Have you ever been a witness? I mean a real, live, actual legal witness? Like in a courtroom?
I have. Years ago, I was on a church summer trip with a bunch of the young people from my congregation when they witnessed a crime. They did the right thing, and reported it, and the individual they saw commit the crime was eventually arrested, and his case went to court. 3 of the youth in our group were called to be witnesses. Even though I didn’t see the actual crime, I too was called to be a witness, because they were on a church trip when they saw what they saw, and because I knew them.
I sat in the stand and was asked “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” I do.
The Minnetonka City Attorney asked me my name and my address. He asked me where I was from. He asked me my role at the church. He asked me about how long I’d worked there. He asked about my educational background, he asked about how well I knew these 3 young people who would testify, and he asked me to say something about each of them. And then they asked me: “What did you see?” “Well, nothing really. I was talking to some different kids about 30 feet away. I didn’t actually see the crime.” “Thank you, you can be seated.” I was on the stand for probably 12 minutes. 11 minutes were about me…and 1 minute was about what happened.
When I asked the city attorney later why I was even on the stand, he said “first the jury needed to get to know and trust you. Once they knew you, then you could help them get to know the young people who were going to testify. Your role was to build trust.”
From that experience, I learned that be a witness, is to be a trusted voice.
John, from our Gospel story, is most frequently known as “John the Baptist,” because that’s what he did; he baptized people. But in this Gospel’s version of the story, John doesn’t function as a “baptizer.” Today, I’d call him: “John the Witness.” Because John testifies…with a trusted voice, he tells what he’s seen. He simply tells the truth. John testifies to the Messiah, to the light, coming into the world. John is, as Dr. Karoline Lewis has written, “a very human witness, to a very cosmic event.”
And much like when I was seated in that witness stand, the Pharisees ask John questions about who he is. But John is cagey.
“Who are you?” they asked. “I am not the Messiah” he replied.
Are you Elijah? Nope.
Are you the prophet? Uh-uh.
And then he explains: “I am just the one who points you towards Messiah. I am just the prelude. I am the appetizer. I am the pre-game warm up. I am the one who introduces the Savior.”
I think we can learn a lot from John…and I’m not talking about his wardrobe or his dietary preferences.
First, we learn that those who follow Jesus, do so by pointing to him. You see, for John, “the Witness,” it was never about him. Quite the opposite, in fact. John could have been a rock star. He could have been famous. People wanted to follow him. But John has zero-interest in making this about himself, to the point that when the Pharisees kept asking him his name, he just kept answering by telling them who he was not:
- Not the Messiah
- Not Elijah
- Not the prophet
- “I’m not the guy!”
It’s actually really refreshing. John is simply a witness. He was there to be that trusted voice, to bear witness to what he has seen. And there is something about John that we just like: Maybe it’s his humility. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention. And it is easier for us to like and to trust people who think of others first, instead of themselves.
This is very different than the world we live in. We live in a world where self-expression and self-aggrandizement are encouraged, promoted, and even demanded. Our culture idolizes the rich, the famous and the powerful. We love our athletes, and our celebrities. We see too many politicians who believe that they are the only person who can do the job. And we live during a distinctly ego-centric, if not full-on narcissistic, time.
Oh my gosh, what a refreshing change to hear someone say, “It’s not about me! I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not the messiah…”
The second thing we learn from John, is that it’s ok to be honest about who we are, and how we feel.
Dr. David Lose writes that John is “…just exactly what God called him to be: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, someone destined to prepare the way for another, a person called to point others to Jesus. And that’s enough. Being himself, is all that John needs to be.”
I have a friend who last spring took a social media sabbatical. She took a month off. I was curious, so I asked her what was up with that. “Too many election posts? Too much divisiveness?” “Well, partially,” she said. “But even more, I didn’t like who I was becoming. I realized that my life didn’t look like my online profile. I was putting up a front. I wasn’t being honest, and it was chipping away at my soul.”
My friend is right. It can be hard to be honest.
Did you know that on Instagram, there are 25 different filters we can choose from, to make the picture, just “perfect.” Even on Zoom, we can choose the “touch me up” option to de-emphasize facial blemishes. We don’t have to be who we are, we can be who we think others want us to be.
It can feel like we’re stuck on some kind of hamster wheel, chasing something…this ideal version of ourselves that we can never reach. And it can be exhausting – to the point that spikes in anxiety and depression can be traced causally to time spent on social media.
And then along comes John the Witness, who just tells us the truth: “No, I’m not the messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet. I am just some dude trying to do what I believe God called me to do.” What-you-see-is-what-you-get. And John was totally at peace. He was confident. He knew who he was, he knew whose he was, and he knew his role.
John’s word for us is an invitation…it is an invitation to revel in God’s acceptance of us, and God’s call to us, just as we are.
With no stories…no airbrushing…no filters.
I have a friend named Sarah, who is an ELCA pastor I really respect. She and her family live in San Diego. Sarah has a 9-year old daughter, named Zoe. Zoe is awesome. And Zoe is honest about who she is, and where she is at, in a way that only 9 year olds can be. Zoey created a chart to explain how she’s feeling. Sarah posted it online. I love it.
It ranges from “Not exactly happy” at the bottom, through:
- Mildly worried
- Very unsettled
- Purely scared
- Really afraid
- High sweat level
- High alert
- Really paranoid
- And it caps out at “Total Freakout.”
Now to be fair, after Zoe created this, she did create other charts, with other ranges of emotions too. But this chart was her brilliant way of being honest about herself, and where she’s at. During a time of pandemic, and distance learning, and shut-downs, and all that goes with it, Zoe can point to this chart and in doing so she is able to say “this is who I am today…and that will have to be enough.”
So here’s my question for you: “Where do you find yourself on Zoe’s chart today? Be honest.”
I think we could all learn from Zoe’s example, and for that matter, from John, the Witness. They are both very comfortable in his own skin. They are both, very honest. I want to be like Zoe. I want to be like John.
And John is being a totally honest witness when he points straight to Jesus. “This is simply what I saw: Jesus, the Light of the World.”
John’s reminder is that Jesus loves you. And I believe that at this particular, and odd time in our world, this is the word of honesty, hope and love that we need to hear more than anything else:
- Jesus loves you, warts, blemishes, flaws and all.
- Jesus love you no matter how effective or ineffective you feel.
- Jesus loves you no matter how exhausted you are.
- Jesus loves you regardless of any status that you do, or don’t have.
- Jesus loves you no matter where you put yourself on Zoe’s chart of feelings: from mildly worried, to total freakout.
Jesus loves you. No filters necessary. And John reminds us that we can be so confident in that love, so rooted in our identity, and so assured of a future that is in God’s hands that we can let go of all these things we do to look or feel good about ourselves. And we can find joy in who God created us to be!
Because It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. And you can point to him with honesty and integrity. Because of Jesus, you are enough. Just like John, you too have this story to tell. You too can be the trusted voice.
Hear John’s words today. Know that it is all about Jesus, and only Jesus. Know that Jesus light shines and that in that light, God sees you completely, flaws and all. And know that despite that, God’s great love comes to you, because of this baby…this Messiah…Christ the Lord.
And know that just as you are, you are enough. No filters.
Thanks be to God!