The five year old nephew of the bride was chosen to be in charge of carrying the rings down the aisle. At the wedding rehearsal he was unusually unruly. He kept leaping out at people, baring his teeth at and then chasing the flower girls. He growled and snarled as he practiced going down the aisle. He brandished the pillow like a pistol. After a little while his mother pulled him aside and demanded to know why he was behaving so badly.
“But Mom,” he explained, “I supposed to act this way — they told me I’m the ‘Ring Bear.’”
There is a big difference isn’t there between being the ring bearer and the ring bear?
It may be that one of our own challenges is to know who we aren’t. There’s a story about a woman happened to be alone in an elevator with the famous and very handsome Robert Redford. As the elevator went up, the woman found herself uncontrollably staring at the movie star. Finally, in her excitement and nervousness, she blurted out: “Are you the real Robert Redford?” There was a pause and then Redford smiled wryly and said, “Only when I’m alone.” Redford knew himself. And that takes wisdom.
Who are you and who am I? It is important to know who we are and who we are not. As Christians sometimes it is hard to look in the mirror and see ourselves clearly. Our Scriptures today feature two people John the Baptist and Mary who knew who they were and they knew who they were not. And they are good examples for us today.
John the Baptizer knew that he was not the Messiah. He wasn’t going to be one who would be able to save Israel or bring salvation to people. John knew he wasn’t Elijah nor the prophet who Moses foretold would come. John knew who he wasn’t. But perhaps as important as knowing who he was not was that he knew who he was. John told the delegation from Jerusalem that he was the voice crying in the wilderness. He was the one Isaiah had foretold would come. He was the forerunner; he was the one to point people to Jesus. He knew his job. He knew what he was supposed to do and he did it well.
Mary also knew who she was and she knew who she was not. Our canticle today is Mary’s song. Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel and she has gone to visit her Aunt Elizabeth who is pregnant with John. When Elizabeth sees Mary Elizabeth shouts, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And you are blessed because you believed what the Lord told you! And then Mary responds with her song, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” Who is Mary? She is God’s handmaid; she is God’s servant. When God asks her to do something she is willing to do it. Whatever God wants of her, she is willing to do it. She is willing to mother the child that God creates within her. She knows who she is not. She is not one of the world’s proud and mighty people. No, she is one of the poor and humble. She is comfortable with her situation because that is where God has placed her.
Both John and Mary knew who they were; they knew who they were not; and they were content with the roles that God gave them. So what can we learn from them?
Like John we are not the Messiah. We cannot save people. When people are hurting and needing help, we can offer some physical help; we can offer some comfort and understanding. But the real help that people need they need from Jesus. What people really need is a savior who will save them from their sins. We can tell people that we forgive them if they have sinned against us. We can offer them understanding for why they may have messed up. But those things that people have done about which they are ashamed you and I cannot offer any lasting help. Guilt says, “I have done wrong” but then shame adds “And I know that I am no damn good. “ And the fact is everyone has things about which they are ashamed. The people need to know that God will forgive them and that God will love them even though they have done what now they feel ashamed about. People need a savior who died to pay for their shameful sins. And not only being saved from sins, what people really need is someone who can reconcile them with God so that they can have a relationship with God. We can offer friendship and care but we cannot fill that void that every human feels within. We cannot fill the space of that loneliness that every human feels particularly in times of distress. We cannot fill it; people need to have a relationship with God so that they feel and know his presence even in the darkest of times. They need to be able to turn to him and know him to be there with them when no one else can be there. And finally what people really need is a way to eternal life and that is only found through Jesus. We all know that nobody gets out of this life here on earth alive. All of us are going to die. And then what will happen to us? People need to know the way to eternal life. People need to know who is able to give eternal life. People need to know Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. And we like John are to point others to him.
Two hundred years ago there was another man named John, a preacher of extraordinary power and influence in England and America. We know John Wesley as the founder of the Methodists. Surprisingly, however, Wesley was not the most popular preacher of his day. A man named George Whitefield preached to far more people than Wesley; he baptized many more into the Kingdom of God. Whitefield even put Wesley in charge of a growing ministry in England when he was called to preach in America.
Whitefield and Wesley were the best of friends until they had a severe falling out over a difference on doctrine. Because they were both well known, their dispute was widely publicized as well. Some months after their disagreement Whitefield was asked, “Do you expect that you will see John Wesley in heaven?” “No,” answered Whitefield. “That’s what I thought you would say,” his questioner replied. “But you don’t know what I mean,” said Whitefield. “I expect Wesley to be so much closer to the great Throne than I that I will never see him.” George Whitefield was an extraordinarily gracious and humble man.
This is the kind of humility that Mary had. Mary never called herself the Queen of Heaven. Some people in the church assigned that title to her hundreds of years later. Mary never elevated herself in any way. Instead Mary called herself the handmaid of the Lord. She calls herself the lowest of servants. There is a sweet humility about her. There is a willingness to do whatever God needs to have done. We like Mary, can each look around to see what needs to be done and do it. And that is the key to this sort of humility. It is the seeing the need around us and then doing it. Sometimes there may be a task that is lowly and simple. But if it needs to done then we should do it. Sometimes there may be a task that is difficult. But if it needs to be done then we should do it. We do these different tasks that God places in our lives because like Mary we are God’s servants. It is what we are supposed to do.
It is important to know who we are and who we are not. There is a big difference between being a ring bearer and a ring bear. May God help us to point people to Jesus the Son of God like John the Baptizer did and to be his humble servant like Mary was.