“Who are you?” A question asked by a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom smoking a hookah pipe in Alice in Wonderland. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
Who are you? I don’t mean your name, I mean: can you define yourself? Do you think of yourself as complete, well defined, fixed and finished, sorted and understood? If someone asked, “Who are you?”, do you have a good answer?
Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.Dr Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!
Who am I?
Goth / Punk / Indie-kid. As a teenager I sought to find my identity through music and hanging around with those who liked the same music as me. I rarely use those labels now. As I’ve aged, the labels I use to describe myself have changed, and yet I’m more aware than ever of the assumptions other people make about me:
- I’m a scientist. So, people assume I can’t believe in God.
- I’m a priest. So, people assume I don’t understand science properly.
Learning to be comfortable and confident in your own identity is part of learning to cope with a complex world that wants you to be labelled, tagged, stereotyped and easy to understand. However, you will never be as simple as the label other people call you. If you are going to learn to be the person God made you to be, you will need to ask yourself the question: “Who am I?” and more than that, if you’d like to know who God made you to be, you will need to learn to hear the answer.
“Who are you?” was also the question that the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked John the Baptiser. Perhaps they wanted to know what authority John had to say the things he said. I feel the same way about the many voices in our society. Before I listen to someone, I like to find out:
- Does this person know what they are talking about?
- What’s their background?
- What training or experience do they have?
- What – quite frankly – gives them the right to speak and why the hell should I listen?
For one day, earlier this week, I was worried that someone around here was pretending to be a vicar and gaining access to elderly people’s homes. A fake vicar. Using social media, we all tried to warn as many of our friends and neighbours as possible. There was a burst of social media buzz about the fake vicar in Slaithwaite. We later learned that an older person had become confused when their doctor had visited. Their doctor was wearing a facemask, and this had been confusing and difficult. Thankfully, the police took the report both seriously and with good humour. This incident reminds us of the importance of safeguarding vulnerable members of society from bogus callers.
The priests and the Levites who called upon John were also worried about a bogus caller, a fake prophet, leading the people of Jerusalem astray, so they asked “Who are you?” John didn’t pretend to be someone he isn’t, he said:
I’m not the Messiah.
I’m not Elijah.
I’m not the prophet.
They were unsatisfied and asked again. “Let us have an answer!” John finally replied by telling them what he was doing: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”
He said he was ‘a voice crying out in the Wilderness’, but John was on the banks of the Jordan, outside Jerusalem. He came from the Wilderness, but he was crying out in a busy place, were people could hear him: and people were listening.
Is it possible that John was speaking of the ‘wilderness of unbelief’: had faith had become a background noise, or a cultural superstition? Did people say, “I believe in God: I just don’t believe in the Church”.
It is hardly surprising the priests and the Levites were coming out to find out who John was… perhaps they thought he was speaking for them? But John was not calling people to be “religious”. John was not calling people to go back to the Temple and do what the priests and the Levites said. Instead, John was calling people into a fresh relationship with God. John wasn’t interested in outward appearances. John was calling people back to God, and the love that God has for them.
I admire John for this. I spend my time out and about as your Church of England vicar and priest, trying to be available and visible. I pray outside, and have taken to preaching outside. It is legitimate for you to ask me, “Who are you?” Are you a fake vicar?
My reply is like John’s: I am a voice crying out in the Wilderness.
I paraphrase Isaiah when I say, “The Bishop of Leeds has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
Like John, but with the authority of the Church of England, “I come to baptise with water, but God will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. I bring good news to the Churches of Marsden and Slaithwaite: to give you a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. You will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. You shall build up the ancient ruins, you shall raise up the former devastations; you shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
I join my voice with that of the Apostle Paul when I say to the Churches: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
I say all this, but I am still Graeme. I am still the goth/punk/indie-kid. I’m still the Chemist and the IT professional. The husband and Dad and yet, like Alice in Wonderland: “I know who I was but I think I must have been changed several times.” I’m not here to be the perfect vicar, I’m here to call you into a fresh relationship with God, the creator of everything that was, and is, and ever will be.
Today, as you reflect on who you are, who God is, and what I’ve said today: I pray that the God of peace himself will sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Amen
Post-script: Read some of the stories of the people of Marsden and Slaithwaite as they describe who they are: link here.