John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 14, 2014
The movie, Witness, tells the story of a young Amish boy who witnesses a brutal murder, and the police detective who risks his own life to protect the boy and his family. Shortly after the little boy has seen the crime, he is in the police station with the detective. In an extraordinary scene, Samuel – the Amish boy – is waiting for John Book – the detective – to finish a phone call. Only vaguely noticed by the other police officers, Samuel wanders freely around the station, then stops at a trophy case and looks at a picture displayed inside. The expression on Samuel’s face conveys his recognition of the man in the picture, his shock, and his fear. He looks from the picture to Book, then back to the picture again. When Book briefly looks up from his phone call and sees Samuel’s face, he hangs up the phone. Walking over to kneel next to Samuel, Book looks inside the trophy case as well. Without saying a word, Samuel points at the picture. Samuel’s recognition and shock is mirrored on Book’s face. He immediately covers Samuel’s hand with his, pushing his finger back down.
Pointing the finger at someone is generally a negative thing. When a crisis happens, we often hear that the people involved are pointing the finger at others, assigning blame for whatever went wrong. In the scene from this movie, Samuel is a witness to a horrible crime, so when he points his finger, he is pointing out the man who committed it. His pointing was a testimony to the identity of the killer. But even if it is not in relation to a crime, pointing fingers is not seen as a good or polite thing to do.
How many times was I told as a child that it was rude to point at someone? To be honest, more times than I can count. I was taught that pointing at anyone was rude. You could point at an object. You could point at an animal. You could point the way. But you were never supposed to point at another person, unless it was some sort of an emergency. Otherwise, pointing was not done.
I’ve never questioned the impoliteness of pointing before. Nor have I given it much thought, but in writing this sermon I wanted to find out more about the reason behind this rule of etiquette. Why is it rude to point?
In an article by Troy Patterson on , I learned that there are a variety of reasons we don’t point at others. It was once believed that hexes were done through the pointing of a finger. If you were pointing your finger at another, whether you were hexing or not, it was thought that you could draw negative attention to yourself. A stranger seeing you point, might cast the evil eye on you.
As I said earlier, pointing the finger at someone has negative connotations. It is a way of assigning blame. We hear about our political leadership being stalled in their work because everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else. Pointing at someone singles that person out. Patterson wrote that "pointing is non-verbal stigmatization." In his article he quoted from the book, Michelangelo’s Finger, by Raymond Tallis.
“Why is it so rude to point at someone, even if the action is not meant to be cruel or demeaning, is not accompanied by blame, picking us out of a reluctant crowd for some unpleasant, dangerous, or humiliating task? It is because the pointing finger prods at a vulnerability we all share. We are skewered on the attention of another person and any others to whom the pointing is also addressed. ... Pointing, in virtue of co-opting other consciousnesses, intensifies the sense we all have at times of being known and yet not-known—of being mis-known’, of helpless exposure to uncomprehending eyes that imagine they comprehend us."
So by all accounts it seems that pointing at another human being, unless it is a dire circumstance, is the rude, wrong, and even dehumanizing thing to do. Yet this is precisely what John the Baptizer does in the gospel of John. He points. He points at Jesus.
John the Baptizer, as found in John's gospel, is different from the versions of John found in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, John the Baptist is seen as having his own ministry, in his own right. But in John's gospel, he is there for one purpose and one purpose only, to point to Jesus.
When the chief priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John about his identity, he quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” In other words, he is not the Messiah, but he is the one who points to the Messiah. That is what his witness is. That is really what witness is all about, pointing toward another. John’s John points.
The reality that John the Baptizer was the one who points to Jesus has not been lost on artists over the centuries. Artists such as Da Vinci and Titan painted John as pointing. In some paintings, John is pointing up toward the sky. In others he is portrayed as preaching to the crowds and pointing toward a lone figure standing in the distance. In still others, he is pictured with a lamb, and he points his finger at this symbol of God’s Son. Whatever the scene the artist chose to paint, John is pointing. John is the one who points.
John’s action of pointing, of witnessing to Jesus by pointing to him, seems in direct opposition of our mannerly wisdom. While we are taught that it is impolite to point, John’s vital purpose is to point to the Son. I can’t help but return to Raymond Tallis’ words that “pointing prods at a vulnerability that we all share.” When someone points to us, it is implied that we are known in some way; that we are perceived in some way that may not be our truth. Pointing opens up that vulnerability in each of us. We want to be known for our truth, not for a truth that someone else assumes. So pointing, even when it is done without malice, exposes us in a way. So what does this mean for John’s pointing? Is it all different just because it is Jesus? Or does John’s pointing reveal Jesus’ vulnerability?
Of course it does. John points to the One who is born into our vulnerability. Jesus is vulnerable because we are vulnerable. Jesus, the incarnation of the Word, the flesh and blood of God is vulnerable. He is born for that reason; to share in our vulnerability. John points to One who is vulnerable for our sake. That is what our fifty cent theological words all mean – incarnation, redemption, salvation, justification. John points to the One who is vulnerable for our sake.
I know that my Advent sermons have all come to this basic conclusion, but I think it cannot be overstated. What we prepare for in this season, what we wait for, what we hope for, is the advent of a God who does not remain aloof and far off, but is willing to be born and live and die in the midst of us. Our God is One who becomes as frail and fragile and vulnerable as we. And what is even more astounding and humbling is that all of this done for the sake of love, of relationship, of a refusal on God’s part to let us go. That is how much we are loved. Jesus is born into our vulnerability because we are so loved by God. No words that I can summon can fully describe my sense of awe and wonder at that truth. John points to the One who is born into our vulnerability because of love.
John points and we are called to point also. We are called to set aside the dictates of etiquette and point to Jesus – through our worship, our actions, and our words. Look, do you see him? Jesus is God’s Word made flesh and blood and vulnerability, and he was born to share in everything that makes us human, so that we could finally know and believe and live in God’s love. That’s the One who is coming to us, that’s the One who was born into our vulnerability so that we could know God’s love. That’s the point. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.