The first Sunday after Epiphany
May I speak in the name of the Holy God who created, redeemed and endlessly inspires us. Amen
Who am I?
If I were to ask you that question, what might you say? If we were in Sundays@11 I’d be asking you to turn to your neighbour and discuss it, but don’t worry, I’m not expecting that here. But it is a question that preoccupies us, I think, and rightly so.
It’s certainly something John the Baptist has asked himself. And in our reading from Luke, “the crowds” (3.10) are interested in this too, who John is, really interested, “filled with expectation” (3.15) and ask him “whether he might be the Messiah”. (3.15) I wonder if it was rather tempting to say yes, well, yes, I think I probably am. It’s kind of the top job if you’re going down the prophet line, which John was, it might be tempting to think you’d received a promotion, and the people’s questions were perhaps a message from God.
But one of the many things that’s impressive about John is that he doesn’t get confused. He doesn’t let his ego lead the way. He knows who he is. He has important, vital work to do and it is preparatory work, preparing for Jesus, who is the Messiah. Imagine what would have happened if he’d allowed himself to be deceived by these questions, if he’d allowed himself to aspire to something he wasn’t, if he didn’t know who he was.
Then there would have been a bit of a tussle, and instead of doing what he was called to do, what he was superb at, calling people to repentance, so that they were ready to hear the Word of God, so that they were ready to meet the Word of God, far from preparing the way, he would have got in the way. And that would have been a shocking waste of his life, to turn it into an obstacle to the most amazing thing God was giving us, the Word made flesh.
Where does our sense of ourselves come from? We don’t often have a dove coming to confirm our sense of who we are, as Jesus does in Luke’s passage, so where do we get that information, how do we work it out?
Is it from what others say about us? Jesus elsewhere asks people ‘whom do people say that I am?’, (Matt 16.13) and at least one commentator I read suggests that is partly because he wants to work it out himself, that others’ opinions were particularly central to one’s sense of identity in Jesus’ time.
And I would say that is still the case today – when I was conducting research into identity among young Irish migrants in London, one of my findings, in relation to Northern Irish Protestants, was that you couldn’t just assert that your identity was, eg, British, without taking into account the opinions of others, which might be, in this example, that you were Irish.
But, to balance that, one of the interesting things about both John and Jesus’ sense of who they were is, I think, their freedom. They don’t allow themselves to be determined by what others say or expect. So John doesn’t give in to aggrandizing suggestions that he’s the Messiah and Jesus, in the opposite direction, doesn’t allow himself to be undermined by the suggestion that he isn’t all that, he’s only the carpenter’s son, we know all his family, he’s nothing special, which is reported in Matthew’s gospel. (Matt 13.55-58)
I wonder where do you get your sense of self? What voices have been useful to you, and what are the messages that you get from others, from society, that are not useful, like these words grumbled about Jesus, by his neighbours and friends?
There are many messages in society that are unhelpful to us, and there are many voices that can undermine us, or mislead us. We may have had family members or others who have told us we are not worth that much, or, let’s think of the example of singing, so many people who were told as children that they can’t sing, and carry that with them into adulthood. Or told they can’t draw, or they must draw according to a particular set of instructions, that a tree, for example, must always look like this, and they lose their freedom. I remember my sister Nora being considered a rebel because when she designed scenery for a school play, her trees were blue – how ridiculous many people said. But I was proud of her.
It’s important to retain our freedom.
Because we have voices from society that tell us we are only worth something if we are achieving, winning, amassing material goods, rich, or voices which tell women that we are only good if we are thin, beautiful, according to a particular prescribed definition of beauty, a bit like the trees, we can’t be a different colour or shape and expect to be valued, rated. These voices stifle our freedom to be who we are, and can send us down the wrong rabbit hole, pursuing the wrong things, instead of opening the way for the Word of God, for the Kingdom, and for our own true flourishing. And what is that flourishing? To know that we are loved.
And if we are put on a pedestal and not truly loved but worshipped, like celebrities today often are, that too can push us off balance. How many stories do we hear of celebrities with addictions, with dysfunctional relationships, who are unhappy, can’t find meaning in their riches, their beauty and in the material success of their lives? They have lost track of who they truly are before God.
And in our journey to know and to express our own individual, unique nature and talents and longings, the Isaiah reading is a great place to begin and to re-visit and to rest. Because here we are reminded that it is God who has created and formed us (43.1) and God says, “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isa 43.4-5)
That reminds us that, in the end, the most important thing to remember in relation to our identity, is that it is God who created us, and who forms us, and that God loves us, not for what we earn or how successful we are, but for who we are. And the chances are we do not fully know what that is because our deepest identity is not in the end given to us by others, but by God, as beloved of God. This experience, of belovedness, is described vividly as occurring at Jesus’ baptism (by John) and marks the path upon which we are all invited to travel.