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Advent III B 2008

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Theme: A case of mistaken identity

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, give us the understanding of the ministry of John the Baptist; help us to be clear about who he was and what his message means for us, so that, we may better understand the ministry of your son through whom we pray. Amen.

It was 1 PM on October 2nd in Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen answered her phone. The caller said that he was Barak Obama and he was calling to congratulate the Florida Republican on her reelection. When he said that he looked forward to working with her on the House Foreign Affairs committee, Ros-Lehtinen had enough.

She told him off saying that she wasn’t going to fall for the hoax, but complimented the caller that his imitation of the President-elect was better than that of Saturday Night Live’s. She then hung up on the caller.

She told the Miami Herald, “I thought it was one of the radio stations in South Florida playing an incredible, elaborate, terrific prank on me. They got Fidel Castro to go along. They've gotten Hugo Chavez and others to fall for their tricks. I said, ‘Oh, no, I won't be punked.’” (AP)

Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, then called to tell her it was no joke. She hung up on him too. Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called Ros-Lehtinen to convince her to take Obama’s call.

“When the two finally talked, Ros-Lehtinen said she and Obama had a good conversation and she congratulated him for his victory despite how hard she campaigned for his opponent, Sen. John McCain. He didn't even blame her for mistaking him for a radio-station prank, she said.

“’He laughed a lot, saying in Chicago they do it all the time,’ Ros-Lehtinen said. ‘He said, “I don't blame you for being skeptical.”’” (AP)

This was clearly a case of mistaken identity. I have, on a few occasions, been mistaken for someone else. I was shocked to see myself at the McCain-Obama town hall debate. Except, it was live and I was in our living room. I simply turned to Suzie to say that I didn’t know that I was going to participate at the debate.

It is easy to assume we know who someone is or is not. Once we get the idea in our head, it is hard to convince us otherwise. After all, we can see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. The Jewish authorities had some ideas about who John the Baptist was and sent a delegation out to confirm their assumptions. John became a victim of mistaken identity. The gospel writer, John, sets us right about who John the Baptist was.

God sent John to let people know about the light. Now this is not something that has to do with a switch on the wall. This is more like seeing the light. In other words, receiving a new recognition or understanding of something. Only this light is much more than an epiphany, it is also a person. He reflects the light that was created on the first day of creation.

John is letting people know who is coming so that when they see him they will say, “Aha, that’s the one John was talking about.” And when they “see the light,” they will come to faith. Now we have not seen Jesus. But we have “seen the light.” John is very explicit that John the Baptist is not the light. John the Baptist is only there to talk about the light that is to come.

Well, all this caused a stir in Judea and Jerusalem. The religious officials were very interested taking control of the situation. They wanted to know just who John thought he was saying what he was saying and baptizing people. After all, John didn’t get any special training. He never went to seminary. He isn’t certified and licensed by the state. Just who gave him permission to do what he is doing?

John let them know that he was not the messiah. They asked, “Then if not the messiah, then just who do you think you are? Are you Elijah or one of the prophets?”  The reason for the Elijah question was because there was thought in some quarters that the prophet Elijah would return to announce the coming of the messiah. You see, Elijah never died. He was whisked off to heaven on a flying chariot. And that is why there is speculation that Elijah would return. John denied being Elijah or any other prophet.

Running out of titles, they asked, “Who are you? We can’t go back empty handed. We need an answer. Who do you say that you are?” John refused to be buttonholed. The religious officials never tried engaging John in a dialogue. They immediately began pinning titles on John. John would not be stereotyped.

Now the peculiar thing is that after denying he is a prophet, John quotes the prophet Isaiah. John doesn’t give them a direct answer. Instead he quotes Isaiah. It is John who is the one Isaiah talked about crying in the wilderness calling people to make a straight path for God. John refuses to let the authorities put him in a box.

There were also some Pharisees in the delegation and they asked, “Why are you washing people, if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?” They made assumptions about John they were sure were correct. But they never talked with John. They only talked about John.

John’s answer was, “I wash with water. But there is someone with you, whom you do not know, the one who will take my place in this scene. I am not worthy to even untie his shoes.” All this took place in Bethany which is by the Jordan River where John was baptizing.

John the Baptist is the lead witness in a trial about the nature of Christ. Jesus is the word, the light, the messiah. The world is a dark place, but God is sending a light into the darkness. In this regard, John the Baptist is a signpost – one through whom we recognize the word and the light. John did not come to decorate for Christmas.

John came to prepare us for the way of the Lord. We cannot receive Jesus until we are prepared to receive Jesus. We can’t have Christmas until we are prepared for it. This is what Advent is about. The dark forces of this world are not as powerful as they appear. The darkness cannot stand up to the Word and the Light.

Advent is a time when we can ponder faith and hope. Faith is a radical trust in what God is doing – even when we have no idea what God is doing. John lives in the wilderness on a shoestring having faith that God will provide. The light is coming into the world and is indeed in the world and we only “see the light” with faith.

Hope easily falls into the trap of wants: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. I hope the plane doesn’t crash. I hope for a closer relationship with Jesus. I hope I can understand what Fr. Craig is talking about.” There is nothing wrong with these hopes, but they carry baggage. They imply that we don’t know what to expect from God. The only hope we have, especially in Advent, is that God will arrive, sweeping all the clutter away.

What do you hope for and in what or whom do you have faith?

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts give us the gift of humility so that we may remain open to your light and word without presuppositions; help us to replace our fears with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Associated Press contributed to this sermon.

Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28 (NRSV)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. [1]

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”g 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,h nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.


[1]  The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

g  Or the Christ

h  Or the Christ

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