Who are you?
John 1:6-8, 19-28Let me start with a really important question. Are you one of the people who have been glued to the “X-Factor” on Saturday nights over the last few months – or are you a devotee of “Strictly Come Dancing”? In our house it has definitely been “Strictly” that has won the battle of the ratings war – even if not all of us have been watching it quite as avidly as some of the others!
One difference between the two is that “Strictly” is about people who are already famous in one way or another – whereas “X-Factor” is about people who want to become famous. They are both about celebrity – but one is about “wannabes” whereas the other is about people who have made it already – or in some cases (especially on “Strictly”) people who made it quite some time ago!
Either way a big part of the attraction is about seeing who’s in and who’s out. It can be nail-biting stuff as we wait to see who will stay in and who will be voted out – and there are tears of joy and of disappointment in equal measure every week. Certainly for those on “X-factor” the primary motivation is wanting to make it big – wanting to be somebody. Thousands upon thousands of hopefuls queue for hours at venues up and down the country – only to be disappointed as the judges pan their performances and send them packing, their dreams shattered.
This cult of celebrity is incredibly powerful and it seems at times to be driving the ambitions of a whole generation of young people. Ask them what they want to do when they grow up and they will tell you, “I want to be famous”. Not I want to be a brain-surgeon or an astronaut or whatever – no, just that they want to be a celebrity – they want to be famous – as if somehow that is a sufficient goal in itself.
The problem underlying this attitude is to do with identity. It’s about who we are and where we derive our sense of value in life. And this is not just something that affects the entrants to contests like “X-Factor”. No, this is a real issue for countless people today who don’t really have any idea who they are or what they are living for. They are desperately seeking something – but they don’t know what – and so they spend their lives clutching at straws in the wind or trying to win the Lottery!
John the Baptist, about whom we read a few minutes ago, was also a public performer, drawing the crowds – just like the contestants on X-Factor would like to be – but he seems to have none of these insecurities and self-doubts – at least at this stage of his life. And there were a number of key things that underlay John’s inner security.
The first is that John had a clear sense of who he was not. Now that may seem a strange thing to say, but it’s actually very important. The people of Jerusalem sent their equivalent of the press pack (the priests and the Levites) to ask John who he was. They had all sorts of ideas – expectations – about who he might be: “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” They wanted to know if he would fulfil their expectations – if he would fit into one or other of the categories and roles that they were comfortable with. As the Christ – the promised deliverer who would set them free from Roman occupation – or as Elijah, who would overthrow their pagan rulers and restore Israel’s religious purity. But John refused. He was not willing to fall in with their expectations of who he should be and of what he should do.
And that is an incredibly liberating thing to be able to do: namely to know who we are not, so that we can resist the expectations of others and get on with being the person that we are meant to be. For anyone in public life or in any position of leadership, this is crucially important – not least for the clergy (including bishops)! The expectations of other people can be crippling – if we do not have the inner strength to be the people we are made to be. If we are to avoid being blown around by the expectations of other people, we need to be sure who we are not – and most of all that we are not some kind of a Messiah, able to solve everyone’s problems. Because that will help us to focus on who we are and on what we really should be doing with our lives.
And that’s what John the Baptist was able to do. He had a clear sense of who he was and of what he was being called by God to do. “I am the voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’.” John knew what part he had to play in God’s purposes – and he got on and did it. John had a clear sense of the part that God wanted him to play in his purposes. That’s what enabled him to live with integrity – because he had a clear focus at the centre of his life around which everything else fell into place. What a contrast with so many people today who spend their lives desperately seeking something that is always just beyond their grasp.
Now, speaking especially to those who are being confirmed and renewing their vows today – but also to all of us here: Do you have a clear sense of who you are and of what you are called to do in life? Because if we don’t then we will just be blown around by the expectations of others – friends, family, employers, whoever – and the great danger is that we may end up missing the real priorities for which we should be striving. We may end up looking back at the end of our life and asking – “what was all that for?” Each of us is called by God to be the person he made us to be and to fulfil our part within his purposes. And there are a hundred and one other things that we could be – maybe that other people want us to be – that will somehow or other miss the mark. Whatever stage of life you’re at, do you have a sense of who God is calling you to be and of how he is calling you to share in his purposes?
As Christians, each of us is called to play a part in some way or other in the life of God’s kingdom. In particular, all of us are called to share in the work that John the Baptist began – namely of preparing the way for Jesus Christ and of pointing people to him – both with our words and by the kind of life that we lead. That means living a life that may be out of step with the world, because it is shaped by a different set of values. John the Baptist was prepared to be different – but are we?
More specifically, each of us is called to serve God both in the Church and in the places where we live and spend our time each and every day. Being a Christian can never just be about sitting in the pew – or standing up at the front of church for that matter! It has to be about making a difference to the people around us by the way we live – blessing and enriching their lives because they have seen and experienced the love of Christ through us.
So let me leave you with three questions:
And most importantly of all:
Jonathan Gibbs, Bishop of Huddersfield
14th December 2014