can be difficult to find the joy this year, but to quote one theologian “Joy surprises us when we decide to forge paths in the wilderness, when we make way in difficult places for someone other than ourselves.” And that is something that happens outside of our church buildings, which brings me great joy today. So who are you really? Who are you as you await the Advent of Christ’s birth?