3rd Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Grace and peace to you from the one who was, who is and who is yet to come
When I was in middle school I had a friend named Bonnie. We looked alike, very much alike,
We had the same skin tone, the same hair color and we even styled our hair the same way; we had the same eye color; we were the same size and had some of the same features. When we were together many people thought we were sisters, some even thought we were twins. When we were together it was all right, but if we were not together it was a little awkward. I would inevitably have a teacher ask, "What do you think about that Bonnie?” or a fellow middle schooler call out in the hall “hey Bonnie!”And I would have to tell them, I’m not Bonnie. I was often caught in a case of mistaken identity.
No one mistook Eboo Patel for anyone else. He stood out as an American Muslim from India in the suburbs where he grew up. Although, as a visible minority everyone thought they knew who he was Eboo struggled with his identity. In his book, Acts of Faith, he tells stories of the difficulties of being Muslim and American. He believed the two were not congruent. You were either a good Muslim or a good American. Like many of all religious backgrounds, he was raised in a home that became more and more secular as his parents obtained the American Dream. Trips to the Mosque, as his parent carrers took off, became less and less frequent. Nightly prayers became mixed with stories of being sent to the Y during the summer where he learned Christian songs.
His father worried that the people at the Young Men’s Christian Association were trying to turn him into a Christian. But his mother was glad that he was learning the values of good Christians and commented that he should also learn the values of good Jews, and good Buddhist… because these values were values that made a good Muslim.
In his days of middle and high school Eboo’s struggle intensified. He rejected most of what it meant to be a Muslim as he excelled in academics. This was his attempt to fit in. Eboo even dated a girl who was Mormon and …. realized that at some point their differences would become an issue. When he went off to college his search for identity continued. This quest took many twist and turns..... not all good....He became interested in the struggle for civil rights around the world and had Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as his heroes but his studying and experiences awoke a deep rage in him. America, the country of his birth he discovered was full of inequities and hypocrisies! And yet the discovery of rage did not equiate to the discovery of identity.
He began hanging out with those who believed in social justice, and reading about Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers movement. Eboo lived in community, taught in the inner city and even sat in meditation and prayer with Christians. Eventually he realized that these were not his prayers. He begin to define himself as who he was not. I am not a Mormon, not a Christian, not a Jew. Though he held values in common Eboo could proclaim --- this I am not!
John spends a lot of time in this gospel writers rendition of the story, telling people who he is not. Again we hear the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Christ. We still have not heard of angels or shepherds or trips to Bethlehem. That all has to wait. Again John plays a starring role. Yet, today we get no description of his clothing or diet, but we hear the priests and Levites questioning him.
They want to know who this strange man is who keeps pointing to another event, to another person. They want to know who this mann is who has all these people coming out to the middle of no where to hear him and be baptized. They want to know who he is and what he is talking about. When asked,
“Who are you? He confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him. “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”
No he is not the Messiah, the one who the scripture promises will come to rescue the people. He is not Elijah who was fed by the widow and who was taken up in a chariot to heaven. He is not a prophet. Nothing about him resembles Moses who lead his people out of the wilderness. John has not come to fulfill the law or guide the people. John has come to witness to Jesus.
Eboo Patel discovers who he is and claims his identity as a Muslim -- a Muslim that does not resemble those we hear about in the news. He is not a Muslim like those who seek to destroy everyone that does not believe as they do, Eboo is a Muslim who has made his life’s work....religious pluralism and helping youth to discover their identities whether Muslim, Jew, Christian and to live into those identities as those who want to make an impact in the world for good. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core which, “Builds mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions by empowering them to work together to serve others.” An activist and scholar Eboo Patel knows who he is and wants all who believe, no matter what religious tradition, to be better witnesses of their faith.
Using the words of Isaiah, John proclaims: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” John is clear that even though he is not the messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet he has a role in this story. His role, his identity is as witness, one who points to the one who is to come.
This one will come proclaiming liberty to the captives, comfort to those who mourn. He will be the one who will come preaching, teaching, and healing. He will give up his life on a cross, and be raised from the dead for the forgiveness of sins.
John’s role and identity is as witness, as one who points to Jesus the one who gives us reason to rejoice.
I would laugh when people called me Bonnie. It used to drive me crazy because it was though my identity had been lost. Today I can say, “No I am not Bonnie.” But I too can claim the identity of one crying out in the wilderness---he wilderness of our lives where there are economic uncertainties, sickness, death and disease, heartbreaking and suffering. I am one who points to the coming light that dispels all darknes and promises that destruction, hardtimes and trouble do not have the last word in our lives but light and life do. Jesus does!
Yes I can claim my identity and as John cries “Make straight the way of the Lord." He cries out for all of us to be witnesses. For us to remember that all of us are Christians because we have heard this good news! Someone has witnessed to us the great things that God has done, can do and will do in the lives of those who believe. And after hearing this good news from the mouth of John, grandmom or our childhood preacher ... all of us are invited to bear this good news, to be witnesses to the light--the light that dispels the darkness.
As the Advent of the Messiah draws near, we tell the story, and we rejoice in all that God has done even while we cry out …. Come Lord Jesus come!