Monday, March 2, 2009

sermon: who are you?

“Who are you?”
Mark 1: 9-15
Lent I, Year B
March 1, 2009 (Preached at ESC)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’*

I’d like to begin tonight’s sermon with a question. Who are you? In other words, I am __. How would you fill in the blank? A seminary professor of mine once said that “the question of identity is the question of difference.” And I agree. Our identity matters. How we define ourselves matters. And so how we choose to answer this question matters. Who are you? I am __ ?

That’s the question I’d like to wrestle with tonight, but first, we’re going to play a little game. Mad Libs. Mad Libs is a game of filling in the blanks. And it’s a funny game because the way we fill in the blanks is usually ridiculous. And if you’re anything like me, or your average 2nd grader, this is hilarious and it never gets old. A normal sentence like “Jeff parked a car in the lot,” after a little mad-libbing, becomes “Jeff spanked a gorilla in the oven.” And that’s funny because, I don’t care how crazy Jeff is, he’d never spank a gorilla, let alone do so in an oven of all places. Because that’s just ridiculous. And so, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to play a quick game, which means I’ll need a little CC – congregational cooperation. And so, if someone could please give me a …

(1) A past tense verb – ending in the letters “ed”
(2) A noun – the name of someone you admire
(3) Adjective
(4) Noun

If you’ll look in your worship bulletin, you’ll see the “Mad Lib” we’re filling in. And so, after filling in the blanks, this is how our sentence would read. Define yourself radically as one ___ by ___. This is your ___ self. Every other identity is a (an) ___.

Now obviously, this is ridiculous. It doesn’t even make sense. At the core of your being, this isn’t who you are. If someone were to say, “Who are you?” your answer wouldn’t be “I’m one __ by __.” In terms of defining your identity, that’s a ridiculous way to fill in the blank. But how should you fill in the blank? I am ___. Who are you?

When it comes to defining our identity, the way you and I fill in the blanks can be really ridiculous. In fact, our favorite way to fill in the blank is to tell people something we do. Who are you? I’m a priest. I’m a business student. I’m an athlete. I’m in a fraternity. I’m in a band. I’m involved in the church. I’m the president of the Chris Brown fan club. Now, don’t get me wrong. What we do is a part of who we are, and what we do matters to God. But at the core of our being, our identity – who we are – can’t be tied to any of these things. Because what happens if we preach a bad sermon? Or graduate and can’t find a job? Who are we going to be then? A bad priest? An unemployed ex business student? I’m not so sure that’s who I want to be.

The truth is, you and I have hard time standing firm in the knowledge of who we are. And when we’re not sure who we are, we panic and start filling in the blanks in ridiculous ways. After all, we have to be someone. And so we make our life about perfecting an image. We find something the world values – money, power, our intellect, our sense of humor, the way we look, how religious we are, how well we’re doing in school – and we build our identity around that. We make our life about perfecting an image. The only problem is, always working to perfect our image is competitive and exhausting, and before we know it, our lives become motivated by fear; fear of not measuring up. Fear of not living up to the expectations of others. Fear of losing our sense of self-worth. And a person driven by fear – well, I’m not so sure that’s who I want to be either.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And at his baptism, Jesus hears a voice from heaven telling him who he is. Jesus receives unique insight into his identity. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now remember – Jesus hasn’t done a thing to prove himself yet. He hasn’t healed the sick or cast out any demons or preached a single sermon. And yet God tells Jesus that he is the beloved. Jesus is told that his life is pleasing to God. And so if you were to ask Jesus on the day of his baptism, who are you? What do you think Jesus would have said? “I’m a carpenter. I’m a Jew. I’m the son of Joseph.” No, Jesus would have been beaming from ear to ear and told you, “I am the beloved son of my Father in heaven. I am one with whom God is well-pleased.”

The miracle of grace is that, by virtue of our baptism, the Living God looks at each of us and says to us what He said to Jesus on the day of His baptism. It’s like Paul says in Colossians, “you have died, and your identity is hidden with Christ in God.” [1] In other words, God sees us – not as we are in ourselves – but as we are in Jesus Christ. God looks at us – at every single moment of our life – and says to us what he said to Jesus – “You are my dear, dear child. And I’m absolutely delighted with you.”

But our story doesn’t stop here, because after hearing these words, Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry just yet, but like Mark tells us, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. And for forty days Jesus is tempted. Now, Mark doesn’t tell us how. But my guess is that Satan makes Jesus question his identity – I bet he tries to get Jesus to question who he is at the core of his being. For those forty days in the dessert, I think Satan’s plan was to make Jesus think that he had to do something to earn God’s love – to make Jesus think that he had to prove himself for God to be well-pleased with his life. And I’m willing to bet that each of us fights that same temptation too.

As many of you know, today is the first Sunday of Lent – a season of intentional repentance. And the word repent means to change one’s mind. And what I think you and I need to change our mind about more than anything is who or what we allow to define our identity - we need to change the way we fill in the blanks when it comes to defining who we are. Because at the core of our being, we are not what we do. We are not what others say that we are. We are not what we feel. We are not how we look. We are not our portfolio. We are not our I.Q. We are not as good as our latest sermon or our latest relationship or our latest test score or our latest service project. Because who we are – at the core of our being – has nothing to do with us. And it has everything to do with God.

In other words, in order to know who we are, we have to know Whose we are. And we are beloved children of God. Before we were even born, God knew us. And we belong to God. And to define ourselves in any other way is ridiculous. To define ourselves in any other way just doesn’t make sense.

I began tonight’s sermon with the question who are you. Believe it or not, Moses actually had the guts to ask God that same question a long time ago. And the more I think about God’s answer, the more it amazes me. When Moses asked God – “who are you” – God said, “I AM.” “I AM.” In other words, God doesn’t have any blanks to fill in –because God just IS –He’s the only One who has an identity in and of Himself. And the miracle grace is that gives us an identity – that God tells us who we are. And what he said to Jesus he says to us. “You are my dear, dear child. And I’m absolutely delighted with you.”

And so get out your worship bulletin and take a look at our mad libs again. The question is – who are you? How should you define yourself?

Define yourself radically as one LOVED by GOD. This is your TRUE self. Every other identity is an ILLUSION.


[1] Col 3:3. “Identity” is my translation of zoe, which is usually translated “life.” But the words are interchangeable, and for the purposes of this sermon, mean the same thing.

1 comment:

Mark said...

John - this has been a burning rhetorical question I have had for the past two weeks - how providential you should speak on it... I was phrasing it as such: If being redeemed by Christ, and living in light of this act is truly the most important thing in my life, then how come when I meet people for the first time, I don't tell them about this?