What Do You Say About Yourself?
A Meditation on John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 17, 2017
I was re-recording the out-going message on my phone the other day…which made me think about how uncomfortable it is to listen to the sound of your own voice. I hope that people like Merryl Streep or Morgan Freeman appreciate their vocal abilities. I trust there are famous singers who recognize the beauty of their gift. But I remember that shock of discovering that my voice didn’t sound to others as it does to me.
And I wonder, how John the Baptizer’s voice sounded to his own ears. I wonder how the words he preached echoed in his own head, in his own heart. I hear humility and honesty and a hunger for salvation for all God’s people. Oh, to walk in his way…
I called Theater Tuscaloosa the other day to get tickets for a show, and one of our elders, Adam Miller answered, using his best professional “phone voice.” Probably many of us have those – they are distinct from our conversational voices. I have a phone voice, too, and sometimes some of you don’t recognize me when you call the church and I answer the phone. But that might also be because you don’t expect to hear my voice; you expect to hear Angelica’s, and a different voice throws you off.
That was the experience that some of the religious leaders had when they heard John the baptizer’s voice. They couldn’t place it. They needed to identify it, to understand it, to name it.
“So, are you the Messiah?” “No.”
“Are you Elijah?” “No.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
“Then who?? What do you say about yourself?”
When they were finished trying to guess who John the Baptizer was, he told them. He said, “I am just a crying voice. I am one shouting voice, one voice in the wilderness.” A voice calling out in the desolate places of our world, the broken places in our lives, to invite us into the comfort of God’s arms. John could have added, “if we have ears to hear.”
The gospel opens with “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Word and voice. Word coming to us in the form of a human being, in the form of Jesus. But before that Word begins to unfold before us, a voice calls out to help us prepare. Just an everyday, ordinary voice.
Which is great news! Because we are all capable of being a voice like John. What did John do? He invited people to join him in renewing their commitment to walk in God’s ways. He invited them to soften their hearts, to clean out their ears, to wash off the dirt that clung to their skin, so that they could encounter God in a new way. He invited them to receive God’s comfort!!
So while it is good news that each of us is capable of participating in this ministry, there is a flip side. Being a voice that proclaims God’s justice and mercy is sacrificial, vulnerable and dangerous work.
As a voice for God’s liberating justice, John chose to live a life of simplicity. His diet and clothing defined him. He wore the outfit of earlier prophets, animal skins and leather belts. Whenever I reread about what he ate and what he wore, I can’t help but think, “that’s weird.” It seems that it struck the people of John’s day as a little weird, too. Though a great source of protein, locusts don’t appear in any of Jesus’ feasting stories. He doesn’t change lamb into locusts at a wedding banquet or multiply locusts (God forbid) in order to feed 5,000 people. But it does seem that John, as the proverb goes, “lived simply so that others might simply live.” John’s was an embodied faith that challenges us to consider how our faith influences our lifestyle choices. Sacrificial work.
And vulnerable work. Can’t you hear the people whispering about John? Look at those people who come down to the Jordan just so they can say they’ve seen him. People of power and influence. They talk about his funny clothes, and unkempt hair. They wonder if he is sane, or if there’s something “not quite right” about him. They wonder what’s happened to his family… And they wonder why he thinks he has the right to claim Isaiah’s words, why he thinks he is a voice in the wilderness. To be a voice is to expose yourself and your beliefs. Did he lose friends in this process? Did he alienate some while welcoming others? Being a voice is vulnerable work.
And dangerous work. John would lose his life for being a truth teller. For speaking truth to power, his head would be placed on a platter. His life would became a pawn in a game played by his family members, a game in which God could not intervene. God could not intervene, but God could weep. And God would weep again over the death of Jesus, and the deaths of the apostles, and so many martyrs who have raised their voices to profess their faith in a God of mercy and justice. Such dangerous work.
It is not enough, as John knew, to be able to say what we are not. We must know what we are, what we truly believe. Martha Spong, writing for The Christian Century , asks, “How often do we define ourselves in the negative? There’s a tendency among moderate-to-progressive Christians to differentiate themselves from more conservative folk by describing themselves as “not that kind of Christian.” I understand and even sympathize, but a negative definition cannot describe us in full—and it certainly will not offer an invitation to the person asking the question. Wherever we may find ourselves on the theological spectrum, we need to work out a different kind of answer to the question. Who are we? In this age of easy labeling, we may be reluctant to say.
This truly resonated with me, as I reflected back over our Senate race. I have many problems with Moore’s interpretation of Christianity, but in the days since the election, I have resented Moore’s continued appropriation of Christianity as an exclusive club only open to straight people. I want the world to know that in our church and in churches throughout Alabama, a different message is being preached, a different voice cries out in the wilderness. I pray Moore might hear this message, too.
If someone came to you and asked you, “What do you say about yourself?” what would your answer be? Beyond your career or your education or your family or your hobbies, what would you say about yourself? Could you say with John, “I am a voice.”? Could you say with John, “I am a voice calling out in the wilderness?” A public, professing voice? My mother was really big on “faith is private.” “Faith is between you and God.” While I understand why she felt this way, I still troubles me. I don’t believe in shoving the Gospel down anyone’s throat, but we are called to be a “voice,” in our words and our actions. I can talk to myself all day long, but frankly, I’ve already heard the good news…I need to be a voice!
What do you say about yourself? I know what you say, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness!” Despite the risk, despite the dangers, despite the vulnerable places in which it requires you to walk, you are voice! I have watched you make sacrifices in order to live lives that are genuine, and that commitment preaches God’s justice. I have watched you invite someone you just met to come and visit our church, and your boldness preaches God’s welcome. I have watched you feed and care for the vulnerable in our community, and your compassion preaches God’s mercy.
Your voices rise in powerful ways, proclaiming God’s good news. Don’t grow weary in doing what is right. But on this day, as we proclaim God’s comfort, receive this blessing:
Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light
Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
Blessed are you
the light lives,
the brightness blazes—
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
– Jan Richardson
Thanks be to God, Amen.