One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:
- He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
- He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
- He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).
She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):
“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”
While this is John’s self-description, it is not a private or personal description. John is answering questions put to him in public, almost as if he was being questioned in a courtroom. The Fourth Evangelist uses the language of the courtroom to describe the interaction: “witness,” “interrogate,” and “testify.” This is a public declaration of personal identity. One striking thing about it is John’s humility.
“Who are you? . . . What do you say about yourself?” demand the Pharisees, but John deflects their questions and points beyond himself. “[There is] one . . . coming after me,” he says, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” We live in a culture where we are told to “succeed,” be the best, and to not settle for anything less than being “Number One.” John epitomizes something else. I think what John demonstrates is something C.S. Lewis wrote about:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (Mere Christianity, McMillan, New York:1960, page 114)
Contemporary Christian author Rick Warren paraphrased Lewis and describe the Baptizer when he wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” That’s not easy to do! Lewis continued:
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (Ibid.)
In making the first of the statements identified by Rippentrop, John “confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” Our filling in the blank in the statement, “I am not _____” aids us in emulating his humility.
Another striking thing about John and his testimony is its groundedness; his testimony is firmly rooted in his tradition, which is what his quotation from Isaiah is meant to show. I recently ran across this statement from the Global Young Reformers Network of the Lutheran World Federation about the place of Scripture in a Christian’s life:
To be a [Christian] today means to know that what we do and believe are firmly grounded in Scripture. The Bible is not a mystical object that only a select group should be allowed to interpret. It is an open book – ready to be used. To be grounded in Scripture means to value and to study biblical texts and to appreciate that there is always more to learn. The texts of the Bible teach us about God, about humans, about creation and about the relationships between them.
To be a [Christian] today means to make the old biblical texts meaningful for our daily lives while remaining faithful to the text. We are striving to make the Bible accessible for everyone without distorting the message in the process.
Scripture is empowering. Scripture is difficult. Scripture is funny. Scripture is challenging. Scripture is reassuring. Scripture is complicated. Scripture raises questions. Scripture provides us with answers. (Young Reformers)
When we follow the Baptizer’s example and, in our game of religious Mad-Libs, fill in the second of Ripentropp’s blanks – “This scripture will tell you something about me _________________” – we ground ourselves in our tradition, in the Scriptures, and in the Word of God to Whom John testified.
The third striking thing about John’s witness is that it is active. He didn’t just tell people what he thought, didn’t just share his opinion; he did something, “If you want to really know what I am about, you have to know that I do this,” he said, “I baptize people in token of their repentance.”
In his study of political terrorism, Luke Howie wrote: “Witnessing is far more than merely watching or seeing. Witnesses are never passive. Witnessing is active, performed and embodied, even when it occurs at a distance.” (Witnesses to Terror, Palgrave McMillan, Basingstoke, Hants:2012, page 155) Howie was particularly referring to witnessing as observation, but I believe his words also apply to witnessing as testimony. Effective testimony is never passive; it is active, performed, and embodied. As the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”
In 1859, a 35-year-old daredevil showman named Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope; he walked across on 1100-feet cable suspended 160 feet above the water. He did it not once, but numerous times and in various ways: blindfolded, on stilts, carrying things on his back, and sitting down midway to cook and consume an omelet. He made every cross without a problem.
One day, as the crowd gathered, he stepped onto the wire with an empty wheelbarrow and pushed it back and forth above the falls. After doing this several times, he stepped off the tight-rope and asked the crowd, “Who believes I can walk across this wire with a wheelbarrow?” Every hand went up; after all, they had just witnessed him do so.
While all the hands were still raised, he pointed at a young man in the front row and said, “Please, sir, get in the wheelbarrow.” Everyone, including that young man, quickly lowered their hands and the young man slipped away through the crowd rather than get in the barrow.
Although the man had witnessed Blondin successfully push that wheelbarrow back and forth across the falls on the high wire and was willing to say he could do so, he was unwilling to actively testify to what he had seen by riding in the barrow.
This story illustrates a real life picture of what active testimony is. The young man had watched these daring feats. He said he believed they could be done. But that was just talk; effective testimony requires action. It is action that gives testimony its power.
John believed in the coming of the Messiah and in the need for repentance to prepare for his coming. He testified to that belief by the public act of baptizing. “If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: ___________________________.”
In your own life, in your own witness to Jesus Christ, play this game of religious Mad-Libs, and carefully and prayerfully consider and complete these fill-in-the-blank statements:
“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _________________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: ___________________________________.”
And make your testimony public, humble, grounded, and active.
A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, Advent 3, RCL Year B, are Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; and St. John 1:6-8,19-28. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)