Am and Am Not

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Advent 3
December 13, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: The "I Am" statements in the Gospel of John define who Jesus is. In this passage John the Baptist, a witness to the light, defines himself with a series of "I Am Not" statements. These should lead us to consider who we are and who we are not, and help us become better witnesses to the light.

Monty Python's Flying Circus aired in Great Britain from 1969 to 1974. To categorize it as a comedy sketch show misses the point, because the show defied categorization, both when it first aired and to the present day. Its six members were attempting to create a show unlike any other, and they succeeded.

Comic vignettes were intertwined with animation. Clever dialog clashed with simplistic sight gags. Recurring characters were mixed with strange skits that would never be repeated. Some of their bits were so memorable that all you have to do is mention the Dead Parrot sketch, the Cheese Shop, or the phrase "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition" to get a laugh.

Because the kaleidoscope of material could be dizzying, transitions were important. One of the most common transitions featured cast member John Cleese, wearing a suit, seated behind a desk (although that desk might rest in any of a number of unlikely locations) pretending to be a BBC announcer. He would look into the camera and say in a very serious voice, "And now for something completely different."

And now for something completely different

The Gospel of John is nothing like Monty Python, except that it too includes a dizzying array of surprising scenes featuring Jesus and a cast of memorable characters. There's a wedding scene, Nicodemus at night, a Samaritan woman at the well, a long dialog following the feeding of the multitudes, a question of who can see and who can't involving a formerly blind man, Lazarus and his two sisters (maybe we'd call it the "Not Dead Yet" sketch), the logic of empire in a scene featuring the Judean religious leaders, a shocking scene when a female friend washes Jesus' feet, another shocking scene featuring Jesus taking on the role of a slave when washing the feet of his disciples, a looooong soliloquy, a farcical arrest, a kangaroo court, a condemned man with the audacity to out-argue a Roman governor who thinks he has the power of life and death, a brutal death, a hasty burial and - well, you probably know the rest!

The opening of John includes some of the most profound prose ever written, beginning with "In the beginning was the Word," and including "and the Word became flesh and lived among us ...."1 Using simple words that have as many layers as onions, or parfaits, John tells us the cosmic story of Jesus.

Except suddenly, in verses 6-8, the poetry grinds to a half and we lurch from the sublime to something jarringly out of place. We seem to need John Cleese to look at us from behind his desk and say, "And now for something completely different."

Jesus: I Am

Some commentators go so far as to suggest that John 1:6-8 is a later addition by some other writer, simply because it breaks up the poetry, but I suspect our author knew exactly what he was doing.

I think John shifted abruptly from the cosmic truth about the Word made flesh to our mundane world to make it clear that all of this is happening right here, before shifting back dizzyingly to eternity again for more verses. It's as if, driving along Pacific Coast Highway, watching the endless vistas of ocean, sand and sky, John braked in a lurching fashion and parked on the mainland side in order to read aloud a billboard. It might be something we need to know before resuming our journey down the gorgeous coastline.

Here's what he writes: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 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."

Who is this John? Not an apostle. Not a disciple. Not a revelator or a writer of letters. This John is the one we usually refer to as John the Baptist, although he is not so named here. More than a baptizer, this John is a witness, someone who sees and identifies Jesus. We not only learn who John is, we also discover who he is not. He is not the light. He has come to testify to the light.

Just as our eyes get refocused so we see John more clearly, back we are with the cosmic Word!

Once we learn "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known,"2 it's back once more to the John we were introduced to, so that we can learn even more about who he is, and more importantly, who he is not.

One of the signal symbols of the Fourth Gospel are the seven "I Am" statements. Again and again, Jesus tells us who he is: "I am the way, the truth, and the light."3 "I am the bread of life."4 "I am the light of the world."5 "I am the resurrection and the life."6 "I am the true vine."7 "I am the good shepherd."8 "I am the gate for the sheep."9

Jesus' most important identity statement comes when Jesus is challenged for saying that Abraham was glad to see him. Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am."10 "I am" is the Hebrew name for God. It is an astounding statement, one so shocking that his listeners sought to stone him.

John: I am not

In the present scene from today's scripture, John is questioned about his identity by the Judean religious leaders, and instead of saying "I am," three times he answers, "I am not."

"I am not the Messiah," he says unequivocally. At that time many of the Jewish denominations, and there were many, were looking for an anointed one, a kinglike figure who would lead the people. There was great disagreement about what that Messiah, or Christ, would be, but John makes it clear he is none of them.

Was he Elijah? "I am not," he said. Elijah had been taken alive into heaven, and there was a belief that someday he would return to herald that Messiah, but John insists that he is no Elijah.

Was he the prophet? At the end of Deuteronomy, after the death of Moses, we are told there was never a prophet like him who saw God face to face,11 but there was a belief at that time that a Moses-like prophet would be coming into the world.12 But John is not this prophet either.

Then who was John? He claimed that he was like the one spoken of by Isaiah, the one crying aloud in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. As the gospel writer had said earlier, John had come to witness to the light.

The advent of light pointing

What does all this mean for us? Perhaps this Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the king, we need to tell people, "And now for something completely different!"

Certainly, we need something different. There's all the pressure to be something we're not. Who wants to fake cheerful and happy when our lives did not turn out the way we'd hoped? For some of us, there are empty places at the table that were occupied last year. Our heart aches for those who are suffering. Or maybe we're one of the suffering.

The answer lies not in the advertisements to buy more so we can be more. Not that there's anything wrong with gift giving, but it's not the answer. Like Bob Dylan once wrote:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done,
That can win what's never been won,
Meanwhile life goes on
All around you.13

This passage is all about what John is not and what John is. John was not the light. John was a witness to the light.

It's the same for us. We are not the light. We are not messiahs. We are not Elijahs. We may not be very good prophets.

Instead we are something completely different: witnesses to the light. Yes, we are broken, broken down, hurting people. It's the time of year when the days are shortest and the nights never seem to end. In some locations it just gets colder and colder. We can feel really blue without being able to pin down the cause.

But even if we are deprived of light, we believe in the light, and we can point to the eternal light of Jesus.

Earlier I spoke about the "I am" statements of Jesus. Well, there are also some important "You are" statements about Jesus in John's gospel. Early on Nathanael tells Jesus "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"14 The woman at the well says "Sir, I see that you are a prophet."15 When others abandon him some of his disciples tell Jesus, "We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."16 While her brother Lazarus lies dead in the tomb, Martha tells Jesus, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."17 And after Jesus is risen the one we call Doubting Thomas says simply, "My Lord and my God!"18

How will you address the Word made flesh? How will you act as witness to the light this Advent season when all seems darkest? What will you say to make it clear that this is no ordinary Christmas on the horizon, because it's time now for something completely different?