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How John the Baptist leads us to find our true selves
We are meant to be a dwelling place for God. There is nothing truer for us than to be a home for God. That is our vocation and that is who we truly are. That is, of course, easy to say in a sermon. It is easy to say in a theology class, or in a spiritual formation book. Having a vocation and having a true self at all—having a destiny at all—is a significant violation of our individuality.
That was not always the case, of course. In the early church the question about our true self was a question of life and death. To be a Christian in the Roman Empire was a violation of the imperial politics and of the Jewish culture. The question of being who they truly were came with a high price.
As Christianity become codified as the official religion on the Empire, the question changed from life and death to ministry or family. The primary concern was simple: should I start a family or join the church? At that point, one could not be a cleric and married, so believers had a real choice to make. This dichotomy of course resulted in problems and hierarchy—an underclass who understood God through the “holier people.” That boiled over to the point of the Reformation in the modern era.
Modernists, like Calvin and Luther, actually thought that our hard work ethic is where we might find true selves. It does not matter what you are doing or who you become, as long as you give it your all. As long as you work hard, you are finding yourself in God. This is a great kneeling to the authorities and the gods of commerce, particularly. Christians are meant to be effective cogs in a machine, citizens to the state, members of a cause other than Jesus’.
Today, in the hypermodern or postmodern era, we question who we are. The question is becoming who we are now, not who we are in Jesus. Postmodern Christians define God through their private, individual relationship with him. We can hardly sort ourselves out through the irony of self-expression, though. We socially construct our reality, and often times express it through the opposite.
We have to act in spite of the identity politics that oppress us, but we are fortunate because, in Jesus, in that baby Jesus, for whom we are making a home, our identity is already created. We find it when we make a way for Jesus, make a way for him in the world, in the body, and in the community around it. Truly, it might get us killed. It might affect our commercial success. It might cause us to rebel against our government. It might cause us to change how we express ourselves too.
John the Baptist is a good example of an individual who literally put on his true self and made a way for the Lord in his heart and in the world. He is a central character to the story of Advent and the story of Jesus. He appears in all four Gospels at least as a critical element to the start of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels reference him as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 and 4, the “voice of one calling in the desert.”
Luke tells us Jesus is related to him and his mother Elizabeth and Mary have a noteworthy connection. After he was born, he grew strong in spirit and began to lead a monastic life in the desert. Some place him as a member of a radical Jewish community near the Dead Sea, known as the Essenes. It is possible the community raised him after Zechariah and Elizabeth died. It’s hard to tell if this happened, but it is clear that John the Baptist created an alternative community and baptizing people. He lived off locusts and honey—common for monks like him—and wore camels’ skin.
John refused any claim that he was the Messiah, but repeatedly said he was ushering the way for Jesus. He minced not his words when it came to telling people to repent and prepare the way for the Lord—just like he was doing himself. Jesus himself calls him the last and the greatest prophet of the Old Testament—maybe the greatest person ever born, really.
John challenged the status quo so much that Herod killed him (as Caravaggio shows us here). One historian argues that Herod killed him because he might instill an uprising, and the scripture says that John rebuked Herod’s incestuous marriage, which resulted in his infamous beheading.
John the Baptist shows us how to make a way for Jesus. He moved beyond the protection of one’s ancestry, or the history of their faith movement, and immediately goes into action. For him, it is a matter of life and death to follow Jesus, but to follow Jesus is to escape death altogether, even if our lives end in this world. A life where we are enslaved to our desires and our so-called freedom of choice is no life at all and hardly a free one! John wants his followers to be free of that.
John the Baptist prepares a way for Jesus through these radical actions, and when the time comes for Jesus to be known, especially in Luke, he is known because of his radical actions as well. We are called to be our true selves in Jesus and that is manifested in our behavior, our deeds, and our actions. So much of our faith has been reduced and compartmentalized to our beliefs and our actions within a tiny context of our lives, that the holistic transformation seems to be too extreme, even if does not result in a “career change.” Changing how we approach our day-to-day life can be daunting. But when we do, Jesus is known.
Putting on our true selves means a complete transformation. We are submitting who we are to Jesus—that does not mean that we sacrifice our individuality or something—but it does mean we question it. We think about whom we are influencing, what our actions mean, and whether they indeed make a way for the Lord.
But it is easier said than done. Typically, we think we know what is best for us, we know what our path is (or not, but we are at least the authority that governs it). We certainly know what we feel like doing. My encouragement is to practice a little self-denial, and more self-awareness. Our false selves have a tendency to feel like the real thing; our true selves can feel forced. But rather than just letting our emotions and desires guide us through closeness to God this season, use your better judgment, the discernment of the leaders God has given you, and the circumstances of your life.
It is a challenge, but it is also the most natural thing we could do. Our whole bodies ache for our true selves. Our collective body does too. And when we are who we are truly meant to be, when we are operating out of our destiny, the world joins us.
So this Advent season try to be who you truly are. Discern with others what that truly is. Give away something. Be generous with your spirit, your time, your money. Cause enough trouble to get noticed. Spend time with the needy and the sick. Cure someone of their blindness by sharing the truth with them. Spread your love around in radical ways and don’t be afraid if someone thinks you're crazy. They thought John the Baptist was too, and Jesus called him the greatest ever.