I want to take you on a short journey with me today. We are going to start in one place and end up in another.
I was searching through YouTube how-to videos this week to learn how to cut long hair into layers: for obvious reasons (pointing to his bald head). It’s amazing how many things one can learn on YouTube these days: how to cut hair, how to build a backyard shed, how train your dog or cat. You could also learn how to balance two forks on a toothpick or do a cartwheel, or make fifty-foot long paper mâché angels. Many of these things can be useful, or at least fun.
Yet if we’re not careful, we could also lose precious hours of these precious lives living vicariously through others instead of actually living out our own life’s purpose. And, in this new age of Social Media Influencers clamoring to gain sponsors for their next crazy stunt or to rent out mansions in Los Angeles so as to throw extravagant parties for their watchers to view via YouTube and other Social Media platforms, the message can all too easily morph from one person offering helpful or fun knowledge for others into an ongoing publicity stunt that mostly or entirely proclaims, “Look at who I am! Look at how great I am! Watch me! Watch me! Watch Me!”
This stands in stark contrast to a first century cultural influencer named John the Baptist, who in today’s gospel turns the attention away from himself and towards “The One” who is to come, who has come among them.”
The people wanted to lift John on high, to exalt him. They want to make John the next YouTube star of that region, asking him to tell them all about himself, and John says plainly, “I am not the Messiah.” The word “Messiah” means “anointed one,” mashiach in Hebrew, and was a designation that would have been given to someone like the prophet Elijah, as well as having the meaning of savior or deliverer of the Jewish people. Which makes it seem as though folks weren’t listening to John when he says he is not the messiah because they next ask him if he is the prophet Elijah come again as had been foretold. John says “no.” The focus is not on him.
They ask him who he is then, and John quotes the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord,” or “make straight the way for the Lord.” In other words, he is not the focus, merely called to help us all focus on The One.” John goes on to say, “I baptize with water, but there is one among you that you do not yet recognize, and I am not even worthy to tie his sandal.” John humbles himself, points the people away from himself and towards Jesus.
For John the Baptist, the question of who he is immediately pivots to a question of who John is sent to proclaim: The Messiah – Jesus who is come to take away the sin of the world.
How interesting! Let’s think about this for a moment. How different our lives and our self-image might come to be if, when we or others ask who we are, the response becomes to point to Jesus, to the Messiah. Who am I? There’s a better question! Who is this Jesus? And then, right on the heels of this question comes another question, which is, “how can my life participate in making a way in the wilderness for this Messiah?”
Not sure about any of you, but there’s plenty of wilderness when I look around in my life and this world. Plenty of brokenness and sin and messes no industrial dishwasher is going to touch. Broken relationships, mental health disease, messy tempers and people living on the streets, condescending politicians and, well, you fill in the blank.
But if the question of who I am, or who any of us are, is rooted not in me but in who the Messiah is, then finding a way through the wilderness is also not so much about me, but about allowing Jesus to take center stage in my life and lead the way. Make a way. That’s a relief. As the gospel of John will elsewhere refer to Jesus as “the way” this means that our identity can literally be about allowing the One who is the Way to make a way.
So, then, on this third Sunday of our Advent journey towards the manger, we are being given the opportunity to set aside our need to succeed and be popular in the world’s eyes, and follow John the Baptist’s lead. Let our identity be rooted in the One whom we proclaim as our Messiah, the Savior who will be born in Bethlehem and crucified on the cross, the One who sees our wilderness and is not daunted, but instead comes with humility to transform our stories by loving sacrifice.
Social media influencers and YouTubers will come and go. Jesus has staying power.
And today, we are being given a great opportunity to think about aligning our life’s purpose with our Savior’s way.
Thank you, John, for pointing us to Jesus.