Scripture: John 1:6-8; 19-28
Back in 2013 one of the groups that I led was called IGGY. No one actually knew why it was called that, but it was the youth group for 5th and 6th graders. I distinctly remember during one of the devotions for this group I asked the kids to share what they wanted to be when they grow up. There were some of the expected answers like doctor, teacher, or solider. However, the overwhelmingly popular answer, the job that half the group wanted, was YouTube star. It is not hard to see why, there is serious money to be made in YouTube videos. It was revealed just this past week that the host of “Ryan’s Toy Reviews” made 11 million dollars this year for making videos of him opening and reviewing toys. What makes this impressive is that Ryan is six. In 2013 when I asked that question to those kids, Minecraft was at peak popularity and it is easy to see why they found being a YouTube star so appealing. In 2014 Adam Dahlburg made 2.92 million for posting videos of himself playing Minecraft. He was not alone in that same year there were five other people who made over a million dollars for posting Minecraft videos. As you can imagine the idea of getting millions of dollars to play video games sounds like a dream come true to 11 and 12 year olds. I thought being rich and famous for playing video games was the main reason why they wanted to be YouTube stars. These kids though, put me in my place, because I wrong in my assumptions. According to them, the primary motivation for wanting to be a YouTube star was not to be an internet famous millionaire. The primary motivation was to carry out the proverb they had been taught since elementary school: “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Now I completely understand the sentiment behind that, and there are enough people who strongly dislike their job to prove there is some truth to it. However, I think the idea is flawed because it seems to imply that the key to happiness and purpose in life is based on how one makes a living. Our life should be defined by more than how we get a paycheck. When it comes to helping people discern their purpose in life I think a better proverb is from Harold Whitman. He said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who are alive.” What makes us feel alive may or may not have a paycheck associated with it, but it fills us with a sense of purpose. Advent, the season of the church we find ourselves in is a season of expectation. People who have found what makes them come alive are some of the most expectant people in the world. Seriously, find someone who has invested themselves in something they are passionate about and is truly worthwhile. If you give them the space to do so, they can go on and on about how excited they are about what is coming up. The season of Advent has many gifts to offer our souls, and one of those gifts is purpose.
John the Baptist gives us an image of someone who lives out his purpose. In this morning’s scripture we are told exactly what John’s purpose is: “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light.” Last week from the gospel of Mark, we heard that he was a voice crying out from the wilderness. While this was a fulfillment of scripture, we are told that John literally did this as he lived in the Judean wilderness. John is mentioned in all four gospels, it is clear that in first century Judea he was an important figure. He had a purposes in life to set the stage for Jesus, even though doing this faithfully led to his execution. As we consider John and this morning’s scripture we can learn a bit about what it means to live out purpose.
Despite being an important figure in the gospels, there is so little we know about John. We know that he is a second cousin to Jesus and the son of a Jewish Priest. This means it should have been John’s destiny to also be a priest. How did he go from being groomed for the priesthood to living off of honey and locusts in the wilderness? We have no clue how God revealed or called John to his special purpose of being the one would as the voice of one calling in the wilderness. Various biblical scholars have floated theories about him being orphaned at a young age and learning to live on his own in the wilderness, but that is all speculation and conjecture. I have to wonder it went down though, if his parents were alive how did that conversation go?
“Sorry, mom and dad, I am going to break with hundreds of years of tradition and not be a priest like my father before me. I think God is calling me to live in the wilderness, baptize people, and point towards the coming messiah.” If first century parents were anything like 21st century parents, that conversation probably did not go terribly well.
Even though we have no idea the path that John took to be John the Baptist who baptized at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, thinking about how he got there can give some insight to what happens when we pursue purpose. God knew the plan that he had for John, but I imagine getting there did not go the way John thought it would. Pursuing a purpose in our life will always lead to some unexpected places. We will end up where we are supposed to be, which is often different from where we thought we would be. Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on our purpose in life, because to live life with purpose requires us to be constantly aware of our present while always being expectant about what is to come.
The other less about living a purpose-driven life that John can teach us is found in this morning’s scripture. The bulk of this morning’s scripture is him dealing with skeptics and critics. This scripture tells us that the Jewish leaders sent the priest and Levites to be their investigators, or perhaps their spies. They wanted to assess what kind of threat John might be. If you notice, the immediately try to put his ministry in a pre-arranged box. They first want to know if he believes he is the messiah. Then they ask if he is Elijah. Now, this one does require some deeper biblical knowledge. In the Old Testament one of the greatest prophets is Elijah. The bible also specifies that Elijah never actually died, but instead he was assumed into heaven. Several hundred years later through the prophet Malachi it was declared in Malachi 4:5 that God would send the prophet Elijah before the messiah. So these investigators wanted to make sure that John did not think he was Elijah.
Next they ask about the Prophet, and this too requires some background. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are on the border of the promise land, and Moses is giving them his farewell speech. In this speech he promises that a prophet like him will come. A prophet who will connect the people to God and lead them like no one else. Again, the Pharisees were making sure John did not prescribe this title to himself. After going through all of the categories of who they thought John might be, they exasperatingly asked him, “What do you say about yourself.” Then John tells them who he is, and that his mission, his purpose is to call people to repentance because the messiah, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, is coming. This reveals that when we are pursuing purpose in our lives there are going to always be skeptics, critics, and haters. There are going to be people who try to squeeze us into their pre-defined box, there will be people who constantly tear down instead of buildup, and there will be haters who will hate for no good reason. Doing something significant will always invite opposition.
From John we can learn that seeking to live with purpose will lead us to unexpected places, and we will inevitably meet resistance like John did. We can take courage because John stays the course. No matter what resistance he met, he was true to the purpose that God called him to. John can be a shining example for us to look towards, but the bigger question is how we discover purpose in the first place. It is more than just finding what makes you happy, going back to the quote from Harold Whitman finding purpose in life is about what finding makes us feel alive. As Christians though, this has special theological significance. The ministry of John the Baptist, the purpose he found in life was to point to Jesus Christ. If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, then you seek the same thing. Jesus himself said I am the way, the truth, and the life. Therefore, that which makes us feel truly alive will orient us towards Christ. That which makes us feel truly alive will point others towards Jesus. For disciples of Jesus Christ we will find purpose in Christ.
She is not a YouTube star, and not very well known but a great example of what living out one’s purpose is found in Amy Carmichael. Amy, an Irish woman born in 1867, felt called by God at the age of 20 to be a missionary. She initially met resistance, but eventually found herself with a missionary organization stationed in India. Amy discovered that the way to reach Indian people was not through preaching but through sacrifice. She made herself a living sacrifice, to better reach the local population she assimilated to their diet, dress, and way of life. This, of course, drew a lot of criticism. She specifically reached out to the poorest, youngest, and most oppressed population. This too, drew a lot of criticism. In India during this time it was common practice to give unwanted children over to Hindu temples, where they essentially had to serve a lifetime of forced servitude, of slavery. Amy found her purposes and began rescuing these children. Despite threat of death, she built a home to protect these children that became known as the Dohnavur Fellowship. Those who benefited from these enslavement practices tried to tear her down. They tried to give her a tarnished reputation and call her the “white woman who steals children.” Despite that, Amy held to her God given purpose. She would often travel for days just to rescue a single child. Every day she sought to live with purpose by following God’s will and loving the least of these. Like John the Baptist, the purpose of Amy’s life never wavered. She sought to save and care for children for fifty-five straight years. She never took a break, she never went home. Amy’s lifetime resulted in over 1,000 abused, abandoned, and enslaved children being loved, provided for, and free.
Not all of us are called to a grand calling like John the Baptist and not all of us are called to dedicate five decades of life to a singular cause like Amy Carmichael. However, we can all live our life with an intentional purpose. We can all live life in a way that makes a difference. What motivations orient you to Christ? What actions can you take that you feel best point others towards Christ? For you it might be serving the hungry, visiting the sick, tutoring children, preaching and teaching the gospel, or advocating for the oppressed.
What makes you feel alive? This advent, may you be intentional in figuring that out, because when you do you will find a purpose to strive for. You will find a God-given purpose that will transform the world. Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs are people who are alive.