When I was young I had an imaginary friend.
Now, before I go further, you must promise not to make fun of me, my imaginary friend, or her name. And yes, I had a female imaginary friend.
Her name was Girl.
Yes, me and Girl were best friends, but I will be honest she often bore the brunt of my shortcomings. As a four-year old boy, I made my fair share of mistakes; you know, the kinds of things that four year old boys do. Like
tormenting my little sister
coloring on walls
stealing my dads socks to make puppets
using my mom’s make up to color in my coloring books
tracking dirt and mud in from outside through every room in the house
You get the idea. When I was four my younger sister was only two, so when these things went wrong there was only one person to blame in the house. Despite my obvious guilt, my mom always gave me the chance to confess before she handed down a punishment:
“Joel, who did this?”
And I had a moment to be honest, throw myself on the mercy of the court, to beg forgiveness and promise to mend my ways, but instead, I gave up my own best friend. I pointed my finger to the imaginary person next to me and responded,
“Girl did it.”
Yet, as earnest as my pleas were and as intense as my finger pointing became my mother simply shook her head and I went to my room. Justice rightly served.
Eventually I grew out of my “imaginary” friend stage. The thing that I didn’t grow out of was the habit of pointing my finger at someone else. I am pretty good at it. It’s amazing what a simple point of that finger can do.
It passes blame or judgment.
It gives directions…the right or wrong way.
It’s a sign and a signal.
I’ve spent years getting really great at it. If I did something wrong at home as kid, I blamed my little sister or brother. If I got in trouble in middle school, I blamed it on my friends. If I didn’t do well on a test in high school, I blamed it on the teacher. I am great at pointing out other people’s faults because it takes attention off of my shortcomings. If anyone can pass judgment on looks, attitude, religious zeal, or authenticity it sure is me. As a “good Christian” I often find myself judging people as less righteous, less holy, or bigger sinners.
The flipside of passing judgment though, is also knowing when to turn that finger right around to point at ourselves when it comes time for glory and applause. I mean, come on! What is the use of point out other people’s faults if you cant point back at yourself when the big moment comes.
Nobody wants to do a bunch of work on a project and not be recognized for it. Nobody wants to build something to have their name fade away or be forgotten. When the moment comes to be recognized, most of us aren’t going to shy away from the glory, even if it means drawing attention away from someone else that deserves it.
This is what should make us so uncomfortable about our focus on John the Baptist through the season of Advent.
We encounter John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark doing what John does best – pointing fingers. John definitely knew how to call people out on their sins (see Mark 6:3, 4). John also could point his finger towards something bigger than himself, someone more deserving of the glory.
John was not an unpopular guy. Many people came to him to be baptized, and he had disciples just as Jesus did. Yet, in our introduction to John the Baptist we find him doing something very peculiar – he points the glory away from himself, and toward Jesus Christ.
“And this is what he proclaimed, ‘One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'” (Mk 1:7-8)
A classic case of pointing fingers. Not in a bad way, judgmental way, or condemning way – but in a way that we are called to imitate.
John passes the glory on to the one person who deserves it.
That’s what should make us so uncomfortable about the character of John the Baptist. It isn’t that he calls people out on their sins or that he calls us to repent, but that ultimately he calls us to follow his example and to recognize that we are not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus Christ. John could have used his life to bring glory to himself, but instead he uses his life to point towards the one person that can give life.
We are called this Advent season to begin to imitate John. A life lived apart from Christ may have temporary glory, but what lasting effect is there in that? What change will we bring if we only seek our own fame or success? Who does that save?
It can be easy to get caught up in pointing the finger at ourselves so that we may be glorified. Especially when people give us praise, tell us that we are doing a great job at work, in ministry, as a Christian.
We can start to see ourselves as the savior. We begin to lose focus on the reality that it is the Father that empowers us to do these things and blesses us with our gifts and talents (see James 1:17). The true glory belongs to God, and when we give that back to him, when we begin to use our lives to point others to Christ, true joy flows from that.
Because once we start to give the glory to ourselves we worry about when we will lose it. We worry about what happens when we lose all our friends, when people don’t praise us, we constantly fight to be above the status quo, to maintain an image, or to be the “greatest.” And we don’t have to – we need to realize that what gives us lasting happiness and hope is Jesus Christ, and when we put the glory where it belongs we share in that joy.
This Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist stands before us as example and witness to how we are to live, pointing our fingers to Jesus Christ as the true savior, as the one deserving of the glory, and as our ultimate hope. Our challenge is to live that call out beyond the temptation to give ourselves the glory, beyond the desire to be affirmed, and into the joy and hope that is Jesus Christ in this blessed and incredible season.