A few years ago I was wrestling in my theology with living in a world of many religions. Having recently lost faith in the fundamentalism of my childhood, I was trying to reconstruct some understanding of the uniqueness of Christ in the midst of a pluralistic world. As part of this process I asked a trusted colleague and friend how he dealt with people of other faiths. His answer was simple, but its impact on me was deep and far-reaching. All he said was, “I just invite them to follow Jesus – to be a Muslim or Jew or Hindu or whatever who follows Jesus.”
I still can’t help but contrast this with the hugely influential televangelist culture of much of contemporary Christianity. As I observe these “larger-than-life” personalities call people to believe and act (and give) in ways that conform exactly with their own framework, and as I hear them denouncing not just other religions, but other versions of Christian belief, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve made our message more about Christianity than about Christ – or worse, more about us than about Jesus.
I think the writer of the Gospel of John was wrestling with a similar reality. History tells us that a group of followers of John the Baptiser had established themselves in opposition to the followers of Jesus. They claimed that John was the Messiah, and they sought to bring him into the spotlight and call others to follow him. There can be little doubt, as we read the passage about John that the Lectionary has set for us this week, that the Gospel writer was addressing this concern – and to do so, he does nothing more than tell the story of John the Baptist and allow his clarity of purpose and his deep humility to speak for itself.
For the Baptiser it was not about him in the slightest way. I can imagine that the religious leaders found him a frustrating person to talk to. No matter what titles they offered him to help them understand who he was and what he was doing, he vehemently denied them all. All he would say was that he was a voice – not even “the” voice – preparing people for God’s Coming. Then, when asked why he was baptising people, he refused to answer, instead pointing to the Coming One. His view of himself was as less than a slave (since tying sandals was a slave’s work), and his task was clear and simple – he was preparing people for someone else who was still to appear. In his humility, his confidence, and his clarity of purpose, John refused to allow anyone – including himself – to make it about himself. All he wanted was to witness to Jesus (“the light” as the gospel writer refers to him in verse 7) and prepare others to believe in the Christ when he came. John had no compulsion to get them to follow or respect him. His entire focus was away from himself and on to the main event – Jesus Christ.
John’s example remains a powerful challenge to us today. If we make Advent – or any aspect of our faith in Christ – about our agendas, our church, our denomination, our religion or anything else that is “ours”, we’ve missed the point. In contrast to this, Advent calls us to three things:
- Constantly preparing ourselves for Christ’s Coming and for the Reign of God that Christ manifests in our world and our lives. It’s about shifting the focus of our lives from us to God and God’s Reign.
- Believing in Christ, which does not mean agreeing to a few intellectual ideas about Christ, but rather means placing our entire beings – our lives, our resources and possessions, our values, our energies, our priorities and our relationships – under the direction of God’s Reign, God’s justice, grace, compassion and peace.
- Allowing our lives to “speak,” to be voices that show others what God’s Reign looks like and that invites them to prepare themselves and believe so that they too may embrace God’s presence and purposes in their lives and in our world. In this task the key is to get ourselves out of the way and let the Gospel speak, rather than drawing attention to ourselves.
Much of the focus and energy of Christians in our time seems to be on preserving what is ours. We fear that the Church will die, that our congregation will die, that our religion will lose “market share”, that our message or our “truth” will be lost, that we will not get to heaven. But, whenever we make it about us, we have missed the point. This Advent, perhaps we can allow the two Johns’ – the Baptiser and the Gospel writer – to challenge us. Perhaps we can stop making it about ourselves. Perhaps we can make a new commitment to let our lives be completely about Jesus, and then, allow our lives to become a voice that points others to Jesus. Let’s stop trying to get people into our church – or even into “our” heaven. Perhaps, like John, we can seek to do no more and no less than to invite them, whoever they may be, to follow the One who comes to us, whose name is Jesus.