December 15, 1996 – 3 Advent B
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
From the gospel according to St. John we hear this question: “Who are you?” From the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians we hear this characterization of God: “the one who calls you is faithful.” And from the prophet Isaiah we hear from that faithful God, “I will make an everlasting covenant”. Each one of us is called by God with this question: “Who are you?”, God is faithful and persistent in that calling and, through the process of God asking and us discovering who we are, God establishes an everlasting covenant.
John the Baptist is asked the question of a lifetime in our gospel lesson. The question as we hear it comes from the people who want to know who he is. What’s most interesting to me is that the question the people ask directly reflects the question that John has been dealing with in his own life up to this point. Who am I? What is my purpose here? What am I to be about? John tells the people what he has discovered about himself in that process, that he is to point the way to the light of the world.
You and I struggle with this question throughout our lives: “who are we?” In Columbia, where I grew up, there was a children’s television show called the Mr. Knozit Show. Each week there was a new group of young children there in the studio with their first chance to be on TV and Mr. Knozit would always take the microphone around and ask each of the children, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The children would dream and fantasize and the parents would watch with smiles.
That same question stays in our minds as we grow through childhood and it reaches a fevered pitch as we extend our education into college or the beginning of our work lives: What are we going to be? Who are we? Younger people may be surprised to know that the question continues to come up for us even in our adult years: What are we going to be? God’s call to us in this question of who we are really never ends. It is an ongoing part of life. It’s not a question we solve once and never face again. Even those of us who love what we do have to struggle with the same question as we seek to have our work lives and our inner lives come more closely in tune with each other. Circumstances change in life almost daily and each new part of life brings afresh the question of who I am in this new circumstance. It is a constant struggle this question, “Who am I?” It involves not only what we do but how we do it. It’s not just a career question. It is a faith question that is repeatedly given to us.
John the Baptist, you will note, starts by telling the people who he is not. I am not the Messiah, he tells them. I’m not the light. I’m not a prophet. Discovering who we are not is one of the first and more important steps along the way of discovering who we are. Children start that process when they say, “I want to be a fireman”, or “I want to be a ballerina”. We dream out loud and test out how that sounds to us. You really have to consider all your interests in order to figure out who you are and what you want to be. If that sounds like trial and error that’s because it really is just that. We pursue our call by trying things out to see how they feel and paying close attention to what happens. God calls us through our ability to make free choices and to make good choices one has to pay attention.
Sometimes just naming possibilities lets us know what we don’t want to be. But sometimes it takes actually doing it for a while to see that we don’t want to do that. I had to teach tennis and string a lot of rackets to discover I didn’t want to be a tennis pro. I had to wait on tables to discover that I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business. Much to my parents’ dismay I had to grow a ponytail in order to realize I didn’t want a ponytail.
College students try out courses, sometimes much to their parents’ dismay. They are discovering as much what they don’t want to be in that process as they are discovering what they do want to be. Parents would do well to remember that, when our children try things that threaten us. While we aren’t to tolerate everything, we could trust God’s ability to guide our children through this process. Finding out what I don’t like helps me find out what I do like.
The ritual of dating in high school and beyond is that process working itself out in relationships. My sister brought home some horrible people in high school. She was testing her limits, and my parents’ limits as well. John the Baptist begins answering the question, “who are you?”, by saying who he is not.
And he is led by God to the discovery of who he is. I am the voice, he comes to find out, the voice preparing the way. His statement is one of clarity and assuredness. He knows well who he is as we find him in this morning’s lesson.
Most of us yearn for that kind of clarity and assuredness in life. The process of asking, “who am I?”, is hard and frightening. Most of us resist it because we are so uncomfortable with not being able to get the answer right now. Confusion is perhaps the hardest part of this question that God asks John the Baptist and you and me when he asks, “Who are you?”
Last week we read in the second letter of Peter, “With God one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” Confusion makes one day seem like a thousand years. When clarity comes, all the pain of the confusion seems to disappear and the thousand years seems only like a day. At those times, we discover a little about God’s time.
A lesson for us to hear today is that confusion is usually necessary in order for clarity to come. Clarity is a gift, it is not something we can make happen. Clarity comes from God and it will come from God when we are ready for it. Until then we will be confused and we will either accept it as part of the process or we will butt our heads up against it until we are bloodied and exhausted. You can’t make clarity. God makes clarity and gives it as a gift. But gifts come in their own time. When you are confused, trust that this is where you need to be for the time being. It may help you to remember that you won’t be confused forever. In fact, the more you accept your confusion, the less time you will spend there, the more quickly the gift of clarity will come.
Many times, when we are confused, we get a little desperate. We buck against that confusion as if it were a thing to destroy and break down. I believe it is true that confusion in itself is actually a gift. It is God telling me that right now is not the time to make a major decision. Wait for the time that is right. When I don’t know what to say, maybe I shouldn’t say anything. When I don’t know what to do, maybe I shouldn’t do anything. Wait for clarity. It will come because God is faithful in his calling to us.
All of us are called by God, not just people we think of as holy. Remember that we are all holy people by virtue of our creation by the Father, our redemption by the Son, our sanctification by the Holy Spirit. We are all called. In that call we must first find out who we are not and we must accept periods of confusion, trusting that God will give us clarity right when we are ready to have it. You don’t give a bicycle to a child who is just learning to crawl. God won’t give us clarity until we’re ready to ride.
When we receive that gift it is the establishment of an everlasting covenant God makes with all his faithful people. All our lessons today go together to remind us that we are called and that clarity will come and that it will be worth the wait. God calls us. God is faithful. And God will create that covenant with us.