I preached this sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. It is a slightly edited version of the sermon I wrote for The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” collection for Advent & Christmas 2020.
I spent much of my 20s living in the desert, and whenever I was feeling stressed out or in need of some quiet time, I would drive out past the city limits to an overlook that took in views of Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and a seemingly endless expanse of earth and sky.
Some people find the desert off-putting: all of that muted, windswept rock and dirt and shrub, where you cannot hide from the sun or from yourself; but others, like John the Baptist, are drawn to such places for precisely this reason—because there is no distraction, because it is a place of unobscured perception, of stark clarity, where one can see farther outward and further inward, if they are willing to brave the emptiness.
Indeed, if you have ever stood at the rim of a desert canyon, you know what it is to comprehend the immense majesty of such emptiness. These clefts in the earth, carved by the incessant flow of water over millenia, are rocky vessels holding a world unto themselves.
Peer over the edge and look down into the sky held between the canyon walls—a highway for the howling wind and winged creatures of the air.
Look down upon the stubborn shrubs clinging to the ledges, where tiny crawling things seek precarious shelter at the edge of the abyss.
And then look down, down, down to the bottom, to the river—the improbable, sinuous source of this vast openness, branching out like a vein, still eroding and shaping the earth in its insistent passage towards a distant sea.
In the canyon, we perceive how negative space has its own power; we find that we are just as compelled by what is missing–what has been hollowed out–as we are by what remains. There is a potentiality, a spaciousness in the open chasm that, in gazing upon it, we also begin to sense within ourselves, in the caverns of our soul, a certain thick luminousness, a sense of seeing deep into the heart of things that are usually hidden under the surface.
And so perhaps it is in just such a place, deep in a canyon in the Judean wildnerness, that we might imagine John the Baptist, his voice crying out, echoing off of the wizened rockface, mingling with dust and birdsong, proclaiming the Coming of Christ: an approach that will, like a river of Living Water, soon carve its own path through the petrification of the human heart.
John heralds the advent of God’s own bone and breath and blood; the anointed flesh of the Messiah, which, in its birthing and breaking and Belovedness, will reveal the truth of how our own lives are sustained by the Divine ecology of Love.
But before we get there, we are here, in Advent country, in the desert. And just as emptiness defines the canyon, so it is, in this season, that discovering our identity in God is predicated, first, upon clearing away all that is not for us, in order to discern exactly how God might fill that open space.
“Who are you?” John is asked by those eager to label him and his peculiar mission. But he responds only with negations.
“I am not the Messiah,” he says.
Are you Elijah? “I am not.”
The prophet? “No.”
Relinquishment of these identity markers, alluring as they might be, is John’s act of humility, of refusing to be carried away the expectations or agendas of others. He is so grounded in God that he has become an open channel of grace and truth, letting the breath of the Spirit blow through the cracks in his soul, like a reed, like a wind-song.
And, if we wish to let God shape the melody of our own lives, so must we be.
How often we secretly wish that we were solid rock; the savior of ourselves; the long-expected sovereign of our own small dominions, with the power to do it all, to be it all. How often we take on the titles offered to us, not because they are accurate, but because they’re there, because it sounded good at the time, and because an identity, a name, even one that doesn’t quite fit, makes us feel more real to ourselves, at least for a while.
But just as the canyon only becomes itself in the void, so, too, with us: so it is ok, it is necessary, even, to not be all things to all people. It is ok to let go of the names and roles that never quite fit. It is ok to let your life take on some empty space, to let the wind rush through you. Because, like John, it is only in each of our own negations that we get closer to the spare, essential truth of our identity—the one that God has prepared particularly for us.
John shows us how brave and beautiful it is to simply be what we are, and to trust that, for God, this is sufficient.
But how difficult this can be. In this anxious time, faced with the multiplying needs of our families, our communities, and our planet, we are frequently tempted to take on far more than what we can actually do or be. Even as many of us attempt to slow down and be more attentive to what matters, the world continues to surround us and shout, “Who are you? Who are you?”
But, if we are ever to cultivate the space in ourselves for God to rush in, then, like John, we must respond with:
I am not the Messiah.
I am not.
We must be willing to disappoint the onlookers. We must be willing to embrace the emptiness of what we were never meant to be.
And then, perhaps, we will find what was ours to claim all along.
“I am,” John admits at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Not a king. Not a savior. A voice. Just a voice–an invisible resonance piercing the air, unbounded, free. Nothing more and nothing less than this. And exactly what God needs from him.
For John, the purpose of his own voice is clear: the announcement of God’s Incarnate Promise. And so he baptizes in the river, that ancient agent of transformative power, inviting others to let themselves be scoured by it—to let their layers of defensiveness and artifice be stripped away, to hollow out a space in their hearts in preparation for “the one who is coming after,” the Christ, the one who makes all things new.
And here, in another time and in another wilderness—the one that we struggle to navigate each day—John’s invitation remains open to us. It is as urgent as ever, because we are still learning who we are and who we are not. Like the canyon, we are still being shaped; still being laid bare to the wind and the light, still becoming as deep and open and vast as God imagines we can become. And, like John, it is only in the cultivation of our own holy emptiness that we will, at last, be the vessels of God’s inbreaking purpose:
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn. (Isaiah 61)