Advent 3, Year B: John 1:6-8, 19-28
John the Baptist is a striking figure in the gospels … and in a painting at the Unterlinden Museum in France. In the painting, John the Baptist, is John the witness — a visual expression of the Johannine gospel.
The painting is the Isenheim Altarpiece, created by Matthias Grunewald 500 years ago. It masterfully represents what John is about — his identity and purpose.
The central image of this multi-paneled religious artwork is Christ’s crucifixion. Secondary figures include a swooning Mary-mother-of-Jesus, St. Sebastian, and John the Baptist.
As you know, typically the key to deciphering who’s who in religious art is to identify what a figure is holding or wearing. But Grunewald’s John the Baptist is not munching on locusts and wild honey. Nothing about his outfit screams “camel hair” (at least not from the reproduction of the painting that I’ve seen).
And yet we know that this figure is John the Baptist. We know this not because of his props or his clothes. We know it’s him because of his gesture.
His figure stands in high contrast to the dark sky around him. And with a raised arm, he extends an elongated, curved finger, and points to Jesus.
And these words from John’s third chapter are painted into the dark sky: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And as we view the painting, no matter how much we want our eyes to rest on John the Baptist, his gesture will not allow it. His lifted arm and pointing finger keep directing our eyes to Jesus, who is the Messiah.
And how is it that John points with such confidence? How is it that he can strike this bold theological pose?
As the Gospel of John proclaims: he was sent from God. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
A dominant and recurring theme within the fourth gospel is the question of identity: Jesus’ identity, John’s identity, and the reader’s or listener’s identity.
So, when the priests and Levites question John the Baptist, “Who are you?”, the Gospel of John is asking that question of us as well.
John’s response in the text is as crisp as his outline in the painting. Providing believers with increasing clarity about John’s identity. Jesus’ identity. And in turn, our identity.
So … Who are we? Who are you?
At bottom: what is your deepest, truest identity? The one you cling to when all others are stripped away.
Yeah, you’ve got your props and your clothes, like the figures that line church building façades and windows. And grace 500-year-old paintings. But at the end of the day, at the core of your being, who are you?
I’ll tell you: Beloved child of God.
That’s your identity: Beloved child of God.
And what is your purpose?
Your purpose, the reason you were created, is to experience and share the love of God.
We are “children of the light” (12:36). And we testify to the light. We witness to the light.
If you had to offer a gesture to the world that expressed this identity, what would it be?
We know John the Baptist’s gesture. What is yours?
This may be odd to think about, especially for those of us who can only think of the gestures we offer when frustrated in traffic… (maybe that’s more of a Houston thing?)
But I invite you to reflect on a physical gesture as an expression of your faith identity and purpose. It is important for two reasons.
First, because we are embodied beings. Flesh matters. God hallowed all flesh by choosing to become one of us in Christ’s incarnation — showing us in Christ’s life and body humanity restored.
Second, it is with and through our bodies that we demonstrate our faith in words and actions. Gathering and offering food to hungry persons. Extending a hand of friendship to the lonely, the widow, the stranger, the prisoner.
And during Coronatide, staying vigilant about our protective precautions: wearing a mask, social distancing, and frequently washing our hands. For-going some of the things we would really like to do, but refrain from for the love of one another and our neighbors … and even ourselves.
It’s also figuring out what we can do safely and responsibly. Such as the handbells in our service today! And, our 66th annual Living Nativity last night.
St. Timothy’s, you reconfigured our Nativity into a drive-thru series of tableaux of Christ’s birth. From mending costumes to directing traffic, it was an all-parish effort. And through your efforts, once again, we shared the gospel story — pointing to Christ — staying true to our identity and purpose … even during the pandemic. Especially during the pandemic.
It is a beautiful example of protecting our bodies from disease and demonstrating through our bodies our purpose and identity in Christ … providing a glimpse of God’s dream for the world.
A look at newspaper headlines reveals that our community and the world are yearning for us to fully embrace and live into our identity and purpose. As beloved children of God, caring for and finding our place alongside “the least of these,” and testifying to the light.
Today and every day, our gesture is to be like John’s: pointing to Jesus, with faithful action in this world. And it will be an embodiment of God’s dream for us.
That’s who you are. That’s who we are. Stir up your power, O God, and give us the grace to embody the good news of Jesus and continually point to him — this day and every day.