A reflection for Sunday 17th December 2023 Advent III by the Rev'd David Warnes

“Who are you?”  It’s the key question in today’s Gospel. If we look at the Gospel carefully, we can deduce the tone of voice in which that question was put to John the Baptist. The Gospel calls John’s answer his “testimony” and tells us that John “confessed” and “did not deny”. This is the kind of language we associate with the Sheriff Court. John is being cross-examined. 

“Who are you?” It’s a question about identity. For some people, identity is something constructed from a set of personal choices, a rather consumerist notion of what it is to be human and a dangerously individualistic one, for it can lead to people asserting as “my truth” what is, in reality, their opinion. 

For other people identity, is about membership of a group, a race or a nation and much of the current conflict and tension in the world arises out of that way of thinking. 

What might a Christian answer to the question “Who are you” be? John the Baptist points us in the right direction.

John’s first answer to that question was a negative – “I am not the Messiah”. They then tried to fit him into two other pigeon-holes – “are you Elijah? and “Are you the Prophet?” they ask. John says a definite “No” to those versions of his identity. And then we clearly hear the frustration of the priests and Levites. 

“Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

What do you say about yourself? That’s an invitation to define his identity in terms of his own individual choices. And John the Baptist refuses to do that. His answer is extraordinary – he quotes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It’s as though he is saying “You are asking the wrong question. Don’t focus on me, don’t focus on what I think about myself, focus on what I am saying.” Or, to put it another way, “don’t stand there looking at me – I’m a signpost. Look in the direction to which I am pointing.” 

And that is prophetic, for the Hebrew prophets’ vocation was to point people towards God, sometimes in warning mode and sometimes, as in the case of today’s glorious reading from Isaiah, to give them hope, to remind them of the resources with which God will bless them if they are receptive.

John the Baptist points his questioners towards Jesus, not naming him but referring to him as 

“…the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 

It’s a very humble statement, but it has none of the weakness that we often, wrongly, think of when we think about humility. It’s the statement of a person so confident in what he’s called to do that he doesn’t feel any need to draw attention to himself, or to accept any of the labels that other people want to tie on him. 

John points us towards a Christian concept of identity. The voice, he suggests, is not something to be used for self-definition or for self-assertion. He uses his voice to proclaim the identity of Jesus. What John the Baptist does and says is shaped by his understanding of who Jesus is. 

As we proceed through the Christian year that began two weeks ago, we will be having a refresher course about who Jesus is and about what that shows us about who God is. We all need that refresher course, for we are all tempted to take shortcuts when it comes to defining our answer to the question “Who are you?”

A truthful answer to that question has to be that we don’t yet fully know who we are but that we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of a God who is unceasingly mindful of us, who seeks to draw us into true authenticity and who offers us the resources of love and faithfulness that can make that possible. That is an offer which we are only able to accept by being mindful of God. 

That’s the point that Paul is making in his letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica. The mindfulness of God of which he writes isn’t easy

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances...”

That sounds impossible, but Paul reminds his readers and us that God is the source of all the resources which can make that possible.

“May the God of peace sanctify you entirely.”

In saying that, he is echoing Isaiah’s promise that:

“…the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In today’s readings, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul offer us signposts, showing us where our attention should be fixed. In following their direction, we aren’t embarking on some sort of self-awareness or self-improvement plan. There’s more to mindfulness of God than the secular versions of mindfulness, the fixing of one’s attention on one’s breathing or on other sensory experiences, helpful though that may be. To be mindful of God is to accept our own vocation to be signposts, pointing those who feel forgotten towards the God who remembers them and who unreservedly loves them.