Who Are You?: A Sermon by Pastor Bob

“And isn’t that what God wants? For us to be successful? For our identity to be found in such success: family, security, a nice home and rewarding career? Surely God is blessing us for what we do to better our loved ones and ourselves.”

Who are you?

A sermon by Pastor Bob

December 11, 2011

Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28

John 1:6-8, 19-28

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. …

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

–Who are you?

–When someone asks you this, there are usually three common answers:

–First: “My name is so-and-so.”

–Second: I do such-and-such for a living: “I’m a doctor or lawyer, or I’m raising a family, or recently retired.”

–And third (depending on the tone of the voice asking): “It’s none of your business!”

–Now as we look at our gospel reading this morning, you kind of feel sorry for the guy that has to go ask John the Baptist who he is.

–Just imagine, you cast the short lot in Jerusalem, and are assigned to go find out if there is any truth to the rumors that the man covered in camel’s hair and snacking on locus and wild honey just may be the Messiah, the very hope of Israel.

–Thankfully, other priests and Levites accompany you, but then once again, you are the one chosen to go wade into the waters and ask him, “Who are you?”

–So there you are, waiting patiently for an answer, trying to look priestly and everything, while your clothes are soaking up the Jordan River like a sponge.

–And finally, after a pause in the submersions, this very wet Baptizer looks at you and simply says, “I am not the Messiah.”

–“Oh no,” you say to yourself. “This guy isn’t going to give me a break. I have to guess who he is?”

–“Elijah?”you ask hopefully.

–No.

–“A prophet.”

–Nope.

–This is not going well.

–By now, you have followed him ashore, and your other colleagues are getting agitated.

–They, too, press this unmovable person who says he is neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor a prophet.

–They ask him: “What do you say about yourself?”

–And then emerges words straight from Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

–Great. That helps a lot.

–But before you can ask another question, the Baptizer continues with the ominous words that he is here only to prepare the way for another.

–Someone whose sandals he is not worthy of untying.

–Now, I’ve taken a little liberty in interpreting this gospel scene for us this morning. But questions of identity not only run throughout the gospels, but shape our everyday lives.

–One of the first things we learn is our name.

–We hear our name long before we completely understand what it means.

–We hear it in the facial expressions of our family members as they smile and play with us.

–And over the months of (remarkable!) development, we absorb the reality that these sounds help us and others identify who we are.

–But what if you don’t really like your name?

–What if you want to change it at a later age?

–Have you ever noticed that making such a change is not so easy, particularly around people who have known you your whole life?

–I remember when my Uncle Rob started work down in Oklahoma, and began dating the women whom he would eventually marry.

–Suddenly, my beloved Uncle Rob, the one who taught me how to fish and play baseball, had the nerve to begin calling himself, “Bob.”

–Bob. Bob! How could he do that to us? To me?

–He’s my Uncle Rob, not Bob.

–Uncle Rob would spend endless hours taking me to ballgames and playing pool in downtown O’Neill, Nebraska.

–Who was this Bob character? Were we even related?

–But to my horror, the people he worked with, his wife and kids and close friends … all started to call him Bob.

–His identity evolved—and so did the people around him.

–By the way, I still call him Rob. Uncle Rob.

–Now if our name—a few random words chosen at the beginning of our life—helps shape who we are, how much more are we defined by what we do in our life?

–Sports, crafts, music, dance, schooling, jobs—and the biggie: relationships.

–Surely these things that we do make us who we are.

–As the saying goes, our actions speak louder than our words.

–A good friend shows how much they care.

–Hard work makes us an invaluable employee.

–We parent by example more than by just what we say we will do.

–So, if who we are is what we do, then life becomes a rather simple calculation.

–The more I do (especially for others), the better I am.

–If I work harder, I will be a better person.

–If I buy flowers, vacuum the carpets and don’t forget my anniversary, then I should be good to go.

–Yeah. It seems simple.

–Infuse a Puritan work ethic into the whole of our lives.

–And in reality, such a strategy is often quite successful, especially financially.

–And isn’t that what God wants?

–For us to be successful?

–For our identity to be found in such success: family, security, a nice home and rewarding career?

–Surely God is blessing us for what we do to better our loved ones and ourselves.

–We hear about this all the time on television and online.

–Many books are written by many successful people who just want you and I to be just as successful.

–It makes you kind of successful just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

–Knowing that with a sure-fired plan life will be better, if we just get a good night’s sleep, and work a little harder, maybe eat more vegetables.

We are what we do.

–This works well most of the time.

–Until we lose our job.

–Until a long-time friendship dissolves or we prematurely lose someone.

–Until our home is in foreclosure,

–Until, until, until.

–Until we realize, that there is more to life than just what we do.

–That who we really are is more than the sum of our actions.

–As anyone knows, you can spend years and years working to build something only to lose it, or them, or yourself.

–The equation of success is equally the equation of despair.

–So, I ask you this morning, “Who are you really?”

–John the Baptist answered this question by framing his identity in terms of another.

–Sure, he had a great name, a name that struck fear and awe in those who heard it.

–And certainly he always kept himself busy; there was always more work for John to do.

–But when the priests and Levites and Pharisees challenged his identity, he simply pointed to the one whom he had spent his whole life preparing for.

–The Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God.

–It was in this Christ that John the Baptist found ultimate meaning and ultimate identity.

–John’s words and actions, which would by almost any definition be labeled as bizarre and perhaps even crazy by today’s standards, were founded and fed by a God who called him and loved him for who he was.

–Friends, we are God’s beloved.

–We are loved for who and what we really are.

–Not the name we were given at birth.

–Not the vocations that occupy much of our life.

–But, who we really are, deep down, and all the way through.

–Beloved.

–We are God’s beloved.

–This is everything.

–Christ died so that this would be so.

–So that you and I can look in the mirror at the person whom God loves.

–Not necessarily who we love all the time, but whom God loves forever.

–Amazing, isn’t it?

–Someone loves you and I, just because. Unconditionally, freely.

–If you think about it, God does not have to love us.

–God could just make a whole new batch of folks.

–God could make them a little more compatible with the world, more likable.

–Maybe vegetarian, or capable of singing on key all the time.

–But instead, God chooses to work with us.

–And not only to work with us, but also to live with us, even to die for us.

–All so that we might love, too.

–So that we might see this world and its creatures differently, lovingly, unselfishly.

–So that we might be caught up in a relationship that has been extended to us before we were even born.

–Before we were even baptized.

–God loves you.

That is who you are.

–That is who we are.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Gary Lee Hendricks via Facebook

    Wow! Now this is preaching where the heart is. Where God is.

  • Drew

    That sounds great but how does that manifest it self in the here and now?

    Your latest sermon is timely. I woke up thinking that I’m essentially a non person. Non essential. No career to speak of. No significant other. No meaningful purpose or direction.

    Your sermon is timely but the words fly up against the wall and slide down. Don’t stick. Don’t take root.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Drew: For obvious reasons, Pastor Bob’s awfully busy on Sundays. So I’ll take a shot and answer in his stead.

      The idea here is that you necessarily fail if you try to ascribe to yourself a true, enduring identity. That, in a word, is God’s job: God, not you, knows who you are. And all you need to know about who you are in, and to, God, is that God loves you, to a degree that you can barely begin to fathom.

      • http://leap-of-fate.com Christy

        This is lovely, John.

  • http://www.sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    The names thing can take special meaning in the cyber-age… I actually prefer to go by my Internet handle than my real name most of the time. My Internet handle was taken from the name… of a cat.

    Reading about the success and what one does for others – my life has been a series of “not quite good enough.” Sometimes, if you have a disorder – before you even learn what it is (then it’s just treated as a moral failing) – doing “normal” things just winds up not working out for you. I’m pretty sure the low-wage job I have right now (which I do enjoy, by the way) is something I continue to have out of charity. It would take me a while to explain, but yeah, I feel like too much of a failure at life to identify with career.

    I could (and sometimes do) identify with my dreams, but I haven’t been conventinally successful with them yet. (There’s a passage on my blog right now from one of my novels about the death of dreams and it’s something I wrote years ago)…

    I’ve been praying to God lately for a meaning in life – “I don’t need to know what it is, just that there is one.” Sometimes, I feel like a fool for believing that God exists at all. All I know right now is that outside of some kind of spiritual reality – if the material is all there is – I probably am a worthless life.

    • Donald Rappe

      “I don’t need to know what it is, just that there is one.”

      “Blessed are the poor in spirit, they shall inherit heaven’s Kingdom. Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be consoled.”

  • Lymis

    This seems to me time to take a cue from God.

    Essentially, God’s answer to that same question was “I am that am.”

    At its core, the answer to the question of who we are isn’t possible to be expressed in words, because the experience of who we are IS the journey of discovery.

    I am who I am.

    I can slice that up for you and tell you things about my history, my activities, my opinions, my strengths, my weaknesses, my hopes, my fantasies, or anything else, but none of those are who I am, they are just words or ideas ABOUT me.

    It would take a mind and heart that is infinite to actually be able to fully know and understand me.

    Go figure.

  • LSS

    who *is* the Agnostic or the Atheist?

    do they derive a meaning for their existence from God, too, even though they don’t see it that way?

    • LSS

      i ask this because i’m married to one. now, i got from you guys the idea that i don’t have to believe he is going to hell if i don’t figure out how to get him converted. so that lets me relax my mind a little…

      but what is a non-believer who struggles with this question supposed to do about it?

      • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdgalloway

        I think all you have to do is love him, respect his beliefs as unique to him, answer any questions he may have as best you can, with the caveat that you don’t necessarily have all the answers, and enjoy your life together. I don’t believe we need to over think thing too much.

        • LSS

          oh i’m so OVER the preaching at him stage. thank God.

          most of the time the only answer i have is 42, so no worries there.

      • Lymis

        You’re asking the question in a slightly off way – one that is guaranteed to leave you twisting the way you are.

        Whether they “derive a meaning” or not (for themselves), you can have faith that their lives most certainly do derive from God, and that therefore, they share the Sonship (or Childship) with everyone else. Their own lack of awareness of the ultimate source of the meaning in their life is in some ways immaterial.

        Remember, no one comes to the Father except through Christ.

        Jesus didn’t say “No one comes to the Father except through my Church” – or “except through the church that people are going to develop based on my earthly life and example.”

        Jesus didn’t say “No one comes to the Father except through belief in the Bible” – especially not “except through specific interpretations of translations of what people who aren’t even born yet are going to write about me.”

        Jesus didn’t say “No one comes to the Father unless they profess a certain belief system while they are still alive.”

        There are, however all sorts of things about being salt, and being light, and worrying about specks before planks, and about understanding that God is love, so where there is love, there is God. And where there is God, you really think someone is in danger just because they don’t believe? God believes in them.

        • Chris

          Amen!

        • LSS

          um, good points but i was trying to say in my 2nd comment that it’s not those worries that i am asking about. i am ready to believe in the universalist thing; in fact, it’s a relief.

          but i know he struggles with the whole “what am i here for” thing. not for spiritual reasons, but more like the things Shadsie tells about, where (as i would express it) the world hasn’t had the imagination to make room for someone like him. and i can’t give him religious answers because he has ptsd about religion (as so many on this blog do) so i don’t give any answers except to remind him of his qualities when everybody else (including he himself) forgets.

        • Donald Rappe

          “Remember, no one comes to the Father except through Christ.”

          This is such an extraordinarily powerful message when it is properly understood, as Lymis does. It is not what we call ourselves, or our parents called us, but, what God calls us. This figure of Jesus also said: “Other sheep have I, which are not of this flock.” I used to think I was an atheist Christian, because I could not say I thought God existed without twisting the ordinary meaning of the word exist. I believe God is the Uncreated Creator of all things. But, I decided the word atheist should mean “without God”. Since I don’t feel that I am without God, I no longer feel I am an atheist. I put the answer to this question in God’s hands, not my own, and take the saving word of Jesus for it.

          • LSS

            that is a beautiful thing you just said here, and i don’t say that lightly.

            i guess my problem was… when i read the sermon above, i felt some comfort from it.

            but in this house the person who wonders more about his reality and identity, the one who thinks and suffers more deeply about most things… is not me, it’s my husband. and i just wondered how i could use the ideas in the sermon to give him comfort… without actually, like, pushing religion stuff at him.

          • Pastor Bob

            In many ways we are always “seeking.” God found me and continues to find me in my questions/doubts/faith. Perhaps your husband is where he should be. It seems to me your husband is lucky to have a partner like you who is willing to engage together with questions of meaning and existence–and love. Your love for God and for him literally make a world of difference, and some day, he may see this most clearly. Thanks for sharing of yourself and God bless you and your family.

            Pastor Bob

          • LSS

            1) thanks for not being the kind of pastor that would say we shouldn’t have married.

            2) i am so lucky to have him. he woke me up and he won’t let me go back to being unconscious again.

          • Pastor Bob

            Amen!

          • Lymis

            Remind him (and yourself) that life can still have purpose without rooting it in religious language or symbolism. He can “be here for a reason” without having to have that be a Divine revelation or destiny, but rather a constructed set of organizing principles and goals beyond himself that create a purpose.

            You can still see that as God working in him without actually saying so unless and until he needs to hear it that way.

      • Chris

        I’m also a Christian married to an atheist. Way back when we were dating, I confessed to my dad that although I loved this man, and I knew he loved me, and I wanted to spend my life with him, I worried about the difference in our religious beliefs. My dad asked, “Does he listen to the Holy Spirit? When things are hard and there are choices to make, does he insist on making them? Or does he listen and follow?” “He listens and follows,” I answered. “But he doesn’t believe.” “What difference does that make?” he demanded. “Who’s in charge? You don’t really think God’s ability to act in our lives is limited by OUR beliefs, do you?” And I did not, and I don’t still. Let your husband’s struggles be his, and trust God to work it out for both of you, in your terms, his terms, or just God’s terms.

        • LSS

          OK i could really see this applying for us. because he’s been the spiritual leader (in a sense opposite to dictator, in the patient and zen sense that maybe is what you mean) that i was always told a nonbeliever could never be.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdgalloway

    I’ve long struggled with self esteem issues. I’ve mostly conquered them, not completely, of course but getting there. Somewhere along the way I discovered that God loved me just as I was at the moment, and that the love given to me was far more expansive and focused then I could ever imagine, measure or describe.

    With that significant discovery, I then came to the slow realization that if God loved me, with all my limitations and foibles, with all my inadequacy and failings; that he thought I was worthy of time and attention, that I mattered…then maybe I need to give myself a bit more personal value as well.

    It was then that I put priorities on who’s opinion mattered most in my life. First of course is God’s. Then comes my own feeling about who and what I am. Everyone else can vie for third.

    When I feel down on myself, when others try to belittle me or make me feel bad, I fall back on that list of “whose opinion matters’ priority list, and I’m fine.

  • http://www.poesies.com Gina Cirelli

    Oh, Pastor Bob, I really needed to hear this today. Growing up with the abusive family that I did, I really didn’t know God loved me until about two years ago.

    I still have to be reminded daily, though of course I have to remind myself! And when I doubt, he is always there to show me that yes, he is there.

    That this message comes so strongly from someone else today, so strongly and so gently worded, is just another way of God showing me that yes, he does love me greatly.

  • http://leap-of-fate.com Christy

    Thank you fro reminding us what too few of us know – what too few of us have ever felt.


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